By the year 2000, Psikyo’s TATE shmup design was already established as the de facto template for the genre and with several hits already under its belt, it's hard to imagine many more gimmicks could be added to the tried and tested formula. So what if it added a few dragons into the mix?
The Demon King has risen. The Sun and the Moon gods are not amused by current events and proceed to guide four stoic Dragon Knights to do their bidding. Dragon Blaze features a smaller roster than usual for a Psikyo shmup, but by no means less memorable; Each distinct combination of dragon knight and their fearsome winged steed provides a different way to tackle your numerous enemies, providing overall replay value to the package.
Quaid rides a Fire Dragon. The Demon King struck down his girlfriend so as you can guess he is out for revenge. His firepower is mostly strong, fire-based attacks. Sonia is royalty and she is out to find her mysteriously vanishing mother. She rides a Water Dragon, a beast with a couple of smaller dragons flying along, acting very much in a similar way to Gradius options. Rob the Dwarf Berserker rides a one-of-a-kind two-headed Lighting Dragon. He may fly slower than the rest, but his dragon fires in a spread pattern that turns out to be rather efficient at crowd control.
The last knight is the enigmatic Ian and his terrifying Skull Dragon. All those bones must surely make him more aerodynamic, he has the best speed of the lot. If you are wondering why they look so distinct from previous Psikyo character designs, it's because they were drawn by Kouji Ogata, character illustrator of Boogiepop Phantom anime adaptation.
As we mentioned, this game is a bit of a departure from the regular Psikyo TATE shmup and this is mostly to a third button being introduced to the game. ‘Dragon Shoot’ enables you to dismount your fearsome winged steed, lunging it forward in a devastating attack and it will remain stationary on that spot delivering punishment until you press the button once more so he returns to his master. Since your knights have wings (thus can still fly around solo), and your dragons are utterly invincible, this is your best strategy to deal not only with bosses but also some of the regular foes.
High score chasers will need to master this since enemies defeated this way will reward you with golden coins that rain down the screen, naturally worth more points than the regular silver ones. It's a simple but every effective risk/reward design that will keep you on your toes every time you come back to the game. Don’t worry if all goes horribly wrong – the secondary trigger will unleash the classic screen clearing attacks that will let you catch your breath. Well, for a few seconds at least. These are limited sometimes drop from defeated enemies along with your regular attack power-ups.
Another point worth mentioning that helps distinguish this from other Psikyo shmups is how close Dragon Blaze is towards ‘bullet hell’ territory. It's no surprise that Psikyo always liked to flirt with all-out bullet hell, but here it fully commits to the bit, with boss bullet patterns similar to something you could find on Danmaku Unlimited 3. Don’t worry about being overwhelmed however; Purple is the colour of death so just worry about doing your best to avoid any shape of purple hurling towards your knight of choice while ‘parking’ your dragon face first into the biggest source of danger on screen. In a gameplay design page lifted straight from Tengai touching enemies will not kill you but penalise you with a power down. Every knight also has a spell, cast by charging up the primary attack button but unlike ‘dragon shoot’ these have a mana cost, you should use them sparely.
Both graphics and music are very much in the medieval-fantasy vein of Gunbird yet manage to be even more detailed. Every level from the first four elemental-themed stages offers distinct and memorable backgrounds, enemies that share colour traits that link them to that stage and challenging bosses at the end of each one. It's almost a shame you will be spending your focus on avoiding anything purple instead of taking in all the lovely details put into the whole package. As per Psikyo tradition, every character has their own dialogue and ending, so multiple plays are in order to see them all. Bring a friend if you can - two dragons are always better than one.
Once again Zerodiv emulation wrapper goes beyond expectations not only by allowing complete customisation of all options, video filters and the like but by also moving score, bomb counter and other information bits outside the playing field if you chose not to play the game in TATE mode. This is something that Zerodiv has been doing for all Psikyo TATE shmups, but we think it is worth mentioning in this review nonetheless since it gives you a cleaner playing field that you would not be able to have on the original arcade version. A neat little bonus that adds further value to this digital re-release.
Dragon Blaze is Psikyo on top of its TATE shmup game. You might be a little disappointed that this strays so very close to bullet hell shmups instead of the more traditional games it made its name famous in this industry. However, 18 years on, the game remains a beautifully executed TATE shmup with a unique gameplay gimmick that goes beyond having the titular dragons as eye candy, effectively making them a core part of the high score chasing experience. You may be able to clear the whole game loop in under 30 minutes, but we very much doubt you will play it once and never touch it again. It's quite simply brilliant, addictive and another must-have shmup you need to add to your growing digital arcade Switch collection.