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Gotta tame 'em all: Dragon's Prophet open beta impressions


Ever since SOE announced its latest free-to-play MMORPG, Dragon's Prophet, it's been clear that the game aimed to break some molds. Eschewing the commonplace tab-target combat system, Dragon's Prophet looks to meld action-packed brawler-style combat with the completionist's paradise (or nightmare, depending on your perspective) of Pokemon-esque creature collection, and in fact the whole game hinges on this somewhat strange combination.

I recently set out to spend some time with the game's "open beta" (read: soft launch) to see whether that combination is more peanut butter and jelly or toothpaste and orange juice. I found that, while the game is full of fun times, it gets bogged down by a few issues and ultimately becomes an exercise in "how much are you willing to put up with?"

The game's UI is smooth and functional but occasionally fidgety. Unfortunately, it can't be extensively customized, though it is possible to rearrange window positions (though I haven't been able to move the unit frames from their default positions). You have a hotbar of abilities (bound to Q, E, R, V, and the number keys by default), a quest log, unit frames, a minimap, the usual. Escape opens up the menu and enables cursor mode, but frustratingly, moving automatically closes any open windows, so if you want to keep your map open while you run or inspect your inventory on the go, you're out of luck. Other than that, though, the UI is largely very user-friendly and well designed.

I'm quite attached to my small luxuries, and thankfully Dragon's Prophet delivers on that front. There's a built-in bag sorting button, a button to extract resources from multiple items at once (more on that later), a number of inventory sorting filters, and so on. On the whole, the UI feels remarkably polished. I just wish I could say that about the rest of the game.

The graphics are decidedly mediocre, but in some weird way, they remind me a little bit of Dark Souls, so I've decided that I'm OK with it. Your mileage may vary, though. The textures can be a bit on the muddy side, and the animation quality varies wildly. For the most part, the combat animations seem to be flashy and smooth, while others, such as some dragons' flight animations, are borderline comical.

Screenshot -- Dragon's ProphetMake no mistake: Dragons are the name of the game, both literally and figuratively. Players who are susceptible to the "gotta catch 'em all" itch (such as yours truly) will find a lot of joy in hunting down and taming the many varieties of dragon that inhabit the game world. Of course, dragons aren't just for collecting. They're also used as transportation, and the winged species can even fly. They're not the same kind of free-roaming flying mounts players might be used to, and they can fly only so high (so as not to escape the bounds of the remarkably linear world), but being able to fly over groups of enemies is still mighty convenient.

Your dragons can also assist you in battle, and you can take them to the stables to train their abilities. Stabled dragons can also be given assignments to gather crafting materials or train their skills while their master is away, so players could set a schedule for their dragons at the beginning of the day and come home to a nice load of resources in the evening. Unfortunately, the number of spots in the dragon stable is quite limited, and I didn't notice any way of unlocking additional slots besides spending Station Cash, though I'd really like to be proven wrong on that. It could be that players automatically unlock more slots as they level up, but I'm not a remarkably high level yet so I can't say for sure.

Since this is a themepark MMO, that means there must be quests, and Dragon's Prophet has plenty of those. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about Dragon's Prophet's questing experience. It almost feels as if it's working against itself. On one hand, it's doing everything it can to make questing as pain-free as possible. All quest locations are clearly marked on your map, and individual quest objectives even show up as blips on your minimap, so you know exactly what to kill and gather at a glance. But on the other hand, the quests themselves are pretty awful.

So. Many. Quests.Dragon's Prophet's quests are of the time-worn go-here, kill-this, fetch-that variety, but I can deal with that on its own. The issue is the sheer frequency with which the game's quests send you to the same location multiple times, often with the same objective. "Go to Skull Cave and kill five wolfmen," the questgiver tells me. When I return, battered and bloodied, he says, "Oh, I forgot, those wolfmen are carrying something I need. Could you go kill more and get it for me?" After a few minutes of swinging my scythe at him -- to no effect, unfortunately -- I have no choice but to trudge back and do it all again.

Lastly, all of those issues are compounded by the fact that, at least in the case of the area in which I chose to start, the questing path is remarkably linear, and it's reflected in the world itself. During almost the entirety of my time in the game so far, I've been running down a single path, blocked on both sides by massive rock walls that my dragon can't fly over. I'm hoping this changes at later levels because so far Dragon's Prophet's world hasn't felt very open at all.

Thankfully for Dragon's Prophet, the game's combat is almost good enough to make me not care about repetitive quests and linear paths, but it's still not perfect. The game takes a page out of TERA's playbook for its combat system, but with a few tweaks. Players attack with the left and right mouse buttons and execute abilities or use items with their keybinds of choice; they dodge by pressing the shift key and a directional key. It's a fairly standard setup.

What makes Dragon's Prophet's combat interesting is the combo system in which the use of certain abilities enables the player to execute a combo by pressing the appropriate keys. For instance, pressing the E key by itself might just execute an ability that knocks an enemy into the air. But if you press E, followed by LMB, and E again, you'll knock your enemies into the air, jump up after them to deliver a few blows, then finish up with a big AoE attack.

Screenshot -- Dragon's Prophet
More interesting still is that combos can, to an extent, be woven together. In my last example, I could instead execute the first two attacks of the combo by pressing E followed by LMB. After that, though, I can execute a different ability -- bound to R, let's say -- and its associated combo, and if I'm quick enough, I can then execute the final AoE ability of the first combo. It's a bit hard to explain in text, but it flows surprisingly well in-game.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of flaws that bog down the otherwise enjoyable combat. The game's collision detection can be a bit on the fickle side, and I sometimes found my attacks not registering even though my attack was clearly on the target's hitbox. Enemies also frequently fall through the ground, run through walls, and generally do all they can to annoy the hell out of you.

This isn't helped by the fact that enemy pathfinding is often so bafflingly stupid that it circles around to genius. I can't tell you how many big attacks I missed on enemies who, upon reaching me, decided to keep on running around in erratic patterns, though clearly not as a result of any kind of advanced AI. On top of all that, the camera is incredibly fidgety; fighting in tightly enclosed spaces is incredibly difficult because of it.

Screenshot -- Dragon's ProphetThough questing, combat, and dragon-collecting certainly make up the bulk of Dragon's Prophet, the game also features some requisite non-combat activities such as crafting, which is decidedly shaped from the gather-materials-and-press-craft mold. Players can also upgrade their weapons and armor, and when I saw that, it made my heart sink a little bit. Generally, equipment upgrades in free-to-play MMOs come with a chance of failure that can often be nullified through a purchase from the item shop, and while that remains true for Dragon's Prophet, I was relieved to discover that the failure-chance-reducing items can also be acquired by breaking down pieces of equipment using the extraction process. In fact, the item shop doesn't seem to scream "pay-to-win." There are your standard XP boosts, inventory upgrades, and a variety of luxury items, but nothing blatantly imbalancing.

Ultimately, I walked away from my time spent with Dragon's Prophet feeling positive, if not exactly emphatically so. The game definitely suffers from a lack of polish, but the game itself isn't all that bad. If you're a big fan of the monster collection game, Dragon's Prophet is probably one of the best ways to scratch that itch in MMO form. The combat system is refreshing insofar as it actually requires a modicum of focus and quick thinking rather than the monotonous rotation-spam style of combat that many modern MMOS embrace, but again, the lack of polish tarnishes what would otherwise be a shining feature of the game. And if the devs decide to continue polishing the game post-launch, as any studio worth its salt should, Dragon's Prophet could attract a dedicated niche of fans.

After all, the pet-collection-and-training style of game is rather underrepresented in MMO space. But as it stands, the game is free (though as with most free-to-play titles, you're probably going to have to cough up a few bucks if you want to really experience all the game has to offer), and in my opinion it's at least worth the download even though it didn't exactly hook me. But hey, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

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