The Sega Saturn itself warrants a discussion on it’s life in the North American market, but if it left any legacy is that it produced some very interesting and now fairly collectible niche’ titles. Working Designs published a handful of titles for the console – we’ve already looked at Rayearth (and may possibly look at other WD titles in the future) – that while many were a mixed bag most all of them are now jewels in a massive crown of gaming collectability. Dragon Force may be Working Designs tip of that Sega Saturn crown.
Dragon Force was originally developed by Japanese publisher J-Force. If you have not heard of them you would be excused. The company formed in 1990 from members of a Japanese publisher called Wolf Team. Wolf Team published a couple of games that were relatively well known in niche’ circles in the later 1980s/early 1990s including Sol-Feace and Valis. Not long after the completion of Valis, a few members led by Masahiro Akishino left the company to start J-Force. Then shortly after a really strange thing happened; initially besieged by budget issues, it eventually prompted Akishino to ‘vanish’ a few years later and has not been heard from since. SEGA themselves picked up the properties J-Force had been working on, which included the yet-to-be-completed Dragon Force, and most of the remaining members of the company went to Idea Factory (Idea Factory’s Record of Agarest War series can be seen as a long spiritual successor to Dragon Force).
Dragon Force takes place on the continent of Legendra. Legendra is watched over by the Goddess Astra, who has kept Legendra in relative peace until the God Madruk invades with massive armies. Madruk is sealed, 300 years pass, and at the present time Madruk’s seal is being weakened allowing his reawakening. His disciples cause the various nations of Legendra to begin warring amongst themselves, and that brings the player to the present.
Dragon Force is billed as being a Strategy/RPG, with resource procuring and management thrown in along with even a very slight sprinkle of some visual novel aspects. The player takes control of one of eight Monarchs (at the beginning you can only chose from six, as two of the Monarchs reveal end game spoilers in their expositions; the other two open once the player has completed a play through). Along with the Monarch you’re given generals with varying degrees of skills, your primary castle, and typically a secondary fortress.
The game switches from a static resource control and management screen to a real-time field strategy game. On the field, you have a set amount of time to move generals around various markers on the map. For the most part and despite the map being LITTERED with town icons, only the various castles and fortresses are relevant and produce subsequent story sequences. When a general or party of generals encounter enemy general(s) or a set game sequence, the game switches to the battle screen. In the battle sequences as many as 200 soldiers can charge at one another in battle – positively hailed in it’s time of how dynamic and massive each unfolded. Once all the soldiers are defeated, if both generals are still standing they duel one-on-one with each other. Most of the time the generals are captured or even sometimes flee, but some story sequences kill off particular characters entirely.
Remember the field sequences happen in real-time, so while you’re doing all of this the other seven computer controlled monarchs are themselves also engaging in battle and taking over castles – with both you and each other. It’s like playing Command & Conquer if C&C were eight players simultaneous. After a few rounds of all of this, the map very quickly fills up with most every strategic spot occupied, requiring intricate planning and painstakingly moving the front line forward.
Following the field and battle sequences, your faced with administrative duties. These are where a bulk of the story play out and also allow you to attempt to persuade captive generals to your side, change soldier classes for particular generals, or even equip generals to help them in combat. You’re presented with the same soothing music and interface every time that is not overly annoying but later in the game you’ll spend a lot of time in this section and it can get monotonous.
There’s obviously a lot more that could be said about the game, but every game is not perfect, so lets talk about what isn’t so perfect.
The game is often cited as being relatively difficult, but most of the difficulty comes about as part of the game’s progression that a player may not immediately recognize. For example, when your Monarch levels up, this automatically levels up all the other Monarchs – and THEIR GENERALS. It makes sense early on to not send out your Monarch into every fight, instead sending out your generals to level up and complete various story missions. Some of the Monarchs, by design, play out easier than others which makes sense for players to start off with them. As example, the golden locked Wein and graceful elf Teiris never fight one another since they fill that essential “have known each other since kids” trope and taking cues from Record of Lodoss War are sort of the game’s inter-race romantic couple. As their kingdoms are near one another engaging the other Monarch as either Wein or Teiris allows very quick initial strengthening of forces. However once Monarchs begin to enter you ranks they play out like normal generals, so you have to ensure that you keep their levels relatively high (as, to try and not reveal spoilers, all eight Monarchs are essential to the overall story).
Later in the game juggling ALL of the generals at your command can be exceptionally tedious. Part of the morale aspect is you’re supposed to converse with generals in the administrative screens to keep tabs on their overall deposition, as failing to do so will possibly make them go AWOL and transfer to an enemy force. However in the later portions of the game you have to start going through forty to fifty plus characters, and will eventually get to well over a hundred. It takes FOREVER. You’ll also find that as you progress away from your primary castles and other castles that have no strategic advantage you’ll likely leave just generals behind to keep it occupied. Whereas other strategy games may not put so much focus on more secure or ‘older’ traversed areas, story elements play out that effectively make every castle and stop point strategic in some manner. You have to remember to frequently swap generals around to keep their levels in check, which first involves you having to send a general to the castle first so it doesn’t become unoccupied, then sending the previous general back to the front lines. Why is having the castles so important? The castles serve as vessels to replenish dead troops in battle, as a castle’s size determines how many reserves can be present. Further some of the generals in the administrative screens can either fortify castles to raise the castle’s levels (castles gain gradual experience being occupied) or search castles for items and even errant generals. As there are no penalties NOT having a general perform these duties you’ll want to utilize every instance you’re able. So you want every castle that you can possibly occupy to be… occupied, so as to both give you an advantage on holding the castle but also not give any enemies that same advantage.
There are also some near game breaking exploits that when utilized really lower the game’s difficulty. When the generals first start in battle a power meter fills. When it fills a general can utilize their basic special ability which varies depending on the Monarch’s class. If you send a regiment of troops forward, wait right before the bar fills to the end, and hit the binded button (thanks Working Designs) to go to abilities, you can fire off your first spell before the CPU has a chance to – troops continue to advance while spells and abilities are deployed. Doing this, your ability will likely hit enemy troops charging forward all the way across the screen. When the CPU general eventually does the same characters have already dispersed themselves to each side of the field, which often drastically reduces your casualties. You see a prime example of this in any of the knight class characters that can utilize Sonic Boom. The Sonic Boom attack initially near wipes out CPU soldiers, but by the time the CPU fires off the same attack the troops have already made it to each other’s side.
Another exploit I’ve ran into can happen with scripted generals. If you locate generals that are tabbed to flee combat, you can position lower level generals between castles or other markers to “trap” the general. As the general scurries back and forth into combat they’ll mostly always flee but sometimes will engage lower level generals. It’s a quick way to boost the levels of characters that often have little combat advantages early on, or would similarly themselves get wiped out if you sent them to the front lines.
A relative good thing I did not go over is the game’s replay value; it’s obviously very high with their being eight Monarchs to control. What does make it so high though is all eight are not simply a rehash of the same story – at least until the later parts. Each Monarch has a definitive starting narrative, and many of them branch quite differently from the others or progress with varying degrees of difficulty. It’s the sort of title where you may currently be playing a general but you’ll want to start another game just to see the intimacy of how the other sides progress. A competent player can complete a Monarch’s campaign in just over twenty hours of play time.
Another lauded point would be Working Designs’ handling of the title. WD has it’s fair share of criticism regarding their localizations; you either really love what they did for games or you hate some of the ‘changes’ WD often performed. Even if you dislike the humor they often injected into titles most of it here is both minuscule and just enough to give you some chuckles in the overall seriousness of the narrative. Examples include Teiris performing word play with Wein’s name (I feel WD believed his name was pronounced similar to ‘wine’) or generals that get pissed off when bothered proclaiming you’re more annoying than the phone company; some good ‘ole WD dated humor there. A tremendous amount of text is present in the game and it’s all well checked and presented; at least personally I have yet to find any spelling errors or outright narrative issues in the text as it progresses.
So is this a buy?
Like most any RPG-ish English title for the Sega Saturn, it’s now a very pricey game although arguably it’s lower on the value scales compared to the $300+ some titles command. I was fortunate in that I bought this game new for $30 USD – I’m the original owner of my copy – when it hit bargain bin status at my local Toys R Us. Like other Working Designs games it also saw fairly limited pressing runs. I would imagine that most people are likely going to play this game through emulation. However if there is one RPG that is a very decent buy for this console this would be the one to save those pennies for to say you have physically. Like other WD titles multiple versions of artwork for the disk were pressed, and further WD sent out memory cart stickers that were placed at random (I have the Wein/Teiris disk with the artwork for the title of this post, along with a memory cart sticker of Astra). It ultimately means that a random combination of disk artwork could accompany an also random memory cart sticker artwork, resulting in a dozen various combinations for a game with an already super low print run.
In terms of Sega Saturn games this is ultimately one of the better games for the console’s US market run.