Get your D20s ready - this one's gonna keep you busy.
I was born into an age where the only “arcade” machines I regularly encounter are on my way out of Wal-Mart begging me to spend my change on $10 plush animals. Therefore, I missed out on many of the classic side-scrolling beat ‘em ups that graced the gaming world throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s. Dungeons and Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara is a compilation of two such titles, both courtesy of Capcom. The first, Tower of Doom, started crunching people’s quarters in 1993, while its sequel, Shadow over Mystara, didn’t begin doing so until three years later. Both games were ported in a two-disc compilation for the Sega Saturn in 1999, but this was a Japan-only release and only allowed for two players to join the fray (the original version allowed up to four combatants, as does this re-release). Therefore, Chronicles of Mystara marks the first time either title has been made available for home consoles in North America.
And man, is it a great debut.
Let’s start with the older of the two games, Tower of Doom. After choosing your avatar to be a Fighter, Elf, Cleric or Dwarf, you’re dropped into the first level and are almost immediately whisked into battle. Using either the D-pad or the control stick (I found the former to be more palpable after spending some time with both), you control your characters’ movements not just from left-to-right, but also from up to down. The action buttons are customizable to accommodate a players’ preferences, but your main abilities are: attack (with a melee type weapon), jump (simple enough to understand), item/magic and switch item/magic (more on this in a second).
It’s a control scheme that’s easy enough to grasp whether you’re a newcomer or veteran of the series. The combat system doesn’t necessarily reward experienced users – both games are button-mashers by nature (I say that lovingly) – but one does develop more appreciation for the different ways to wage war the more they play around with the various characters and tinker with their respective skill sets. The Dwarf excels at rapid close-range combat while the Elf casts mighty spells from a distance; the Fighter has great range and power, but the Cleric can perform magic abilities, and so on. Unless you’re familiar with the game or have some background knowledge about D&D/role-playing games, the player will be exposed to the characters’ differing abilities/weapons on a “learn-as-you-play” basis. This can be a bit frustrating if you’re like me and have been weaned on games that try to tutor you for the first hour of gameplay, but ultimately it’s a refreshing throwback experience that encourages true playing from the onset without being concerned about teaching you how to do everything.
Now, about that switch item/magic action. By pressing whatever button you have assigned for that ability, you open an on-screen circle of options around your character from which you can select the various different spells and/or items they can use during the game. This opens up a bevy of in-game options up in a title whose namesake is well-regarded for its creative merit. And, since each character has specific items/spells they can and cannot use, it makes for an even wealthier experience in terms of what there is to learn about each avatar.
Shadow over Mystara picks up from the end of Tower of Doom and adds two news warriors to the mix – the Magic User and the Thief. The Magic User is a more magic-focused Elf-like character, while the Thief is a speedy character who can pick locks and detect traps. Aside from the additional characters, SoM is a bit more visually stronger than its predecessor and seems to have a larger number of epic, well-designed boss battles. The only other super notable shake-up from the first game to the second game is an enhancement of an armor system that I honestly didn’t really pick up on as I played through. SoM is more of the same with a tad more polish, and that’s perfectly okay.
Each game’s story possesses branching elements that allow for players to take different paths on successive playthroughs, and while it might seem more cosmetic than impactful to the overall story, these branches make for a more interactive experience that further incorporates aspects of real-life D&D gameplay. Each also utilizes a level-up system that increases your max HP as you gain experience from battle, and while there are some minor differences in the battle menu presentation between the games, it’s all similar enough to produce a great sense of continuity between the two titles.
Okay, so it’s the first time these two arcade titles have been made available on U.S. home consoles – big whoop. What’s here to encourage folks to pick up a pair of 20-year-old games? Quite a bit, actually.
Though I was unable to test it out prior to retail, Capcom promises seamless drop-in/drop-out online play powered by GGPO technology, allowing players to seek out on-going games and act as much-needed reinforcements when able (or leave their comrades to fend for themselves if they have to run and make a sandwich :P). An in-game challenge system has been implemented to coincide with the gameplay, providing extraneous tasks for players to complete in order to increase their overall player level (another new feature) and gain Vault Coins to unlock secret goodies. This added challenge system alone adds an extra layer of replay value, as it demands players return to the game after story completion in order to go for 100% completion. Added PlayStation Network trophy support contributes to replayability too, though most of the trophies will be unlocked as you complete the challenges.
There’s also online leaderboard integration and a nifty arcade view function that allows the player to play as if they were standing at an arcade machine.
Among the secret goodies are archived files for both games and “house rules”, the latter of which further serves to enhance the games beyond their original settings. There unlockable house rules are as follows:
Unbreakable – Equippable items have infinite durability.
Enemy Rush – A time-attack mode where the game begins with a 30-second countdown clock and increases each time you kill an enemy.
Vampirism – Regain health each time you deal damage to an enemy.
Elimination Mode – No bonus credits allowed.
Hedgehog – Your gold becomes your health source. Run out of gold and it’s over.
Lockpick – Locked chests do not require keys to be opened.
Make It Rain – Enemies and chests drop more SP than usual.
There’s a good variety of rules that make the game more challenging and rules that make the game easier, and each can be used in conjunction with the others (Ex: You can turn Unbreakable and Elimination Mode at the same time to see who can make the most of their tough armor) to make for some interesting gameplay combinations. A rule like Vampirism seems kind of unnecessary when you’re allotted as many “credits” as you want when you die, but I suppose it gives an extra option for the pseudo diehards who would like to go through the whole game without dying but want to easily regain health along the way.
It’s hard to find much fault with this compilation. There is a story but it’s not really integral to having a great time with the game. If you can live with the shame of a running tally of the number of “extra credits” you use (as I did to complete both games), it’s easy to finish each one in less than two hours respectively. However, these games weren’t designed for to be infinitely played without taking your quarters, so be prepared for a substantial challenge if you choose to finish each without abusing the unlimited credit system.
Let’s summarize it!