Inti Creates has made quite a name for itself on the Switch with quality titles like Mighty Gunvolt Burst, Blaster Master Zero, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, and Azure Striker Gunvolt: Striker Pack all offering up some excellent retro run ‘n’ gun action. Going back further, however, the company put itself on the map with the excellent Mega Man Zero series on GBA, which blended some hard difficulty with a more melee-oriented combat system. Dragon: Marked for Death – the latest release from Inti Creates – acts as a sort of spiritual successor to the Mega Man Zero games (with a hearty dose of RPG action thrown in), although it notably fails to hit the same lofty standards set by the developer’s previous efforts.
The story follows the Dragonblood Clan, a group of people aligned with a dead dragon known as the Atruum, as they tussle with the Medius Empire and its self-righteous ideals. When the empire burns down your character’s village, they form a pact with the dragon Atruum and acquire his powers – which manifest in different ways, depending on which character class you’re playing – and embark on a quest to get revenge on the Divine Family that runs the Empire. It’s a cliché but serviceable plot, and though we would’ve liked for there to have been more memorable characters (Ciel, anyone?) and interactions along the way, the plot isn’t very much of a focus in a mission-based game such as this.
How the gameplay unfolds depends entirely upon which character you’ve chosen to run with, of which there are four. For example, the Empress acts as the ‘basic’ unit, focusing on melee attacks and flamethrowers, while the Warrior is a heavy, axe-wielding tank that can also put out a small healing shield every now and then. As you’d expect, there are some noticeable differences in playstyle here, but it all ultimately boils down to the same process of punching everything that moves and watching the sparks fly. Stages are technically ‘different’ between characters due to the varied traversal techniques, but you ultimately end up in the same place at the end; whether you have to move a cart as the Warrior or wall-jump as the Shinobi, you’re still going to arrive at the same boss fight. Another thing that bears mentioning is that not all characters come with the base game; you pick between getting the Empress and Warrior or the Shinobi and Witch, with the other duo having to be bought as DLC.
You start out in a castle town that acts as a sort of hub for your characters, allowing you to buy new consumables and equipment to give you the edge in battle, or to talk to NPCs and potentially trigger new quests to be picked up in the bar. There’s no 'open' world to speak of here; the main loop consists of leaving on a mission from the bar, returning with gold and a slightly more levelled character, picking up better equipment, and starting over on a harder mission. A typical stage sees you running, jumping, and slashing your way through hordes of enemies, picking up treasure chests on the way as you fight towards a boss encounter.
Combat revolves around building up a meter below your health bar by landing basic attacks on enemies and then spending portions of that bar on your character’s unique ability to even the odds in battle. It’s the sort of thing that’s straightforward and easy to master, but Dragon: Marked for Death unfortunately becomes stale much too quickly as a result. The lack of a dodge button or varied combo chains inevitably leads to relatively monotonous and static fights in which you spam the same buttons to watch the same attacks before moving on to the next enemy to do the exact same thing again. In a word, the combat is uninteresting, and the speed at which it goes from being tolerable to tedious is disappointing, to say the least.
The issue seems to rest in how the game is clearly skewed towards co-op play, which considerably limits the single-player experience. Even basic enemies feel unnecessarily ‘spongy’ and offer up laughable rewards for bothering to finish them off; it’s bad enough that we ended up spending most missions running by as many enemies as possible to just get to the boss. Bosses are even worse with the damage sponging; in the early stages of our run as the Empress, some fights took a little over ten minutes as we chipped away at the otherwise easily defeated boss at an almost hilariously slow pace. When the combat system isn’t terribly deep or skill-based to begin with, having obnoxiously drawn-out fights greatly takes the wind out of a game’s sails, and this is unfortunately an issue that Dragon: Marked for Death struggles with.
It doesn’t help, either, that Dragon: Marked for Death feels old-school in some of wrong ways, too, such as how there are no checkpoints in any of the missions. We encountered a few situations where roughly fifteen minutes would go up in smoke because we lost a boss encounter, meaning that we had to slog through the entire mission again for another crack at it. And, to add insult to injury, all the health items and other consumables that we used on those failed runs weren’t refunded to our inventory, necessitating costly trips to the shop to resupply. Annoyances like this, combined with the ho-hum gameplay, could conceivably be balanced out if other areas of the game made up for it, but Dragon: Marked for Death never quite figures out a way to incentivize you to keep pushing on. It’s archaic and difficult in the worst way possible, and the rewards for overcoming its challenges are mostly just more challenges.
Of course, this is a game that’s primarily meant to be played in co-op, and there’s fortunately an online mode that features both regional and worldwide matchmaking so you can always have someone else to run missions with. What’s a bit more puzzling, however, is how Dragon: Marked for Death chooses to handle local co-op. A game such as this would seem to be an ideal fit for brief spurts of split Joy-Con play with a buddy, but this game doesn’t allow local multiplayer in split-screen; if you happen to have a friend nearby, they need to have both their own Switch system and a copy of the game to play with you. Perhaps this is a holdover from the game’s origins as a PSP ad-hoc game, but it puts unnecessary limitations on something that doesn’t have to be complicated.
Mercifully, Inti Creates’ signature pixel art style is here in full force, going for a lovely 32-bit look that’s packed with detail and fluid animation. Multi-layered backgrounds smoothly scroll behind your characters as they run through the stages and even if the environmental designs are rather uninspired, they’re nonetheless as well-realized as they can be; things like turning windmills and scattering fireflies help to make places feel more alive. You may not be totally blown away by this pixel art, but it’s a cut above what you’d expect from a typical indie title.
Given the high standard of gameplay that Inti Creates has shown in many other titles it’s released over the last several years, it’s hard not to be disappointed by Dragon: Marked for Death. Although the art direction is a definite plus, this is merely an inoffensive and unimaginative co-op side-scrolling RPG at best. But looking at the bigger picture, particularly the archaic design elements and baffling exclusion of split-screen play, makes this a release that’s admittedly hard to recommend to anyone that’s not a die-hard fan of the company. If you liked the Mega Man Zero series, this is a passable attempt at recreating that series’ gameplay style and it might resonate with some of you, but we’d otherwise recommend you take a pass on this one.