Review by Crythania

"I got myself a pet dragon!"

This game is reminiscent of many classic ASCII RPGs that run on PCs, and much like Diablo would do later, it adds a graphical flourish to something that would otherwise be represented with letters, numbers, and symbols on screen.

The standard formula here is a vast dungeon with many floors. Forget about the story; it's not important. The action is turn-based as you navigate your character through the dungeon, one floor at a time, all the while fighting monsters, gaining experience, and acquiring treasure and useful items. Each floor in the dungeon is a maze of rooms and corridors. In the standard overhead view format, your character has a line of sight (you can only see as far as your character would be able to see from his current vantage point, and new terrain is revealed as you move around). In this game, your guy can see one square ahead of him when in corridors, and whole rooms are revealed when entered. Gray areas represent areas you haven't explored yet (a forerunner of the "fog of war" in RTS games that would come much later). Colored walls and floors represent areas you've been to. There are four motifs for wall designs: trees, cactuses, large sunflowers, and blue walls with engraved faces on them.

The game plays like an action game with fluid movement and battles with the prevalent monsters; but the reality is that it's a turn-based game. You make a move, then every monster currently on screen makes his move. Whenever we're not pressing the D-Pad to maneuver or pressing another button, the game is effectively paused. We can take as much time as we want to decide our next action and even consult our status screen and look through our inventory. To attack a monster, simply push toward him. Button 1 brings up the status and inventory screen, where we can navigate some easy menus to examine our inventory, select an item, and use it or throw it. Button 2 is used to pick up an item you're standing over or do nothing (allow time to pass).

Everything in the game is randomly generated. Rooms usually contain monsters who are guarding treasure, useful items, and food, all of which you'll want to collect before moving on. Because of the completely random nature of the game, that next room you find could contain many monsters and items, a couple unguarded items, or nothing at all. In one of the rooms is the floor's exit, which leads down to the next floor. All of the action is found in the rooms, with corridors just being there to connect the rooms and make the layout maze-like. There's variety in the layouts up to a point. The layout for each floor is randomly selected from a pool of floor plans. As you gain familiarity with the various layouts and styles of layout, it won't take much exploration before the area you're currently in becomes recognizable. "Ah, I'm in that one. Well, now I know where to go." As you progress further downward into the dungeon, secret doors start showing up. You'll find walls where they're not supposed to be, often completely blocking off the rest of the dungeon. Investigating it for a while will reveal one or more secret entrances to rooms or corridors, allowing you to continue your exploration.

Items include weapons, armor, rings, rods, books, and potions. When found, none of these items are identified until equipped or used. Until used, an item is given a color (Red Pot, Purple Book, Silver Ring). After you use it once and find out what it does, any more of that particular item that you find are properly identified. Weapons and armor can be equipped to improve your attack power and armor class. Rings bestow a variety of effects when equipped (healing and recovery powers, extra damage, and so on). Rods, books, and potions are used once for an immediate effect. There are healing potions, books that bestow special powers, items that recover from bad conditions, an item that reveals the whole map of the floor you're currently on... A goodly variety of items here. And then there are cursed items that can make life in the dungeon anywhere from very difficult to impossible. Cursed effects range from reduced attack power to a crippling inability to heal (normally, your character can slowly recover health just by walking around). The item/color correlation is randomly decided at the start of each new game. A Red Pot that has a MaxHeal effect in one game could be something completely different in the next one. You never know what's going to happen when you try out a new item. It could be something that saves you from a jam or something that helps bring the game to a premature end.

All of the weapons here are melee weapons (you have to move next to a monster before you can hit him), but any item can thrown in the direction you're facing. So you can save up Daggers you find and toss them at a distant enemy. Many of the monsters here are bizarre creatures. The standard oozes are present, accompanied by rolling scorpion tails, poison spitting frogs, some kind of floating crystal, ninjas, fiery trees, floating eyeballs with wings, and other strange creatures. Then there are metal orbs that sit there doing nothing until you attack them, but afterward they are extremely damaging. Most of the creatures have some sort of ranged attack that they'll toss in your direction while coming after you; so you have to choose your movements carefully, closing to melee range while avoiding being in their line of fire. All attacks have a random chance to hit or miss. You could be standing next to a monster duking it out with him and exchanging blows for a while before you finally score a hit. In addition, some monsters have a random chance of causing a bad condition when they score a hit on you. Some of them can poison your character. Some can cause dizziness, shuffling your directional controls. Others can cause more harmful conditions, and some late-game monsters can curse your weapon and other items. Most of these conditions will wear off over time, allowing you to recover. The more nasty cursed conditions remain with you until you manage to find a Bless Book (no easy task in this labyrinth of randomness).

As you progress through the dungeon, your character uses up food from his food stores. Run out of food and you'll start losing health. It pays off to pick up every bit of food you find and not waste too much time exploring extraneous areas. When your character gains enough experience from defeating monsters, he gains a level and his abilities improve a bit (more Hp and attack power).

When your character is defeated by one of the prevalent monsters, you may be able to continue if you've collected enough treasure, which is exchanged for another chance. You start over on the last floor you were on with experience level intact and the weapon and armor you had equipped when you got killed. You lose everything else you had in your inventory (major bummer).

One final note about the game-play, and it's a head-scratcher. The whole time you're in the dungeon, you're followed by a large egg. As you gain experience and get stronger, it hatches into a baby dragon who later grows into an adult dragon. This guy doesn't do anything. He doesn't help you fight monsters. He just follows you around and lets you do all the heavy lifting. I got myself a pet dragon. Nevermind obedience school. This guy needs fighting school.

Visually, the game is pretty good. Everything's colorful and nicely presented. The player character, egg, monsters, and items laying on the floor are of a good size and easy to make out. Your guy's appearance changes as he acquires better armor, and the color of his sword changes as you find better weapons (a nice little touch). Monsters are colorful, starting with green oozes, orange scorpion tails, blue frogs, and a couple others. As you get deeper into the dungeon, the oozes change to blue and later red. Similarly, other creatures change in color. Wall segments are colorful and neatly drawn. There's not much variety in the scenery, though. After we've seen the forest, cactus maze, flower maze, and stone statue region, everything else is just more of the same. Effects are limited to thrown projectiles and screen flashing effects for when you use an item. The effect for a cursed item is dimmer than for a helpful one.

Our sound department is decent at best. The first ten levels have a single tune playing during our dungeon escapades. It's a repetitive bass and rhythm with a lead part occasionally chiming in. It's a decent song and kind of catchy, but the rhythm never changes. This is not ideal music for a lengthy dungeon adventure. The next ten levels have a different song playing in the background. Much like the first, it's a repetitive rhythm with a lead part occasionally thrown in. The final ten levels have a song that I wasn't impressed with. As the X-Men games and Devilish put on display, the Game Gear is capable of delivering not only great sounding songs but lengthy and intricate compositions to boot. This game doesn't have anything in that ball park.

Sound effects include bleeps for misses, crunches for hits, a few jingles that accompany item effects, a fanfare when you gain a level... It's all appropriate if not ear-catching. Did you know that the Game Gear supports stereo sound? With headphones plugged in, you can hear stereo effects in this game. Other games that have stereo effects and even stereo music include the aforementioned X-Men trilogy, Devilish, the Sonic games, and many others.

I'm not sure if the Game Gear supports enough battery life to make it through to the end of this game. It's a lengthy journey. Thirty levels doesn't sound like much, but they're all large and filled with danger. This game is best used with an AC adaptor. Speaking of which, the Game Gear in general is best used with its AC adaptor. Dragon Crystal was the second game I had for the Game Gear in 1992. At the time I was running through batteries rather quickly until I bought an AC adaptor for it. They can still be found at sites that sell Sega parts.

This was one of the launch titles for the Game Gear. I think there were eight launch titles, and none of them were all that great. This is a decent game on the whole, and I'd rate it higher if not for a glaring complaint, which is a biggie in the game-play department. I do not understand the fascination that game designers seem to have with negative status effects in RPGs. In my book it is not fun to get poisoned, confused, dizzied, cursed, turned to stone, stunned, set on fire, turned to ice, rendered insane, and tarred and feathered! Okay, for clarity's sake less than half of those happen here; but what does happen here occurs with regularity. It is extremely irritating to constantly have to recover somehow from an assortment of maladies. I don't understand how this is fun. I prefer a more straight-forward gaming environment where I can just duke it out with the enemy damage to damage, and may the best adventurer win (one of many reasons why Crystal Warriors is a perfect work of art). Now what I do understand is that negative status ailments probably originate with the old-school pen-n-paper Dungeons & Dragons, but that doesn't mean it's fun. I also understand that removing the ailments from a game like this would mean having fewer items, as many of the items are used to recover from the ailments, and some of them even induce them (yes, that Yellow Pot could cause dizziness; how lovely). But "more" does not necessarily mean "better". I've often found that "less" equals "better." Keep it simple, keep it fun, and by all means don't show contempt for your players.

This game has so many rude ailments in it, I'm constantly having to contend with some sort of debilitating condition. The cliched poison is present and accounted for. Many of the monsters can cause the dizziness condition, which messes up your directional controls for a short period of time. This can mean getting slaughtered by a group of monsters if it happens at the wrong time. Come to think of it, most of the bad conditions can spell a complete disaster if they happen at just the right time (which for me is often). A third of the way through the game, sand sharks start stealing your food. How rude! I spent a few levels constantly running out of food because those morons kept stealing it. That's my food, you morons! Give me back my stuff! Later, some enemy attacks permanently reduce your attack power and armor class. Get reduced to zero armor during late-game and you're in huge trouble. Losing a once-high attack power is also devastating. There was an item that caused my guy to lose an experience level. How considerate. The list of ridiculous negative effects goes on and on. At any given moment, our beleaguered adventurer is in great danger of getting killed from any number of stupid conditions.

Also, the abundance of random elements can add up to a beneficial situation, a complete disaster, or something in between. You could start a new game, get into trouble quickly, and get killed off before you make it through four levels. Or you could make it to level 10 and suddenly find yourself in a bad situation that brings your dungeon escapade to a premature end. Something could go wrong at any time, and you can't anticipate it because each new game is a learning experience. We have to experiment with the items, find out which is which, and separate the goodies from the bad ones, all while in harm's way.

All said and done, this is a decent graphical adaptation of a classic ASCII RPG. As I understand it, there are a few different games in this cult genre. The one I had experience with playing was Angband, and I never managed to get very far with it or understand its appeal. Much like Diablo, it was nice to see some good visuals complementing the dungeon exploration here. But the heavy assault of irritating status conditions brings the fun factor way down. If there were "less", it might have been a "better" game.


Reviewer's Score: 3/10 | Originally Posted: 11/11/10

Game Release: Dragon Crystal (US, 12/31/90)


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