Let Sleeping Dragons Lie

HIGH Lovely presentation reminiscent of a high-quality Game Boy game.  

LOW Combat is unintuitive, and at times unnecessary.

WTF: I can’t believe I used to think 8-bit music in headphones was pleasant.

I have incredibly fond memories of my Game BoyIt was a revolutionary handheld system, and titles such as Pokémon Red/Blue and Donkey Kong shaped my gaming tastes.

That was 1997. We’ve learned a lot about how to mold videogames since then, and almost every title developed for that console fails to hold up in 2021. Spacebot Interactive’s Dragonborne aims to take players back to their childhood with a nostalgic modern-day Game Boy RPG, and tf their goal was to create a game that would have been enjoyed in the ’90s, they’ve succeeded. However, Dragonborne is a faux relic from times past that hasn’t learned anything from twenty-five years of mechanical advancement.

Dragonborne opens with a mysterious cutscene depicting a dragon waking up and flying away. Focus then shifts to the hero, Kris, and his quest to find his missing father who is presumably attempting to tame this dragon. Along the way, Kris will explore towns, fight enemies, and solve puzzles in a top-down style.

The game looks lovely and evokes the same graphical and musical styles of a Game Boy titleEnemy sprites are detailed, lively and menacing, and towns are bustling with NPCs to interact with. They’re rather unmemorable, though — NPCs mostly spew generic RPG rhetoric in often difficult-to-read text boxes. There might be an occasional valuable hint, but the vast majority seems like non-vital filler taking up space.

There is a decent amount of world to explore, but progression is commonly halted by unintuitive rock-pushing puzzles and fetchquests. Backtracking is also a major issue — it’s commonly required for Kris to head back to previous towns on the other side of the map just to give someone their lost cat so he can continue his journey.

Those things are annoyances, but my real qualm with Dragonborne is combat. Battles are initiated when Kris runs into an enemy in the overworld, taking him into a turn-based battle scheme that any Pokémon fan would immediately recognize.

Kris has four menu options — attack, items, magic, and special attack. However, magic and special attacks are not available until far too late into the game, and most of them don’t alter play in significant ways. In fact, the first magic attack I received did less damage than my normal attack. So, for most of Dragonborne the only option is to swipe away with Kris’s spear and heal when health gets low.

Speaking of healing, there are three — a regular potion healing eight HP, a big healing potion healing 12, and a super healing spell which fully restores. The problem? Kris doesn’t have HP, he only has a health bar with no numerical value, so unless Kris is using a full heal, it’s a guessing game as to how much he will recover.

Dragonborne has no leveling system or stats for Kris’s attack and defense. So what’s the reward for vanquishing foes? Coins.

With coins Kris can purchase more healing potions, but if Kris doesn’t get stronger from combat and the only reason to fight common enemies is to get potions to heal the damage taken from those encounters, why even battle at all? Once I had this realization, I avoided normal enemy encounters and only fought bosses, for which I was rarely underprepared. Dragonborne’s core gameplay is combat, but it’s not only mechanically underwhelming, it’s ultimately unnecessary.

After finishing my playthrough, I thought I might be being too harsh on Dragonborne — this is supposed to be a Game Boy title, so of course it would feel antiquated. The thought then occurred to me to compare it to some other RPGs of the ’80s and ’90s, so I watched gameplay from the original Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and Pokémon titles. While all three seem archaic by today’s standards, they have far more intuitive, engaging, and multi-dimensional battle systems than Dragonborne, and vastly stronger motivations to make progress.

I’m fine with the fact that Dragonborne is a throwback RPG, and in that sense it’s a lovely tribute to a classic console. What I am not fine with is the lack of meaningful combat and character-building. This title would have been barely satisfactory in 1997, and players looking for similar retro-themed experiences today have a wealth of better options.

Rating: 3 out of 10

— Alex Prakken

Disclosures: This game was developed and published by Spacebot Interactive, and is available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained from the publisher and reviewed on PC. The main campaign was completed in 7 hours. There is no multiplayer.

Parents: At the time of review, this game has no rating. There is non-graphic combat against fantasy monsters and some slightly scary-looking trolls and goblins, but I see no reason why this game would not be suitable for all ages.

Colorblind Modes: No Colorblind mode is available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game is fully subtitled, though the text cannot be resized and is difficult to read at times. Sound is not required for progression.

Remappable Controls: Controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. The controls are:

A = B button

S = A Button

Shift = Select button

Enter = Start button

Directional arrows control Kris

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