Namco is a name that means a lot to me as a gamer. It touches me spiritually, almost. Not only is it the company that invented Pac-Man, Galaga and a monstrous slew of other hits during the golden days of the arcade, but it continues to be a vital, successful and influential force in the gaming scene today. Being responsible in large part for Sony's incredible 32-bit success, Namco brought hit after hit after hit to the Playstation, including such well-known institutions as the Tekken and Ridge Racer series, among others.
Possibly because of its phenomenal track record and unbeatable knack when it comes to games, Namco occasionally tested the waters with things a bit outside of the norm, and in general its been just as successful. The recently released puzzler Mr. Driller and the incredibly underrated Klonoa: Door To Phantomile are perfect examples of Namco's midas touch when it comes to games. However, nobody's perfect. Even the mightiest game company must eventually have a misstep every now and again, which unfortunately brings me to the embarrassingly bad piece of software known as Dragon Valor.
Dragon Valor is the most recently released title under the Namco banner, and as Alanis would say, it is most certainly a black fly in the PlayStation's chardonnay. Touted as an action-adventure title featuring combat against fierce dragons and an interesting twist as the hunt for the lizards continues through a series of family generations, it certainly sounds like a winner, doesn't it? Couple the solid idea with the shining Namco name, and how could you go wrong? That's exactly what I thought as I bought the title with virtually no other information and prepared to spend a few hours with a smile on my face. It didn't quite work out as I expected. My smile lasted about four minutes once I hit the power button.
I first had the feeling something had gone wrong when I was treated to the game's dismally unimaginative opening sequence and the equally insipid writing. Hmm, let's see, someone's family member is killed—check. A young hero swears to get revenge on the responsible party (a dragon)—check. A few sentences stating the hero's intent written on a fourth grade level—check. And I quote: "I'll get you, dragon, whatever it takes!!" How original.
Now I'll be the first to admit that some games just don't have a story as the strong point, and there's nothing really wrong with that. If there's a good base of gameplay and a lot of action to keep your hands busy, it's sunshine and joy all around. Yet Dragon Valor fails to deliver anything but the barest, most plagiaristic and uninspired experience possible. I would guess that the designers had "old school" in mind when they were at the drawing board, but old school to me doesn't mean mind-numbingly unsophisticated and repetitive to the point where you'd rather read the manual again or just stare at the cover art than play through one more level because you JUST CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE.
The game takes the "side-to-side beat-'em-up" genre and uses literally every cliché in the book. The levels are literally nothing more than walking from one end of an area to another, killing enemies along the way while pausing to collect coins and the odd powerup. It goes without saying that there's a boss at the end of every level, but you already saw that one coming. Occasionally there will be a jump or two involved during play, but basically that's all that you're asked to do as a gamer—simply push right on the d-pad, once in a while you'll have to push left, and then just hit the square button repeatedly.
To add insult to injury, not only is the gameplay on the most basic "slash-slash-slash-repeat" level, it's set at a pace approximate to a salted, eyeless snail trying to move through partially frozen molasses while carrying a full metric ton on the back of its shell—uphill. The game moves so slowly that it's completely unbearable for a game that's supposed to be focusing on action. There is a dash button which you'll end up holding down throughout the entire game (causing unnecessary muscle strain in your finger), but instead of actually making you dash, your character simply appears to run more emphatically while moving only fractionally faster.
While "fast" and " action" to appear to be incapable of existing in the game simultaneously with the game's corpselike pace, I must admit that your character does have a very healthy selection of moves—including several slashes, a few jumping attacks, some backflips and a super-move—so the potential for some serious actions is definitely there. Sadly, with such an able-bodied character, it just serves to put the spotlight on how incredibly sluggish the game is, and how little they ask of the player since you rarely need any of the moves besides the brain-dead button- mashing, square-square-square combo to emerge victorious.
While the game makes the intriguing claim that you'll battle dragons through several generations of your family, there's really no meat to this at all, and they don't even bother to explore the concept in any detail. The story does branch at certain parts of the game, and you'll make a choice between two possible partners through your actions, but regardless of who you pick to consummate with, your offspring plays exactly like the character you just had right down to having the exact same items, levels and abilities. In effect, the new character may look different, but there is absolutely no change to the play mechanics. It's one step above a pallette swap.
Proving the old saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" to be utterly true, the game proceeds to fix something which completely and sincerely did not need to be fixed—the shop/item interface. Not content to use the established system of shopping for items used in nearly every other game in existence, the system in Dragon Valor is outrageously lethargic and bordering on satanically torturous. When entering a shop, the shopkeeper will ask if you want to buy an item, and he'll ask you if you want to buy the first one in his inventory. He then goes on to explain what it is, and if you don't buy it he'll ask if you want to buy the second one and explain again. Throughout the entire process is crawling text which cannot be sped up and cannot be skipped if you intend to buy something. You simply can't pick and choose relevant items—you have to listen to him talk about each item in the order it appears, and God help you if you want to buy the last thing on the menu. Trying to think of a logical reason why people would replace something so useful for something so cumbersome, I could only suppose that the designers must have been making outrageous late-night bets with each other as to who could make the most egregious design decision possible without getting it cut from the game. Either that, or possibly the programmers themselves had never played a game in their lives and had no idea of the sheer hell they were inflicting on anyone unlucky enough to buy this game from a store without a good return policy.
A sad, unredeemable effort like Dragon Valor makes me wonder if they actually had compiled a checklist of every action game cliché created in the last 10 years and were checking them off one by one during the development process instead of actually sitting down and trying to create a game on their own. What new ideas was this game supposed to bring to the table? What new techniques? Why was the game published by Namco of all companies, or for that matter, why was it even brought to the United States? It's been a few years since I broke the addiction of needing to beat every game I play, and Dragon Valor is exactly the type of game which helped me shake the habit. Some games just don't deserve the time or effort.