Platform: Sega Saturn
Strategy Role Playing Game: Simultaneous Battle
Completion Level: 80% at ~35 Hours
There are no Dragons in Dragon Force. We just thought we’d get that out there right at the start. Catchy name though. (Okay, there are “dragonmen,” if you decide to play long enough to get to them.)
Like Shining Force III which would come two years later, Dragon Force is another of those classic Saturn games put out by SEGA. It was innovative in many ways and was largely the first game of its kind in this sub-genre of SRPG.
Like some other games including the Ogre Battle series, much of your strategic decisions take place on the overworld map. Here you will direct representations of your fighting units to various cities. The idea to to capture or recapture territory and push the enemy back.
It takes units some time to get to their destinations. Simultaneously the enemy is moving their units on the map trying to do the same thing. When units meet you are taken to a second battle screen. This is where the most innovative aspect of Dragon Force manifests.
Unit battles involve a hero unit and a number of troops. You do not control the units directly as in telling them where to step, rather you give constant orders to advance or fall back or change formation as you see the battle raging. It is exciting. The screen is filled with many milling units from either side sometimes pushing the ol’ Saturn to its limits.
Hero units have various special attacks that need to build up in order to unleash. Additionally you troops ore of various types. Swordsman, archers, etc. There is a hierarchy with the troops as well, with certain types being more effective versus others. This style of unit battle started a sub-genre that lives on through games like Generation of Chaos.
There is more strategy in determining which units you apportion limited troops, which gain experience, which you may try to rescue if captured. Some heroes are more powerful than others and must be deployed with care.
As if all that was not enough strategy, groups of hero units are banded together as a fighting force. Which units you team up is also an important strategic element.
Conquering the whole continent is not for the faint.
- Quality: Playing Dragon Force is like driving an expensive car. Care drips from every interface, every element. It transmits a driving -or in this case playing experience that stands out amongst other games which may feel more budget conscious.
- Short but sweet: With just a few places for dialogue, Dragon Force manages to infuse your hero unit characters with some personality. Additionally, with so many of them, it did not get too old or repetitive.
- Portraits: Very good. Mostly consistent. Almost all quality. Of course they were also of a style that was easy on the eyes. The artists managed to infuse a small square of pixels with more character than expected. Angle, color and expression worked their magic.
- The varied special attacks were fun. Cutting a swath of destruction through the enemy phalanx with a massive single shot was fun. Determining when to fire and when to hold was strategic.
- Music: Top notch. It was from an era where extra care was taken, and themes large and small were made for every aspect of the game. They carry a modern-ish epic feel. I am listening to it right now. It brings back fond memories, which also says something.
- The battle scenes filled the screen with troops and action. It was impressive.
- Innovation: Anybody who has ever been in video game development knows how much pressure to conform can be brought to bear. “Be like that other game that sold well,” is oft implied. Enjoy this 1st party SEGA title from an era where innovation was prized.
The Good & Bad
Conveniently Together in One Point:
- This is not a race. The style of directing unit groups in the overworld map called for patience. There is a deliberate pace which contrasted that of the intense battles.
- You can pick any faction at the start which dilutes individualized theme. Additionally there are few places for narrative. So how much story could one expect? Still, they managed to maintain awareness of the overall goal, and every battle was like a territory ladder rung.
- Taking care of the home front. Managing resources in the capital city and other captured territories added needed strategy. It was an important part of your overall force formation. It just took a little time and care and may not appeal to those who want more of a pure combat experience.
- Occasional art direction choices. While it may seem commonplace in Final Fantasy games, extra effeminate supposedly male characters seemed out of place in Dragon Force. So much so that the translators made fun of it.
- The menu screens were slow. We have little patience for this anymore. It was likely a hardware problem. However knowing this SEGA needed to incorporate solutions, or design the game to need less sub-screen changes, each of which took a little too much time.
- Too much of a good thing. There were many hours of possible gameplay. As much as I enjoyed playing Dragon Force, completing the campaign got too tedious at the end.
Too big for a bullet point: Working Designs Translation/Localization Strikes Again
“Interesting” editorial choices. Working Designs was the publisher that brought a lot of Japanese game content from this era to American shores. Working Designs had their own view of the responsibility associated with this task. In their opinion the content of games could be changed for the whim of their own humor. It is a concept we might today find anathema.
“You are going to change the lines to say something completely different than the original?” Working Designs answer was sometimes, “Yes”. So while I am a big fan of the Street Fighter franchise, incorporating lines and (supposedly) comical references to it were a poor choice that besmirched a serious game.
Consider lines like:
“Street Fighter? Chun who? She’s got nothing on me!”
There were lots like that. Here are a couple more examples:
“And now the ultimate torture, tickets to a Michaelangelo Boltanavous concert!”
I suspect that Dragon Force was a far more serious game than we saw in English. The liberties were an injustice to what should be an enduring game. Walt Disney while he was alive made sure to keep topical humor out of his films so that they might be timeless. After he died that concept slipped.
Dragon Force may be the most egregious example of this from Working Designs. It kept me from fully immersing in the Dragon Force narrative by popping me out with pop references. It kept the whole feel just a little off-balance where it did not need to be.
The small amount of shortcomings cannot overshadow the overall quality product that is Dragon Force. It was a trailblazer and worthy progenitor of this SRPG sub-genre. I would recommended you play this original and see for yourself. While Saturns are not exactly commonplace anymore, this game may bring you some hours of enjoyment through emulation.
Knowing your game history and heritage can point you on a straight and true path for future development if you are in the business or enjoyment if you are a gamer. Like many strategy games and SRPG’s, the hardware requirements and special VFX are not essential to the strategic experience and enjoyment. Like Final Fantasy Tactics can still be enjoyed as a fine exponent of a grid-based squad SRPG, Dragon Force is a quality exponent of this quasi-real time deployment and army battle sub-genre.