After challenging players with the uncompromising high-stakes roguelike Road Not Taken, Spry Fox is taking on more lighthearted fare with Free-Range Dragons, an action-oriented game in which players pilot flying dragons across fanciful 2D worlds.

There's a hardcore streak underneath Free-Range Dragons' cheery surface, however. Citing inspiration from Capcom's Monster Hunter series, Free-Range Dragons features high-flying battles in which you'll hunt down dangerous creatures and drag them back to your home base to recruit them. Free-Range Dragons is flexible enough to support multiple playstyles, and it's up to the player to decide how far they want to push themselves during their quest.

Gameplay in Free-Range Dragons hinges on the fluidity of its flight mechanics. Players navigate their flying steeds through an unfriendly world filled with enemy dragons who hoard loot. Stun the dragons by dashing into them and you can collect their loot and bank it back at your home base. Defeat the dragons in combat afterward and you can recruit them, earning sturdier mounts with varied abilities.

While each level can be completed by collecting the required amount of loot and exiting as quickly as possible, more complexity is introduced when you engage wandering dragons in direct combat. They won't go down without a fight, and many will be too tough to knock out immediately, challenging players to land blows while dashing away to safety.

When you encounter an enemy who outclasses your current combat abilities, they'll give chase. It's here that the game's flight mechanics come to the forefront. Your dragon flies slowly when ascending, and speeds up when diving. Navigating through background foliage speeds up your flight, and quickly diving underwater can shake pursuers.

Floating landmasses in the distance provide the game's most interesting navigation mechanics. Your dragon sees an exponential boost in speed when skimming across a solid surface, and by repeatedly circling around a mid-air boulder, you can speed up and slingshot yourself out of harm's way. At its best moments, Free-Range Dragons feels like an intense aerial dogfight.

Spry Fox CCO Daniel Cook likens Free-Range Dragons' traversal mechanics to the 2D Sonic the Hedgehog games, in which Sonic gains speed by traveling through loops. Cook notes, however, that Sonic's speed was limited by level design, which would often interrupt the flow of play for platforming's sake. Free-Range Dragons, in contrast, largely puts speed and control in the player's hands, giving them the freedom to pursue and flee at will with little in the way of interruption from the surrounding environment.

While playing Free-Range Dragons, I was reminded of Honeyslug's recently released Hohokum, another game that revolves around freeform exploration within vividly colorful environments. While I felt that Hohokum was bogged down by its meandering gameplay, Free-Range Dragons is much more direct in its assigned objectives. A degree of structure helps this sort of experience, I feel; your character's flowing movement and satisfying traversal abilities maintain a sense of freedom within Free-Range Dragons' expansive but tightly directed worlds.

The PAX demo version of Free-Range Dragons is an early prototype, and to date, the team at Spry Fox has focused almost entirely on perfecting player movement mechanics before moving on to more complex elements. Even at its current stage, though, Free-Range Dragons' aerial navigation is nuanced and intriguing, and its dragon-collecting intricacies hint at a promising future.
[Images: Spry Fox]

This article was originally published on Joystiq.