Review: Dragon Crystal (3DS eShop / GG)

Manageable masochism

For a system known for its incredible appetite for AA batteries, the Game Gear makes quite a strange home for the hardcore, permadeath-filled roguelike Dragon Crystal. With absolutely no save option or password system, the game must have caused some incredible bouts of rage when those last spurts of juice ran out. Dragon Crystal is a very mean game, with a vicious health system that continually depletes should you run out of food, randomly generated stages filled with enemies that can drop your level when they attack and items with unknown, often detrimental, effects. When emulated on 3DS, however, the game's overall structure dramatically changes: restore points let you safely create a save spot before trying an item or plunging into the next stage, making all of the masochistic qualities much more manageable. If doing so breaks all the roguelike charm for you, there is a simple solution: don’t use restore points.

The unofficial sequel to Fatal Labyrinth, Dragon Crystal follows a similar formula, dropping you into randomly generated areas filled with an ever more challenging array of enemies. You goal is to find the exit, and at the start of each stage you are surrounded by “fog of war,” an effect that basically blacks out areas you have yet to explore. All pathways and rooms are hidden until you pass into them, but remain visible for the duration of the level, unless an enemy casts a fog spell. Sometimes, you even end up stuck in a stage with seemingly no exit; here you have to keep checking all the walls until a hidden pathway shows up.

There are various potions, magical rods and spell books to collect, each having diverse effects on enemies and the character himself. They add a decent amount of depth to the game, allowing you to augment equipment and cast spells, but make for a double-edged sword. The effect of each item is unknown at first, only having a colour to separate them in the menu, but once its effect is revealed the colour in its name is replaced by a more helpful adjective. Some items freeze or confuse the player if used, but will transfer the effect to enemies if thrown at them. Other items are incredibly harmful to the player, like a potion that reduces your base attack power to zero and a rod that drops you down a level. Again, restore points can nullify the need to learn by trial and error, as you can set one right before you use each item, then go back to reverse the damage.

Combat is simple, but not without strategy. You walk into your foes to attack them, much like the original Ys. However, most enemies only move one square at a time, and won’t budge until you do, letting you manoeuvre around enemies and dodge projectile attacks before moving in close to take out your foes.

As you get further into the game, you'll discover more weapons, rings and armour. Like other items, you don't know their attack power and defence until you equip them and, again, some have detrimental effects: you might equip a ring that makes you eat food very quickly, and thus die faster. These damaging items can't be unequipped until you try numerous potions or books in an effort to find one to unlock the curse. Again, the restore points make this much more manageable, as you can set it right before you take your chances exploring your inventory.

If you die — which you likely will — you only get to continue if you have enough money, with the cost increasing each time you die. You can only resurrect three times and doing so wipes out your inventory, so it's not something to rely on. However, you will keep the equipment currently equipped and, in a rare stroke of kindness, also retain the names of all those potions, rings, magical rods and spell books you experimented with.

The graphics can be a bit repetitive, with the same borders reused throughout the game. Environmental mazes are constructed of pine trees, cacti, sunflowers and statues that look plucked from Easter Island. The enemy types become more diverse as you play however, save for the occasional palette swap. One nice touch comes from the dragon companion that trails you throughout the game: he won’t do much, but he does transform from a rolling egg into a baby dragon before becoming a flying behemoth. Your character also looks more fearsome as you progress, his weapons and armour becoming larger and more ornate as you collect better equipment.

All in all there are 30 stages to complete, and things change a bit in the final stage. Without giving too much away, let's just say you're not looking for an exit. Even with the inclusion of restore points, there is still a good chance you won't make it through on your first run. If you do, the levels are so random that you never get the same playthrough twice.

Conclusion

Dragon Crystal in its emulated form offers two very distinct ways to go about playing. If you want a masochistic adventure filled with numerous unknowns and permadeath, play without restore points. If you want a more methodical, balanced approach that allows you to slowly calculate each decision, play with restore points. Either way, you’ll probably want some pen and paper by your side. The environments may be rather monotonous and the combat quite simple, but there is a fair amount of strategic depth, thanks to the slow pace, vast inventory and ever-depleting food and health system. At just $2.99, it thriftily serves as both a manageable introduction to the roguelike sub-genre and a throwback to its challengingly cruel roots.