Review by Storm Shadow

"Inner heart, dark heart"

Shadow over Mystara (SoM) is Capcom's second game that combines beat'em up gameplay with the Dungeons & Dragons theme. Just like its predecessor, Tower of Doom, SoM adds light RPG elements to the classic Final Fight basics. However, SoM is better than the original in every possible way. Featuring non-stop four player simultaneous gameplay and an enhanced version of the first game engine, SoM manages to be a much more remarkable experience than Tower of Doom. Its depth is nowhere to be found in similar games of the genre.

- Story -

During Tower of Doom, the arch-lich Deimos had tried to overthrow the republic of Darokin. His plans, however, were thwarted by four heroes: an elf, a cleric, a dwarf and a fighter. Unfortunately, the arch-lich was merely an underling of a greater evil. Two years after the events shown in Tower of Doom, the real enemy finally starts to take action herself. With Deimos defeat, she then schemes to wrap the entire world in her dark coils. Her name is Synn and (surprise) no one but the warriors who had saved the republic can stop her.

Thankfully, this time the heroes have two new companions in their journeys: a female thief (nimble dungeon explorer who lives by stealth and quick wits) and a magic user (great disciple of magic who controls arcane mystic powers). As the aforementioned warriors, defeat her minions and fight your way to Synn. But not alone. Up to four players can play it simultaneously, and according to which characters you have in your team, the story will progress in a slightly different manner.

Story: 8/10

- Gameplay -

The blend of RPG elements with typical side scrolling gameplay is the most distinguishing feature of SoM. Think a Final Fight game with experience points, level ups, stores, money and so on. Shadow over Mystara emphasizes battles more than puzzles, but ingenious little touches of strategy are still scattered everywhere. It all starts with the array of characters at your disposal, each of them has distinguishing abilities. Obviously, the stereotypes are still here: there is a strong-but-slow warrior (the dwarf) and a fast-but-weak (the thief). However, it goes much farther than this. The thief, for example, more than simply relying in her agility, can equip any weapon, can open locked chests and can steal items from enemies. She is, nonetheless, rather weak and cannot use magic. A lonely thief will face serious trouble when encountering around seven, eight enemies at the same time. Here is where the multiplayer aspect of SoM really shines.

When team working, each player can choose a certain character to cover the others' weaknesses. Again, using the same example, the thief can join forces with a mage, whose magic ability works wonders against bosses, a cleric, who can perform healing magic, and an elf, well rounded for any occasion. Just pick the one that fits you most. Easy to figure that it will be not only easier, but also funnier.

The controls of SoM are much improved over the original, too. This time, there is an interesting combo system. By using simple motions, like quarter circle forward or down-up, you can connect one movement to another, leaving no chance for the enemies if you can time the sequence properly. Also, there is a menu system, in which you can choose an item, a sub weapon or select spells, all of it in real time. You cannot stop the game to carefully choose what you wish to use, you must quickly decide it in the heat of the battle. It is difficult at first, but this actually helps to make the action frantic and with a nice amount of technique.

Shadow over Mystara also features multiples paths, secret stages, hidden weapons and items. All of it will make you go through the game multiple times and with different characters, for some stages are only accessible to some of them (only with a dwarf in the party, for instance, you can proceed through an underground cavern). The only major drawbacks to the gameplay are the learning curve and the difficulty itself, especially when playing it alone. It is not impossible by any means, in fact, it is feasible to finish the game with only one credit (I have seen people do this) if you know every corner of the game. However, mainly for the casual player, the challenge may become frustrating sometimes. A difficulty setting would certainly alleviate this.

Gameplay: 8/10; Controls: 9/10; Replay: 10/10

- Audio & Video -

The visual aspects of SoM not only serve their purpose, they go above and beyond. All characters are brilliantly drawn and fluidly animated - they slash, jump, defend and fall in a convincing and down-right astonishing manner. Every character in the game, be it a simple weak enemy or a fearsome boss, is masterfully designed. Talking about design, the stylized approach of western mythological creatures featured in SoM is truthfully amazing. You will fight vicious creatures that inhabit the land of legends: manticores, chimeras, ogres, dragons… just to name a few. And then, there are the spells. Although you only start with a few feeble fire balls and lightning bolts, as you level up you can perform dazzling, screen clearing magic tricks that will show you the power of the CPS 2 board. Furthermore, it is noticeable that even in a four player game, where you fight hordes of enemies at the same time, there is virtually no slowdown at all. Kudos to Capcom for a job well done.

Concerning the audio, the voice acting is your typical moans and short phrases of defeat or victory. The sound effects are good, too, both crisp and realistic, be it a simple smack or the aforementioned mass destructing spells. The background music is where it is supposed to be: in the background. Although there are some pretty enjoyable tunes to listen to, most of the time you will not notice them in the middle of the fast paced action. Albeit the sound is not on par with the graphics, it is clearly more than adequate to fit the atmospheric environment of the game.

Graphics: 10/10 ; Sounds: 6.5/10

- Conclusion -

Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara is, simply put, unique. The graphics, the gameplay, the characters… everything is of great appeal here. Plus, it is one case of a sequel that stomp the original in every manner. If you can, be sure to play SoM with 3 friends, for the 1 player game is good, but pales in comparison to the 4 player rampage. Be sure to play this one if you have the chance. You will not regret it.

Best Features: 4 player gameplay; excellent mix of RPG and action; visuals
Worst Features: steep learning curve; sometimes too hard for solo play

Overall: 9/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 05/21/03, Updated 06/10/04

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