Dragon of the Three Kingdoms – Battle Naman Barbarians
Languages: English or Chinese Text
Play Time: 3-4rs
Completion Rate: 48%
(Disclaimer: There are not many official screens for this game so I had to take many of the ones in this review myself using my blackberry so they are a bit blurry but I thought they still looked ok.)
The Dragon that Piqued my Interest
Dragon of Three Kingdoms (Dot3K) is a iPhone/Pad game that was interesting to me for two reasons: it was Three Kingdoms based as well as being what looked like a 2D side-scrolling beat ‘em up which is one of my favourite gaming genres.
The developer – WaGames – describes the game as an ‘Action RPG’ but I would say it is more like an mini 2D Musou game. That sounds pretty good right? However at £0.59 or $0.99 you very much get what you pay for and production values are sorely lacking. In many ways Dot3K feels like a rush release of a small chunk of what was perhaps a much larger 2D Three Kingdoms based project (we can dream…).
What’s it all about?
Let’s start with the Story-Line: The game consists of 6-stages that tell the story of the titular Dragon of the Three Kingdoms: Shu knight Zhao Yun – as he assaults the Southern Naman Kingdom on China.
Players of Dynasty Warriors will recognise Three Kingdoms characters such as Shu’s strategist Zhuge Liang, fire & bomberang babe Zhu Rong (here Chu Rong) and her husband and Naman commander Meng Huo.
Each stage begins with Zhao Yun receiving a briefing from Zhuge Liang on his mission. The Little Dragon then proceeds to plow through battlefields populated by the same 3 or 4 enemy grunt variations before reaching a boss character. After defeating the boss it’s time to take the loot, hit the shops to power-up and then it’s on to another stage. Sound familiar?
The likenesses of each the major characters are pretty close to their Dynasty Warriors counterparts. I think Zhao Yun looks particularly cool here and I particularly like the way he carries his sword Chinese style with the hilt facing forward. Big-time Zhao Yun fans may be unhappy he is not equipped with his famous spear but I believe if they try the game they will be very happy with their fav character’s portrayal overall – he is still the dashing, agile hero in blue and silver we all expect!
Controlling the Mini-Musou
It is clear that WaGames looked closely at the Musou template during the creation of Dot3K. Alot of the hall-marks of the Musou formula are present and correct here.
Combat is a hit-point based affair – enemy characters have the iconic red energy bar above their heads ready for your slashes to whittle down. Stronger enemies have more hit-points and the way to over-come them is 70% levelling-up and item equipping to achieve better statistics, 20% player skill and 10% luck (non-existent AI means you never know when an enemy will get trapped behind a wall etc).
The actual slashing mechanic reminds me a little of Golden Axe in that it is a standard combo that builds through continued strikes to the enemy – even the sound effect is quite similar. You can also change the direction of the strikes during the combo. The combo in Dot3K consists of a few slashes, a couple of hacks followed by a dragon-punch+sword type move that reminds me of Hayato in Marvel vs Capcom 2 or Star Gladiator.
The controls are mapped onto a touch-screen d-pad and buttons. I have to say they are layed out well, don’t let your fingers get in the way of the action and are responsive – thumbs up to WaGames for this implementation.
While the animation is nicely satisfying and the controls are decent, Dot3K is very much a case of ‘renbu’-style brainless one-button-mashing combat. As with Dynasty Warriors when you equip a new and more powerful sword it alters the visual effects by adding elemental powers and sometimes the speed of the strikes but no new moves are added on top of the character’s basics.
Any depth to the combat or is Zhao Yun just another pretty face?
Dot3K combat requires no real skill or tactics of the player other than reading some basic attack animation patterns and knowing when to break off attacks to avoid retaliation. As your speed statistic increases relative to the enemy you are able to circle around and attack from behind which is pretty effective.
There is also a rudimentary kill-chaining/combo-ing system in there but I was unable to tell if this had any effect on the game or was just something flashing up on screen for effect.
The game also features a Musou bar under the player character’s life bar. Once that is full the player can hit the ‘Fire’ icon to unleash a super (Musou) attack. This consists of the exact same combo as your normal attack but accompanied by more flashy effects and does a hell of a lot more damage. Hmmm…where have seen that before?
Players can equip one special ‘Flag’ skill which acts as a smart bomb. Collect flags during the levels and once you reach a set amount you can trigger an area-of-affect attack which is perfect for clearing out a screen full of weaker enemies . The flag skills I saw were a volley of arrows (4-flags consumed) or a flaming volley of arrows (7-flags consumed) etc. This reminded me a little of Golden Axe’s magic potion based special attack system but has nothing like the visual charm or satisfaction.
Grinding out the Namans
As you would expect from a game based on the Musou formula Dot3K features a levelling system, items to collect and equipment to buy.
The levelling system is simple enough – killing enemies gives Zhoa Yun experience points and upon reaching a set amount of said points he levels-up and gets a stat boost.
Each of the 6 stages in the game are tagged for a specific character level. So for example, the second level suggests you are level 10 before tackling it. If you go in there at level 7 no matter how well you play you are not going to get far.
Of course, as with a normal Musou game there is satisfaction to be had in trying a level and failing – then going away for a bit to level-up your character only to return and smash that level in!
Items can be collected from pots and crates in the level. Items include power-ups (all of the usual Musou stuff: Meat Buns, armour-up, damage-up, Musou bar recovery etc.), money/treasure and the aforementioned flags.
At the end of the level money can be spent in the shop on better weapons and equipment to further boost the power of Lord Zhao Yun.
Other musou-inspired additions include mounts such as horses and elephants which work in a similar way to DW with standard attacks and a Musou charging-attack (again these were reminding me of the famous chicken-legs and dragons of Golden Axe in that they are powerful but hard to maneuver in a cramped 2D plane).
(ed: apologies for the lack of screenshots in the next section. I ran out! If the text gets to much just skip to the end and read the conclusion ^^)
So overall we have that fine Musou balance in place. When everything is working well the game enables the player to feel empowered but also allows the enemies to present a decent threat providing a good amount of tension and excitement to the gameplay.
Those ‘Musou moments’ we all know and love – those last gasp Musou attacks that finish off an enemy crowd allowing you to escape or that desperate search for a single meat bun to stay alive are are all present and correct.
I also quite liked the way the Dot3K rewards you with extra lives if you stay alive for long enough – that’s a good reward for effective play.
But on the flipside – when the Dot3K loses that knife-edge balance it quickly falls into the trap of becoming a grinding treadmill. The player brainlessly killing identikit enemy after identikit enemy just to earn the experience points and money required to progress to the next stage.
As a gamer I am not anti-grinding but Dot3K does not offer enough goodies to keep you going. Having only one playable character and not being able to have the promise of that next big unlock around the corner definitely sees Dot3K lose part of a true Koei Musou game’s ability to drag players through some monotonous periods of play.
(also of course Dot3K cannot offer the ‘Tactical Action’ side of Musou – without distractions such as the free-roaming maps, base invasions, troop flows etc. too much emphasis is placed on the combat and levelling system to carry the game.)
Lack of Variety
The thing that really cripples the game is a lack of variety inflicted by Dot3K’s obvious low production budget. If you are going to build a game that asks the player to grind or re-play stages without offering any depth to the combat mechanics you need to have plenty of variety in the graphics, scenario/staging, unlockables/loot and stage set-pieces.
Dragon of the Three Kingdoms has minimal art-assets so one section of the level tends to look identical to another part. Generally we only see one ‘gimmick’ on each level for example a river, rain-storm or ascending a mountain path.
As I did not play all of the game it is possible later levels add more variety but I doubt it. When you compare it to the detailed, surprise-filled designs of Golden Axe (we all remember the surprise of realising one of the levels was on the back of a giant eagle right?) there is clear lack of effort and inspiration.
This lack of visual flair and variety carries through to the character spirites themselves. Each level has just 3 or 4 different grunt type enemies. Generally you just have an archer, swordsman and spear-man though there are hints of sorcerers and other types later in the game.
In general only the bosses show any real flare or personality in their design (Chu Rong’s Dhalsim-style fire spitting attack is quite impressive for example).
It’s a shame there is not more variety as I actually quite like the quality of the sprite-work in the game and certainly Zhao Yun looks great standing still or in motion. Even blown up x2 on the iPad screen the characters have a decent chunky feel to them. If only WaGames had more time and resource to pour into the game and could have brushed everything to Zhao Yun’s level this would have been one superb looking 2D game.
I can’t say that I did not enjoy playing Dragon of Three Kingdoms. But the fun was mainly derived from the fact that I was playing a pretty satisfying version of Zhao Yun on a mission that I was already emotionally invested in from playing Musou games in the past.
I was motivated to see this new adaption of some of the Three Kingdoms visuals (the War Elephants here are pretty cool – I like the blood on their tusks) and interested to see just how far the developer would push for a true 2D Musou game.
I think without that level of curiosity around the subject matter it would be very hard to recommend this game as it is clearly sub-standard in game mechanics, production values and artistic direction when compared with numerous games in both the ARPG and side-scrolling- beat ‘em up genre.
So for Three Kingdoms, Musou and expecially Zhao Yun fans I would say at 59p give this a go.
For everyone else, you can get Golden Axe and many other better games for the same price.
Overall Score: 3/10
Overall Score for Musou fans: 5/10
Overall Score for Zhao Yun fan-boys: 7/10
(If you want to know anything else about the game, just let me know in the comments box – Leady247)