Crimson Dragon review: A Dragoon denied

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Crimson Dragon is not a Panzer Dragoon game, so maybe it's not fair to judge it as one. Then again, it was directed by Yukio Futatsugi, director of the Panzer Dragoon series, and its development team included many Panzer Dragoon veterans, and the game is about laser-breathing dragons flying over beautiful landscapes and killing hideous, imaginatively-designed monsters. Really, the only thing that separates Crimson Dragon from the Panzer Dragoon series is the name.

That, and the fact that it isn't as good.
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Crimson Dragon (Fall Preview)

Functionally, Crimson Dragon and Panzer Dragoon are nearly identical. You star as a dragon rider (a "Seeker"), and you spend the majority of your time on your dragon's back as it flies over bizarre worlds. The dragon's flight path is pre-determined, though you do have control over its position on the screen. That's important, as nearly every creature you encounter will be flinging fireballs, plasma or some other kind of goop your way.

You're not limited to evasive flying and judicious barrel-rolls though, as each available dragon comes packing heat (presumably in its belly). Some breathe fire, others electricity and still others "wind," but all dragons have the useful and convenient ability to lock onto enemies and blast them out of the sky.

Crimson Dragon mixes up the Panzer Dragoon formula just a bit with some different weapons. In addition to the traditional homing lasers, you'll also find beams that continually hammer away on specific targets, dumb-fire machine guns and area-effect bombs. Each weapon has an elemental attribute – fire, wind or light – that lends a rock-paper-scissors dynamic to the gameplay. A light weapon, for example, will deal bonus damage to a fire-based enemy. Still, while weapons behave in slightly different ways, they all operate on the same basic principle: Highlight enemies and fire away.

In that respect, Crimson Dragon faithfully executes Panzer Dragoon's exhilarating combination of evasive flying and selective shooting. The game falters, however, anywhere it deviates from the formula. The dragon and reticle are controlled independently now, with the dragon assigned to the left stick and the reticle to the right. It can be difficult to keep track of both, though you do get used to it.
New free flight areas, usually reserved for boss battles, take you off of the usual "on rails" flight path and allow you to fly in any direction you wish. While complete freedom is alluring, the camera no longer follows your reticle, as it does in the on-rails sections. That makes it difficult to track targets, especially mobile ones.

Where Crimson Dragon really fails to live up to its inspiration – and fails as a game in general – is in its mission structure and presentation. Rather than providing one single, cohesive adventure, Crimson Dragon is broken up into discrete "missions." There are over 20 missions, though the majority of them are divided among the same six environments. Furthermore, the differences between missions are often very minor, and the general goal is always the same: Kill all the monsters. Exacerbating this issue is that you have to pay to access certain missions with in-game currency. If you run out of lives – which you can also buy with currency – you may find yourself unable to afford to retry a mission.

Playing on the "classic" difficulty, I often found myself stuck on a certain level. Whenever I would die, I'd spend my money on extra lives, which let you continue on the spot. Once I ran out of cash, I'd be unable to pay the price to start the mission again. That, in turn, meant the only way to earn enough to play again was to replay a cheaper mission I'd already completed. It's very annoying, doubly so whenever the level you're stuck on has a lengthy, mandatory cutscene.

You can make difficult missions somewhat easier by hiring a "wingman," an AI controlled dragon that will accompany you and help you eliminate foes. In addition to the basic wingmen, you can also hire the dragons owned by players on your Xbox Live friends list. You have basic control over your wingman, allowing him to follower or lead, depending on where enemies are. It's a fun feature, and a good way to augment your elemental attributes, but bear in mind that more powerful wingmen cost a lot of credits and only last through a handful of missions. For the moment, wingmen are as close as Crimson Dragon gets to a multiplayer mode, though an online cooperative mode for three players is slated to arrive in December.

On top of all of this is a microtransaction system that borrows heavily from free-to-play systems seen in other games. In order to evolve your dragon and teach it new skills, you have to "feed" it various items. These items can be found throughout missions, or you can buy them in randomized packs from the store with in-game currency. The best item pack, however, can only be paid for with jewels. You can collect jewels by earning badges in missions, or you can buy them in bulk with real money. Thankfully, I never felt pressured to spend real cash, and I collected more than enough items to progress, but the inclusion of randomized item booster packs feels out of place.

The story, such as it is, serves mostly as an excuse to blast down the indigenous wildlife of Draco, the distant planet on which Crimson Dragon takes place. Draco's creatures have been infected with Crimsonscale, a virus that once wreaked havoc on the planet, although it also has the handy property of bestowing some of its victims with the ability to communicate with dragons. That's where you come in, tasked with straddling your dragon to eradicate infected creatures and stop the spread of the virus. There are vague allusions to some kind of military conspiracy, all culminating in an ineffective, nonsensical "twist" that feels completely disconnected from every other part of the game.

It's not as if Crimson Dragon even needed a story. Chewing through hordes of amazing creatures on the back of a dragon would have been reason enough to play. Even that, unfortunately, is bogged down by Crimson Dragon's repetitive mission structure. Taking down a gigantic electric eel is a genuine thrill. By the time you've destroyed your seventh, the excitement starts to wane. It's a shame, because the mechanics of Crimson Dragon are fundamentally sound. Locking onto a half-dozen enemies and letting your lasers fly is just as fun as it was 1995.

Crimson Dragon isn't bad, and there's plenty to do if you simply must unlock and evolve every dragon, but it runs out of ideas long before it runs out of missions.

This review is based on an Xbox Live download of Crimson Dragon, provided by Microsoft.

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