Platform: Xbox One (XBLA, £15.99)
Developer: Grounding Inc.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Something has gone horribly wrong here.
As the spiritual successor to the Panzer Dragoon series, Crimson Dragon was the first game I downloaded and played on my new Xbox One. An odd priority, perhaps, but I've always lauded SEGA's rail shooting franchise as a near-perfect fusion of gameplay and art. Every second, every moment, every scene and enemy, every word of the fictional language and note of the exquisite musical score is designed to instil a sense of wonder in its players, and to provide an engaging challenge curve. If you ever have the opportunity to play Panzer Dragoon Orta on the original Xbox, the pinnacle of the series, take it.
Crimson Dragon looks and sounds like Panzer Dragoon upon first inspection. You'll blast over some gorgeous environments riding a massive laser-spewing reptile, all while enjoying another soundtrack from composer Saori Kobayashi. You probably haven't heard of her, but audiophiles probably should have, since much of her output makes Aerith's Theme sound like wetly farting through a cardboard tube.
However, the resemblance is skin deep; skin stretched thin over a rickety framework of grind, repetition and bad business that the humble rail shooter was never designed to support.
The story, such as it is, sees players battling to keep a human colony safe from ravenous alien fauna and an ever-encroaching disease called Crimsonscale. It's a classic SHMUP plot insofar as it's totally unintelligible, doesn't set the characters up properly, gives us no context and doesn't even properly introduce us to the setting. It's a far cry from Panzer Dragoon's peerless environmental storytelling, thanks especially to some generic American voice actors, but I'm going to stop mentioning the series from here on out. I can hear the chorus of "fanboy!" from here.
No, Crimson Dragon deserves to be judged on its own merits. As a rail shooter, not a sequel.
Rail shooters steer players down a preset route, challenging us to destroy enemies by moving the reticule and dodging around the screen. The best examples of the genre, such as Lylat Wars and Sin & Punishment, use this setup to provide perfect pacing; making sure that enemies attack in interesting formations and constantly challenge us in new ways.
In Crimson Dragon, however, enormous swarms of recycled foes just mob-rush the screen at all times, with no sense of pacing or restraint. They tend to blend into the fussy backgrounds, and obscured by your dragon since the camera is far too close to the player character and his mount, who take up a good third of the screen. It's usually a confusing and irritating bundle opposed to a well-crafted shoot 'em up.
Though the smart addition of Wingmen based on other real players, inconvenient Kinect integration and surprisingly entertaining free flight sections help to add flavour, they rarely lift Crimson Dragon above apathetic mediocrity. There are moments when everything clicks, but they're few and far between, usually constrained to some massive if oft palette-swapped bosses.
I wish I could stop there, but it only gets worse. This hatchet job hasn't sliced down the bone yet, not even close.
See, this is a genre that's all about tight meticulously-crafted levels; a gameplay experience that offers quality, not quantity. They're over quickly but memorable forever. And thus totally inappropriate for shoehorning in progression systems and microtransactions.
Yet Microsoft Studios found a way. Crimson Dragon's eyecatching environments have been hacked into tiny boring repetitive pieces, through which we have to continually grind over and over and over again to gain money and experience to level up our dragons. Who, predictably, are practically useless at the beginning of the game, purposefully hamstrung in terms of speed and power to support the new progression system. RPG levelling have been forced into the cracks, rewarding us with randomised item drops that might, might, be the random thingy we need to evolve our precious mounts. Unnecessary repetition and tedium has been disgracefully shoved into Crimson Dragon everywhere you look, a transparent attempt to encourage players to part with real money to speed up the process, despite already having paid £15.99.
This is unacceptable. In effect, Microsoft Studios purposefully broke their own game in order to fit in with their vision of paying once, then paying again and again. The stages have been snapped into bits, then awkwardly plastered over a nasty business model that has no business in this genre, let alone this particular game. The clunky awkward dragons have been nerfed for effect, neither fun nor interesting to play as. Grind. Has. No. Business. In. This. Genre.
Crimson Dragon is sick, a beautiful beast suffering from a chronic illness. With long levels designed to tell a story through its art direction, and bespoke-tailored encounters that constantly offers new challenges, it could have been good if not great. All the fundamental components are there. But it has been twisted beyond all recognition.
After putting in a few miserable hours, Crimson Dragon does start to make more sense, and does become notably more enjoyable. You'll finally unlock a dragon who can move quickly and hit hard (even if all the default weapons are incredibly boring to use), and encounter a couple of slightly more interesting environs. But, crucially, it's probably not worth the tedious aggravation getting there.
- Attractive, often downright beautiful vistas
- Saori Kobayashi on fine form
- The dragons look great and have some interesting secondary attacks
- Occasionally, eventually, it's mildly entertaining
- Messy, cluttered, poorly-paced action lacks attention to detail
- Constant repetition and grind, set in tiny hacked-up levels
- Microtransaction-heavy progression is totally inappropriate for a rail shooter
- Game purposefully broken in numerous ways to support bad business
The Short Version: Another magnificent Saori Kobayashi soundtrack and some visually arresting scenery can't save Crimson Dragon from the mean-spirited cynical sickness at its core. What could have been a gorgeous and uncomplicated shooter has been hacked into tiny chunks in the name of microtransactions, butchered almost beyond recognition until you push through several miserable hours. Microsoft And Grounding broke their own game. Willingly.
Worse than all of that, though, Crimson Dragon usually isn't much fun. I'm flying an epic laser dragon. Why isn't it fun?!