Hidden Dragon Legend (HDL) is an ambitious effort that falls short in several key ways, but, manages to be just good enough to trudge through. That it’s a game based on Chinese mythology and lore actually made by Chinese at MegaFun Games and published by Oasis Games is a cool tidbit. But ultimately this game reminded me of games like Knight’s Contract, The Cursed Crusade, Raven Squad, and many other games that are of that ‘A’ or maybe ‘AA’ quality, that are just good enough, just charming enough, just niche enough to select players — or all three maybe — to make it worthwhile.
Now, I’m a fan of ‘kung fu’ movies or Asian cinema in general, so this game had me interested early on. I was surprised by the amount of depth to HDL, with its upgrade system and combos. It’s more than I expected from a side-scrolling action platfomer of this caliber, in other words. The game is actually more of a 2.5D action game than not, with some platforming sequences mixed in, including times when you have to do timed jumps to traverse an area or use the ‘claw’ which is a silly grappling hook type thing often seen in action/adventure/platforming games.
More on the gameplay shortly, but HDL has a story that deserves mention. It’s a bit hokey, sure, but you play a master swordsman named Lu who can’t remember who he is or what the hell is going on. He finds himself in battle with a shadowy organization known as, well, The Organization, and he’s got to fight his way through the ranks to figure out who’s who. Dark Raven presents himself as an early antagonist, but many hundreds of lesser Bandits and Guards and Heavies will stand in your way, as well as other sub-bosses. There are over a dozen named characters that partake in the story that unfolds across several chapters, some of which I have yet to reach as of this writing. The story isn’t anything, you know, award-winning or all that memorable, but I applaud the effort at least and even less of a story could have passed as serviceable.
Combat, the main staple of the gameplay, has the player using melee and ranged weapons, a sword-type weapon and throwable daggers specifically. There are several of each type of weapon you earn as you go, each with different stats. The sword can be swung in light and heavy attacks, in mid-air, and with combos. Daggers are your ranged weapon, and the combination of these two is pretty good. Players can, and will most certainly need to, utilize the ability to jump and double jump as well as evade with L1. Evading is an essential technique that allows you to zip through enemies, although it’s tied to a cooldown meter (which can be upgraded). You can evade in mid-air as well, but wow, many times I found myself really wishing for a simple ‘block’ button. Fighting the numerous weaker enemies is pretty routine and repetetive, but when they get mixed with aerial, ranged, and heavy enemies, certainly the repetetion increases, but so does the frustration. HDL is a fairly difficult game, and while you can purchase (increasingly expensive) health potions that yield 30% recovery from the pause menu any time you’re not in battle, the amount of damage you can sustain in a short time is significant. Juggling the different enemy types keeps the action frenetic, but not necessarily in a good way. Imbalances between the enemies and your character tend to stand out during these heated battles and, again, the ability to block and parry would have been welcomed and I think made the combat a lot more satisfying and robust.
In addition to the weapons, you gain what are essentially magic abilities that can be unlocked, then purchased (in-game currency), and upgraded. These give you temporary armor or big attacks and so on, certainly useful, but you have to have enough juice in your Rage meter (which increases as you take damage) to use them. Passive upgrades, known as Sutras, are also available. There are several tracts of these to unlock and upgrade, which give you additional health bonuses and the like, which is a level of depth I didn’t expect but do appreciate. However, despite all this, the total package remains firmly borderline between ‘is this worth the time and frustration or not?’ — it’s a question I have asked myself several times while playing, yet I find myself, sometimes reluctantly, continuing to go back for more. The thing is, it’s not because the story is so good, or the presentation, or because I’m a completionist or something, it’s just that the combat, especially some of the boss fights, are good enough to make me want to keep at it. Besides, I have played through a lot of A or AA caliber games over the years, and it’s often these that have the most heart and charm that the big AAA’s don’t have, and that’s appealing to me.
As far as presentation quality, HDL uses the Unreal4 Engine, but that doesn’t make it automatically great. I thought a lot of the textures of the environment and characters was very repetetive and also too ‘clean.’ The environment is basic and largely flat, and there just isn’t enough variety or life to the environments or backgrounds to make them interesting. Some character animations are neat, there are some good-looking martial arts movement, but these too get repetetive (par for the course given the type of game it is I suppose). There are a lot of extra light-flash effects during combat which are fine. Not surprisingly, animations and voice-acting are not synced, which is not a big deal, but the latter is also of the serviceable quality as opposed to great or distinguished. The music is pretty good.
In summary, HDL is what it is — a bit deeper and more ambitious than I anticipated, but the sum of the parts is still a mediocre experience. It’s worthwhile if you’re into less than stellar indies, and there is some enjoyment to be had, but otherwise it’s safe to pass on.