Release Date: October 26, 2004
There are some things that should stay in the 80s: leg warmers, hair bands, and video games with the word “Druaga” in them. For the most part, society has rejected the use of leg warmers as a fashion accessory, and Nirvana pretty much put hair bands out of commission. But here in 2004, we have Arika and Namco’s aptly titled, The Nightmare of Druaga, the sequel to 1984’s The Tower of Druaga. The game takes a stab at an old-school dungeon crawler feel, but in the end, it just feels old.
You are once again placed in the role of Gil, the prince of Babalim who is known for his shining golden armor. Three years have passed since the Druaga War, and Gil is to wed Princess Ki, the same princess who was imprisoned by the dark lord Druaga in the first game. The day before the wedding ceremony, monsters invade Babalim, and a mysterious masked sorceress kidnaps Ki, taking her to the Tower of Druaga. It’s Gil’s mission to save the princess from the tower.
The gameplay in Druaga is repetitive, and about as exciting as counting dead bugs in an overhead light. You enter a dungeon level, look for a key, look for a door, enter the door, and repeat. The dungeons are grid-based, so tapping a direction once will move you one square. Monsters only move when you move, so the game is actually turn-based (Namco calls it the “At-Once Turn System”). This system creates a unique feel, and requires a bit of strategic thinking when moving amongst monsters. For example, if Gil is down to one hit point, you need to make sure to move efficiently, in order to avoid landing within striking distance of a monster. The system could have made for an interesting dungeon-crawling experience, but it is hindered by repetitive “find the key” gameplay, unbalanced enemies, and a completely frustrating save system.
Monsters you encounter in the dungeons range from total wimps to unstoppable death-dealers. Most monsters can be defeated in one or two hits, but some dungeons have ridiculously powerful enemies that chase you down and corner you until you’re incapacitated or forced to use your escape feather. You are granted one escape feather each time you enter a dungeon. If you find yourself in a situation in which all of your options for survival are exhausted, you may use the escape feather to return to town. Doing this saves your life, but you have to start the dungeon from the beginning and do the whole tedious task all over again.
Returning to a dungeon floor that you have completed allows the choice to either use the key to move onto the next floor, or break down the door to access a bonus dungeon. Enemies are more powerful in the bonus dungeons, and you have a much better chance of finding special items. Unfortunately, the bonus dungeons are just as boring as the normal dungeons.
If your hit points drop down to zero, half of your gold is taken away, and all of your equipment is lost. Good thing you saved, right? You have no such luck with Druaga. The game uses a save system in which you can only load a save file once. In other words, you can’t save the game, get yourself killed, then reload from your last save point. Druaga auto-saves after Gil is incapacitated. If you ever turn the game off without saving first, the next time you boot up the game, the goddess Ishtar will make you promise never to interrupt the “flow of time” again. She will ask you question after question, and the whole process can take a couple minutes. If she senses that it isn’t the first time you “cheated,” even more questions will be added to the whole interrogation. It’s absolutely one of the most ridiculous things you’ll see in a video game. This save system was meant to make the game more challenging, but it crosses that line and turns the game into an unnecessarily frustrating experience.
In town, Druaga has a few interesting elements. You can avoid losing some equipment upon your death by having items inscribed by Calindra, a shrine maiden. There is a limit to how many items she can inscribe at one time, but this limit grows as the game progresses. It is wise to store away any unnecessary, non-inscribed items before entering a dungeon, otherwise you run the risk of losing everything.
The town also has alchemists who will combine potions, roots, or other items in order to try to make another item. Sometimes this equates to a useful rare item, and sometimes it turns out to be something harmful, such as poison.
Blacksmiths are able to combine equipment to make more powerful and effective armor or weapons. If you have a sword equipped, and happened to have an extra weapon in your inventory such as an iron axe, the blacksmith can combine them to create a “Sword +1.” This system actually makes use of the extra items you may find in a dungeon that would otherwise be useless. Finding gems and placing them in equipment slots is another way to increase a weapon’s power.
Your equipment has special abilities that use up ability points (AP) when you are in a dungeon. In town, the ability transfer shop lets you transfer abilities from any piece of equipment that is +15 or greater to another of the same category (weapon or armor). You will lose the +15 equipment after the transfer, but the other weapon gains a new ability, which you can use to dispatch dungeon creeps.
Accepting sub quests at the guild helps break up the monotony of the main storyline. When you start a sub quest, your experience and equipment are reset. Upon completion, any items, equipment, or experience you earned during the course of the sub quest will be erased. The upside is that you will receive special items and gold.
The graphics in Druaga are attractive, although the blocky environments and characters could look better. The game doesn’t exactly push the hardware, so frame rate issues are nonexistent, and textures look on par with average PS2 titles. Special attacks aren’t anything to write home about, and neither are the enemy designs. Visually, Druaga is standard fare.
The music is well done, although the sound effects are nothing special. There are no voice-overs, so you illiterate RPG fans will have a hard time following what’s going on. The sounds of clashing metal, explosions, and footsteps are all just good enough.
The Nightmare of Druaga could have been a decent game. The “At-Once-Turn-System” adds a welcome strategic element to dungeon-crawling, but monotony and repetition destroy any redeeming value the system might have. If Namco and Arika build upon the good aspects of Druaga (the turn system, weapon upgrading, and overall universe), a future installment may not be nearly as disappointing. Send this one back to ’84.