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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (353)

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Lands of Lore: Throne o... 2/5
Rage 2 4/5
EnHanced 3.5/5
Blossom Tales: The Slee... 3.5/5
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Far Cry 5 4/5
Jotun 2/5
Armada 4/5
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Song of the Deep 4.5/5
Shadowrun: Hong Kong 4/5
Destiny 2 4/5
Shadowrun: Dragonfall 4/5
Shadowrun Returns 3/5
Kirby Star Allies 3.5/5
Dark Quest 2 3.5/5
Never Alone 3/5
Octopath Traveler 3/5
Guacamelee! 2 4/5
The Incredible Adventur... 4/5
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Tomba! 5/5
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Call of Juarez: Bound i... 3/5

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Drakkhen   Super Nintendo (SNES) 

Hakk Hakk    3.5/5 stars

I first played “Drakkhen” a long, long time ago, when it was first released on the SNES in 1991. I didn’t know at the time that it was a port of a PC game, which itself was a port of an Amiga game (if you’d have asked me what an Amiga was, I would have told you, ‘it’s Spanish for friend’). I was just coming into my identity as a Fantasy nerd, and would snap up pretty much anything with a picture of a dragon on it. Hence “Drakkhen” became a part of my SNES RPG collection, though it would be years and years before I managed to finish it.

With the re-release of the PC version of the game on both Steam and GOG this summer, I was spurred to dust off my old “Drakkhen” SNES cartridge, gaze at it nostalgically, then put it back in the cupboard before firing up RetroArch and loading up a “Drakken” ROM. The game I remembered was an impenetrable enigma, with haunting sound effects and a groovy soundtrack. The game I re-experienced still had the haunting sound effects and groovy soundtrack, but wasn’t nearly as impenetrable due to the fact that I no longer become exhausted after gaming for a half-hour, and my reading comprehension is significantly better than that of a middle-schooler.

Presentation
“Drakkhen” sits in that awkward time in the early ‘90s when Western developers were pushing the envelope and experimenting with basic attempts at 3D graphics. The hardware just wasn’t capable, though – neither on PC or SNES – so compromises were the order of the day. “Drakkhen’s” visuals are divided between two different styles. While exploring the overworld, the player’s perspective is pushed into first-person, while the environments consist of jagged, vector-based, solid-colored shapes to represent the ground, lakes, roads, etc., while a static, sprite-based horizon wraps around the whole thing, and simplistic sprite-based objects (trees, rocks, graves, huts, etc.) jerkily transition between various different sizes in an early, crude attempt at a Level of Detail system. While inside castles, though, “Drakkhen” is a much more traditional 2D, sprite-based, third-person experience that didn’t really push any contemporary technological boundaries. In general, neither the 3D nor the 2D portions of “Drakkhen” look good, especially when interactive objects in the 2D portions are either blatantly obvious pieces of armor or blatantly vague red dots that could be anything.

The audio direction in the SNES version of “Drakkhen” was completely coopted by the Japanese team at Kemco when they created their enhanced port for the console. While the original DOS version of “Drakkhen” did have audio (which wasn’t a guarantee for any PC games of the era), it was generic and uninspired. The Japanese team ripped out all of this generic audio and replaced it with their own to great effect. Instead of a battle theme, each enemy in “Drakkhen” emits an iconic, inscrutable, and often disturbing sound effect. I thought these sounds were so spooky back when I first played “Drakkhen” in the ‘90s that I recorded them on a cassette in an attempt to scare the bejesus out of some Webelos (not to be confused with Weeaboos) on a Boy Scout Camping trip (unfortunately it didn’t work). In addition to the great sound effects, the game was completely re-scored with a groovy synth soundtrack that just screams “1990 FOREVAR.” Each of the game’s regions has a distinct day and night theme, as do each of the main NPCs and their distinct castles. The only real downside to the soundtrack is that each tune is only about 4 measures long, so they would become gratingly repetitive if they weren’t so darn catchy.

Technically, the SNES version of “Drakkhen” is a massive step-up from the original PC/Amiga versions. The SNES version supports a controller, naturally, and does so without any guff. The PC version claims to support joysticks, but I couldn’t get it to work. The SNES version also adds the very essential ability to view a map and compass at any time, making it actually manageable to navigate a large 3D space without getting hopelessly lost. The SNES version even includes a handy tutorial right from the outset that explains how the refined and enhanced UI works, whereas the PC version is a typical PC game of its time, with lots of redundant button presses spread all over the typewriter in order to do things, not to mention that even the spell names in the PC version consist of gibberish that must be deciphered by reading the effing manual. Even worse, the PC version has DRM in the form of randomly asking the player to type in a code from a specific page in the manual.

Story
“Drakkhen’s” story actually has quite a bit of trivia and mystery surrounding it. The game was originally developed in France by a French-speaking team, with some story consultation by the legendary creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax. This story was then translated and rehashed by the team at Kemco when they made the SNES/Super Famicom version for release in Japan. Instead of retranslating the original French script for the Western release of the SNES version, though, Kemco translated the Japanese hash of the script into English. Everyone knows of the children’s game of Telephone or – to be politically incorrect – Chinese Whispers. “Drakkhen’s” script suffers heavily from this effect… but even the French-to-English translation that exists in the PC version isn’t all that great.

Another major issue with “Drakkhen’s” narrative is the fact that almost all of it exists outside the game itself. “Drakkhen” comes from a time when digital storage space was expensive, so instead of filling up several floppy disks with text and having NPCs offer huge lore-dumps in-game, both the Western and Japanese developers included the lion’s share of the plot in various manuals and booklets packed-in with the game. The SNES version’s script and plot may come across as nonsensical, but ultimately, the SNES version is the best version to play without reading all of the supplementary extra-game sources. The excuse narrative given during the title screen, burned into stone tablets by the gaze of a dragon, sets the stage nicely, and in my second, modern run through the game, I never found myself at a loss as to where to go next or what to do next, because the game does a very good job of pushing the player along via the limited NPC dialogs.

Of course, just because it’s functional doesn’t mean it’s good. “Drakkhen’s” story is a bare-bones ‘save the world’ narrative in which a group of four anonymous heroes must gather the 8 Dragon Tears in order to prove their worth. The ‘world’ in this case is a large island divided into four biomes (forest, swamp, tundra, desert), with each biome ruled over by a pair of the game’s titular drakkhen – half-dragon, half-human giants with magical powers granted by the Dragon Tears in their possession. Some of the drakkhen want to aid the human heroes in their quest, while others wish to interfere. There are no choices or options to speak of, and the game always plays out exactly the same way.

When I originally played “Drakkhen” in the ‘90s, it took me years to complete it. Of course, at the time I found it difficult to play a game for more than a half-hour (roughly the length of a cartoon or sitcom). I also had a tendency to start every game in my library, flit between them, and never remember what I was supposed to be doing in any of them. I’m not like that anymore, so I was surprised to find that the experience of playing “Drakkhen” now didn’t jibe with my memories. “Drakkhen” is actually a very short game, lasting somewhere around 10 hours.

Gameplay
Back in the ‘90s, we didn’t have “W”RPGs and “J”RPGs. We just had RPGs, and “Drakkhen” was one of them. Specifically, “Drakkhen” is an Action/RPG due to its real-time combat. While wandering the overworld in first-person 3D mode or exploring a drakkhen’s castle, the party will run into random enemies. These come in a huge variety of strange, exotic, and inscrutable forms, ranging from swarms of rats, blobs of goo, low-ranking drakkhen troopers, hunchbacks, giant naked moaning women (yes, really!), The Thing from the Fantastic 4, and even constellations that fall from the sky and transform into a variety of hideous and overpowered worms. In the SNES version of “Drakkhen,” it’s possible to flee from combat by hitting the shoulder buttons, while in the PC version, every random encounter is a fight to the death. In combat, the player doesn’t really have any control over their characters, though they can nudge one of them around one at a time to give them hints about where they should stand. For the most part, combat is managed by AI auto-attacks. One of the things I didn’t learn until far too late in my original ‘90s playthrough of “Drakkhen” was how to cast spells. It’s actually easy and fairly intuitive to assign a caster to use auto-attack with a spell instead of their weapon, and it’s likewise easy to open the character menu and to fire off a specific spell if necessary.

The player’s party in “Drakkhen” can either be pre-generated or randomly rolled using a vaguely D&D-inspired stat system. Characters can be either male or female, but the player is always stuck with a party consisting of one Fighter, one Scout, one Wizard, and one Priest: No exceptions. This party of characters each has their own strengths and weaknesses as one would expect, with the Fighter primarily beating on foes, the Scout acting as a backup beater with some light supplementary thieving magic, the Wizard acting as the glass cannon, and the Priest acting as the healer. Nothing really original.

What is somewhat original is the fact that, while exploring the world of “Drakkhen,” the player will come across 8 different castles inhabited by the drakkhen princes and princesses of the realm. These serve as almost-‘Zelda’-inspired dungeons, with puzzles, traps, enemies and treasures to be found. The puzzles in “Drakkhen’s” castles are reminiscent of traditional point-and-click Adventure games, though much more simplistic. Castles also allow the player to gear-up quite easily, because the loot contained within them is NOT random and also respawns every time the party leaves and re-enters. Equipping the party and keeping backup gear is important, as going into battle under-equipped is a death sentence, and in many cases, powerful enemies will destroy pieces of the characters’ gear, necessitating replacement. In my '90s playthrough of the game, my Wizard was always without pants because they kept getting destroyed.

Overall
I’m tempted to go so far as to say that “Drakkhen” for the SNES is the earliest example of the ‘enhanced port’ phenomenon. Despite the iffy narrative, everything else about this version of the game is so much superior to the original PC version, it renders the original version’s existence moot. That said, “Drakkhen” isn’t a particularly amazing game. It’s not terrible, by any means, but when compared to the rest of the SNES’ RPG library, it’s middling, at best. Still, for RPG aficionados and historians, this game is a weird piece of the genre’s history that’s still playable by today’s standards. Hakk Hakk Drakkhen!

Presentation: 3/5
Story: 2/5
Gameplay: 4/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5

 

 


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