Welcome back, my friends, to the RPG assembly line that never ends. Ubiquitous developer KEMCO has released their monthly RPG, this time titled Dead Dragons. Naturally, being a big fan of dragons in general, I had to check it out. What I found was sadly unsurprising: another mediocre JRPG story rushed out to support a poorly-defined combat system. KEMCO’s technique is starting to show signs of wear and tear, and Dead Dragons might be the beginning of the end for their current business model.
As with all KEMCO stories, Dead Dragons is wholly unremarkable in its plot. You play as Will, a young guardian whose father always insisted that dragons were still alive in the world. Naturally, since everyone else thinks dragons were wiped out a century ago, they are immediately shown to be alive, and quickly curse Will with a deadly Dragonscar that gives him magic powers while it saps his lifeforce. This will eventually kill him and birth a new dragon, so that dragons can eventually make a comeback and restore balance to the world. After being violently ejected by the mayor of his town (who amusingly says that he doesn’t want you to leave right before he tells you that nobody in the town ever trusted you, so get lost kid), Will spouts a bunch of nonsense about how he “can’t just accept that” and how precious his life is.
The entire story is really just based on your character not wanting to take one for the team, which put a damper on my desire to play as him at all. There are also the usual NPCs occupying the “mysterious ninja girl,” “loud and kind-hearted swordsman,” and “mousy, bespectacled cleric” roles. With a little bit of nuance and outside-the-box thinking, Dead Dragons game could have an enjoyable plot, but KEMCO doesn’t have time to write something original when they’re on a 12-game-per-year schedule. It’s one of the company’s biggest failings, and begs the question: why does KEMCO want to make RPGs in the first place? The most important part of making a successful RPG is crafting a compelling story, and Dead Dragons is anything but compelling. Throw in a handful of generic NPCs whose only dialogue is “…” and one housewife in particular who giggles about how it’s a woman’s duty to make herself look pretty even if she’s only going around the corner, and it becomes painfully apparent just how paint-by-numbers KEMCO’s approach to game development has become.
The combat in Dead Dragons reaffirms this somewhat, though it’s at least somewhat novel. Each member of the party occupies a different square in a formation. By “formation,” naturally, I mean a straight line which rotates through each character in sequence. In contrast, all your enemies line up horizontally across from you. It’s one of the least realistic representations of combat I’ve seen in a JRPG since I played Final Fantasy Legends III on my old Game Boy Pocket. Each square can be filled with a “battle cell,” which imbues whoever stands in the cell with certain bonuses. By far the most interesting part of the combat system is Ruin Mode, in which one character summons some magical helpers to fight for a few turns. Only the summoner and his or her summoned monsters can attack for a while; after Ruin Mode ends, everyone in the party is healed and the fight continues. It’s pretty fun to see the main character’s super special dragon powers manifest in a way that isn’t just another variation on a power attack—instead, Will brings forth some giant claws made of shadows that decimate any enemies present. Still, I coasted through every random encounter with the auto-play function.
There’s nothing interesting about any Dead Dragons battle that isn’t with a boss. All the monsters in an area are, as is customary for a KEMCO game, recolored versions of those that appear in every other area. You have no way of seeing an enemy’s health bar for some reason, and you have to decide what actions your entire party will take before they all resolve in order, so there’s very little sense of being in control at any point. The only thing over which you have control each turn is the “weak point” you want to attack. When making an attack, you can choose one of three diamonds to attack—left, right, and up. One of them corresponds to a “weak point” on the monster that will increase your chance of doing critical damage. This might be cool if the weak points didn’t shift randomly between turns, rendering this attempt at realism just another way Dead Dragons breaks its own immersion.
What’s more, I had to figure a lot of the basics out on my own. Dead Dragons seemingly assumes that you’ve already played all of KEMCO’s other games, or are simply an expert in turn-based strategy RPGs, because the in-game tutorial skips over everything about stats and basic battling and goes right to all that formation and battle cell jazz I mentioned above. Dead Dragons may be the least beginner-friendly RPG I’ve ever played, even though the battles themselves are absurdly easy. It’s just not fun for someone who doesn’t already have a strategy game encyclopedia in their brain.
When I started playing Android games regularly, KEMCO games were some of my first purchases. I enjoyed their stripped-down approach to traditional RPGs and found some of their stories somewhat enjoyable, if derivative. But while they’ve never really brought anything dynamic and new to the table, KEMCO is now at risk of ruining its own formula for middle-of-the-road success by simply getting lazy. Dead Dragons isn’t so much an actively bad game; it’s just boring and half-done. With more time to flesh out the world, give the combat system a bit of nuance, and punch up the graphics a notch, Dead Dragons would have been a lot of fun. Instead, KEMCO’s absurd monthly release schedule proves once again that you can’t make a good game by throwing tropes at a wall and hoping they’ll stick.
Dead Dragons is just like every other KEMCO game, but worse. Save your money for something that doesn’t have confusing combat or a lame, derivative storyline.