Twenty years after the games were rocking the arcades, Dungeons and Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara (CoM) comes to the XBLA, complete with the games Tower of Doom (1993) and Shadows over Mystara (1996), courtesy of Capcom. While the games were well received at the time, they were somewhat overshadowed by arcade classics such as TMNT and Final Fight. Still, it apparently warrants enough love to produce a rerelease. So how exactly does it hold up?
As is to be expected with arcade games, stories are kept simple with no award-winning voice acting but a simple story of fantasy and good winning over evil. The context of the story goes something like this – you are good, some people over there are bad, you should kill the bad people, in this case it’s made up of trolls and goblins creatures mainly. Although there are plenty of boss fights to break up each level and signify the end of a level usually.
Though CoM is somewhat unique in that you actually get to make the occasional decision on your story path, usually in the form of “which way do you want to go?”. While it may not have much of an effect on the overall game, it does provide the player with some unique levels to play with on a second playthrough, sometimes with a refreshing change in gameplay, including a trip down a river on a raft to a sprint through a cave avoiding falling rocks.
If you’ve played one beat-em up, chances are you know what to expect here, though if you’re a fan, that is no bad thing. The controls here are fairly fast and responsive. It may take a while to get a grasp of things and the inventory can be distracting, it’s all solid stuff, which I fear is going to be a recurring word used for this review. There are no trigger or bumper buttons used in this game, it’s all about the face buttons. You have your attacks, item uses, switching inventory button and a jump. However, once properly utilised with the thumb-stick (or D-pad for purists) you’ll find yourself leaping about the top and sliding down the bottom of the screen with relative ease. And of course, a personal favourite of mine, there are no tutorials, so unless you want to track down hints from the website, you are left to figure this stuff out for yourself. Times sure were different back then.
There’s no two ways about it, this game can be a bit of a chore if played solo. It’s an adaptation of an arcade game after all, therefore it is, by design, very challenging and not entirely fair so that more quarters (the game wasn’t released in Britain until it was ported to consoles) would be dropped in. Though what that means for consoles is, of course, no penalty for death. You get beaten up, the “continue?” screen pops up with a timer, you press start and then begin again right from where you fell. If you’re interested in this game, be sure you have people to play with, otherwise you best just move along unless you have a pang for particular brand of nostalgia. By the creator’s own admission, it is best played on co-op (they even gave us two game codes for review).
There are six characters to choose from in Shadow over Mystara (though only four in the prequel Tower of Doom) and in essence, they all pretty much play the same way. You’ll be button mashing like mad at the enemies regardless, with the only real difference being whether or not they can perform crowd controlling spells or not (half of whom can). Tower of Doom certainly limits the cast list and feels more challenging, whilst also a hard task on the eyes with plenty of graphical issues.
Speaking of the spells, while they can be certainly fun to watch, they can be a right headache when playing with friends, due to the fact that the entire game freezes whenever a spell is summoned, lasting for about 3 seconds and for the other players, comes without warning. Now this is annoying enough once, but when your primary and most powerful arsenal includes magic? Well suffice to say I’m sure there were times when we were almost sent into controller snapping rage due to spells being reeled off over and over again. Not particularly useful to a mage, who relies on this to deal some real damage to enemies.
The way spells work almost jar with the how the rest of the game seems to have been designed, as there’s a heavy emphasis on pace and keeping things moving. You cannot pause the action (even when playing alone) and even shopping for new items or exploring peaceful villages comes with a 20 – 30 second time limit, as if the game is tapping it’s watch in your general direction and saying “come along now, those goblins aren’t going to kill themselves”. This can be both a positive and a frustration, depending on whether you’re the one that needs the toilet or not.
While this game certainly is more fun with others (drop-in drop-out co-op is a nice touch), it is, as previously stated, still an arcade port. As such it is mainly designed to be played in short bursts and not in one go. Each game takes about an hour to complete, but even still towards the end of the second game we had definitely had our fill.
That being said, for fans, there is definitely plenty for them to come back to. You can level characters up and start a new game with them fully levelled up or with a new character. Plus this game has a surprising number of secrets laying about just waiting to be discovered. Back in those days secrets in games were in wealth and there’s still nothing more satisfying than discovering them even today. Add to that the multiple paths that are possible, then fans of the old games will certainly get a kick out of this port, though you could probably scrub this game clean in about 4 hours.
The presentation of this game isn’t that much to write home about. Hearing your little warriors scream at the end of each level is quite funny and hearing the weak villagers who always seem to get caught up in a war with some evil goblins, who come crawling over to your adventurer calling for help also add to sound effects used in this title. Some of the music has a decent kick to it, but other than that you’ll barely remember it upon finishing. Again, not bad, not particularly good, just solid.
While the game barely puts a foot wrong and essentially does what it says on the tin, it is very hard to recommend to people, unless they are after a charming visit back to this beat-em up experience. To put it bluntly, the game is twenty years old now, while functional, it’s hard to put it above newer titles. If this game were 400 MSP, then it is feasible that people could enjoy it for a night with a few beers and some friends, but at 1200MSP, I don’t feel bad for saying that there is absolutely nothing here that you can’t get elsewhere and better. Although that does seem to be the price model used by most arcade games nowadays on the Xbox Live Marketplace.