Genre: Action RPG
Publisher: Strategy First
Developer: Primal Software
Release Date: March 23, 2004
Pre-order 'I OF THE DRAGON': PC
It's looking more and more like your average gamer really needs to start paying attention to the games Strategy First is involved with. While they don't publish your Halo's, your Warcraft's, or other big name and bigger budget titles they seem to love to publish games created by developers that want to think outside the box and explore ideas that not only stray from the mainstream but are original to boot. One such game is Primal Software's I of the Dragon, a rather refreshing game that puts you in control of a dragon out to save a mystical land from a scourge of various creatures.
Starting off you have the ability to choose your dragon from one of the three, though only the "fire breather" dragon was available in the preview build. The other two are the "magician" who has enhanced magical powers and the "necromancer" who can control undead enemies. Playing as the "fire breather" type you initially only have 3 attacks, your standard fireball, a stream of fire, and the ability to grab enemies. With the exception of the grab each weapon can be powered up by holding and releasing the attack button, which depletes a significantly larger amount your available firepower (No pun intended) but does much more damage. The grab attack really isn't an attack per se but instructs your dragon to swoop down and grab an enemy creature. From there, you can carry your prey to a safer location and consume them to restore hit points and stamina.
Magical attacks can also be used in combat, which can be indispensable when used in the right circumstances. One spell may create a blanket of fog to blind enemy attacks, while another will cause a rift in the ground to spring up or open holes in the earth that spew forth fireballs. Magic attacks don't require any form of magic points or any of your firepower but do have a recharge time attached to every spell, so that you can use one spell and use another immediately if you wanted, but you can use either of them until their individual timers tick back up to full.
Of course, it bears mentioning that you don't directly control your dragon, but rather guide it in a sense. By left clicking on a spot of ground you command your dragon to go there, and by right clicking you command your dragon to attack with your selected attack or spell. To change your dragon's altitude the mouse wheel can be used. The number keys select your available weapons, while the higher end function keys (F9-F12) pick a spell from your current spell bank. This means of control does make the game feel much more laid back since you don't have to concentrate on keeping your dragon aloft of drawing a bead on an enemy creature, but rather allows you to fight much more strategically. That's not to say it isn't difficult, as trying to constantly adjust your altitude to dodge goo flung by enemy spiders while breathing a fireball at one enemy and then casting a spell at another isn't exactly a walk in the park, you just never feel as frantic or panicked as you would if you had direct control over all of your dragon's actions.
As far as the story itself goes, your dragon is essentially the chosen one whose destiny is to fulfill a prophecy of saving the human race from hordes of strange creatures that are infesting the land. Guided by various NPCs along the way, your objective is every area is to exterminate all of the local monster lairs while defending and constructing towns. If a town is not present in an area destroyed monster lairs will reappear and begin to spawn monsters again, so clearing out an area has to be done within a vague timeframe before lairs start to reappear. Once all lairs are leveled a town can be built, which is done simply by going to the magic town beacon and pressing "B". Every once in a while you will be tasked to kill a powerful monster, which while they do deal and take much more damage than their smaller brethren the same tactics to defeat them apply.
A nice facet of the gameplay is the way experience and leveling up is handled. Every enemy structure or enemy you eliminate awards your dragon experience points, which in turn accumulate to raise your dragon's level, al la every other RPG. Once you gain a level you get 25 points to spend upgrading your dragon, whether it be improving your fire power, increasing your breath capacity to allow for more shots, or purchasing new spells to use. Such a system allows the player to really customize their dragon how they want instead of being limited to only the 3 dragon types. Gems also upgrade your dragon, which can be found after you destroy certain enemy lairs. Once 5 gems of a certain type are collected you can gain new attacks, spell slots, or other perks.
A game like I of the Dragon doesn't exactly represent the pinnacle of what today's cutting edge hardware is capable of, but it does bring a very vibrant and mystical land to life. Hills and valleys make up the landscape, trees and even the occasional forest dot the plains and occasionally conceal enemy creatures, and the day and night cycle that constantly occurs really looks the part with soft, warm colors for dawn and dusk, cold hues for night time, and bright vibrant colors for daylight. Fireballs and other attacks give a soft glow to the landscape as they sail over the ground and slam into their target, while magic attacks always look beautiful and aren't simply stronger normal attacks. Trees explode into kindling when struck by the weapons of either your dragon or the enemy, the sight of your dragon ripping its teeth into an unlucky creature it's grabbed is accompanied by a fair amount of blood mist and spray, and overall the special effects add the spice to an already decent palette. The animations of the creatures look relatively stiff, while the animations of the dragon look extremely fluid and lifelike. There is no doubt that if dragons existed they would look and behave exactly as they do in I of the Dragon.
Sound however is not quite as inspired as the graphics. The explosion sounds, the noise flying fireballs and other attacks make, and generally the various noises of the enemy creatures all sound pretty good, but the sound the dragon makes when launching a fireball sounds a bit rough around the edges. Thankfully it never really becomes grating or annoying, and is really the only rough edge to the array of sound effects that I of the Dragon has. On the more musical side of things I of the Dragon has a beautiful score that reacts dynamically to the gameplay. Day, dusk, night, and dawn all have their own musical accompaniment, and combat has a few tunes to kill by as well. Like the sound effects there is still that one rough edge, this time the main menu music. While the in game music is very orchestral and artistic at the very least, the main menu music sounds very synthetic and, even more so, out of place.
Though still in a preview state and still not without a few rough edges, I of the Dragon is a very appealing game that doesn't really feel like any other, a refreshing change of pace from the cookie cutter FPS and RPG games that flood the market every year. While the detached control style may be a turn off to the more action-oriented crowd, it does prove to be just as rewarding and deep. Like other titles Strategy First has published I of the Dragon isn't as graphically or aurally complex as other titles, but the unique gameplay and the genuine original feel more than make up for such things. I of the Dragon will be on store shelves in a couple months, and while it might go largely unnoticed by the big crowd, it's definitely looking to be just of worthy of your gaming dollars as any other.
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