Square Enix often gets a lot of flack for their head-turning prices, but they’re really the only ones churning out ambitious, 3D Japanese RPGs. The Chaos Rings series has stood as the Android platform’s best modern-style J-RPGs, and now Square is stepping up their game even further with a game that pushes even the graphics and presentation envelope even further.
Drakerider tells the story of a tracker named Aran, who finds himself face-to-face with the world’s only Dragon, the last hope against a cyclical apocalyptic force known as the Dread. The story might not be wholly unique – shades of Panzer Dragoon are present – but this idea of cooperating with the dragon pervades not only the narrative, but the gameplay itself, with unique results.
Unlike Chaos Rings, this is a completely 3D affair, and it’s a strong contender for best looking RPG on the platform. Characters have advanced lighting and shading effects, and are well animated, with a lot of subtlety. Hair blows in the wind and faces react to the scenes. All the key scenes have been animated with scripted cut-scenes, and all the game’s dialog is fully voiced. It’s a new high-water mark for production value in a mobile RPG, and the extra effort goes a long way toward selling an otherwise forgettable story.
Much will be made of Drakerider’s battle system. In classic J-RPG fashion, encounter’s are random, but the battles themselves are wholly unique. Rather than directly issuing commands from a menu or by button presses, you pull the chains of your dragon’s harness to influence his actions. You slide your finger to move a marker into one of four “zones” on a bar, each of which may or may not have different abilities assigned to it. If there are multiple abilities assigned to one zone, the dragon will ultimately choose which action to perform. If you let the cursor slide too far off to one side, the dragon will throw his rider off and begin to rampage on his own.
These battles are fast and engaging in a way that many traditional J-RPG battles are not, but it comes at the expense of some depth. You can only use those abilities that you’ve equipped before the battle, and there is effectively only one “party member.” You can change riders mid-battle (and with them the set of equipped abilities), but it’s still your dragon that will be acting in the end.
Outside of battle, there’s actually a fair bit of depth to the game, thanks to an extensive skill tree that allows you to customize your abilities and unlock new ones by using them. It’s a shame you can’t equip a few different “sets” of abilities that can be toggled on the fly as this would really help to add a strategic layer to the fast-paced combat in the game.
Although there’s an overworld and some nicely detailed levels, there’s a notable absence of towns. All of the gameplay takes place in what can broadly be termed “dungeons” and shops are found within these levels. These stages are broken into small, interconnected areas with narrow paths, and while there’s some exploration and hidden treasure chests to find, the layouts are pretty dull, and wholly devoid of puzzles or other challenges.
You’ll also have to opportunity to take on various side-missions in the game via the “Hypercube.” These stages take place in an abstract virtual world of interconnected rooms, but ironically they’re better designed and more interesting than most of the game’s stages, and offer better rewards for exploring them. If you’re vigilant about tackling these levels, you’ll probably end up over-leveled, as the game’s difficulty curve is very gentle.
Drakerider is as close to a AAA production as you’re likely to find on the phone, and it’s not hard to see how Square can justify the steep price. There’s certainly a lot of value to be had, with a lengthy quest and impressively cinematic presentation. Some of the more hardcore fans of the genre, though, will be disappointed that the game gives into repetition, however, and the forgiving difficulty only further emphasizes this flaw. This makes it hard to recommend Drakerider over games with more polished design like the Final Fantasy titles, but it’s certainly worth checking out for those in search of something modern and different.