Dragons in 4 shades of green
Genre: RPG, Adventure
Developer: Spacebot Interactive
Publisher: Spacebot Interactive
Release date: 12 Feb, 2021
The Game boy might not have been the very first hand held system with interchangeable games, that honour probably goes to the Microvision, which pre-dates the Game Boy by 10 years, but it was by far one of the most influential. And even to this day there are those who love the old grey brick, so much so that new games are still being made for it.
Dragonborne is one of those new Game Boy games, receiving both a physical release, and a digital one. This review will be for the steam release, but the game is also available as a rom that can be played in an emulator or through a flash cartridge and of course a physical cartridge that can be played on an original Game Boy. But how well does a game designed for hardware that was underpowered in 1989 play today?
Story & Setting
Your father has gone missing, and the Dragontooth bandits have taken this opportunity to attack the village. It’s up to you to stop the bandits and figure out where your father has gone.
That’s the start of Dragonborne. You’re a young boy who, after the disappearance of his father, has to go out on a grand adventure. But things are not quite as they seem at first, and it turns out that you have a special connection to the dragons. Normally a cliché plot like this would be a negative, but Dragonborne is a game that’s being intentionally retro, and Game boy games were not exactly known for their deep plots. If anything, Dragonborne has a slightly more involved plot than was the norm, but it still manages to capture the feel of the stories that were common on the system.
The setting is also not particularly well developed, which once more is true to its inspiration. The world you inhabit is a pretty typical fantasy world and the people you talk to don’t really hint at a greater setting, with most of the world building relating directly to the main plot. There are at least a few different looking areas with their own themes, like a forest or a mountain. Nothing ground breaking, but the areas feel distinct and like they’re able to tell their own stories.
Dragonborne gives a pretty good first impression. The title screen has a huge and impressive looking dragon head breathing fire across the screen. Impressive looking is of course a relative term, this is a Game Boy game after all, meaning that all graphics is made out of 4 shades of yellowish green. Once in game the graphics look a bit more humble, but fans of the graphics in games like Final Fantasy Legend will feel right at home here. The overworld character sprites look like something that might well be from that game, with their huge heads and small bodies. It’s actually pretty impressive how such simple sprites can manage to convey so much personality. The rest of the world also looks pretty good, for a Game Boy game, with objects and ground tiles being detailed enough without giving a cluttered appearance.
In combat the game takes on a look more akin to the original Pokémon, with you seeing your characters back on the left side of the screen, while a big and impressive enemy sprite takes up the right side. These enemy sprites are quite detailed and varied, and makes encountering new enemies something to look forward to.
The music on the other hand is not the best the system has to offer. This is not a Batman or a Trip World by any means, and it can sometimes sound a bit shrill. Some songs are pleasant to listen to, others can be annoying in the long run. Overall though, it’s at least above average.
At first glance Dragonborne might look like a pretty typical JRPG from the era. You’ve got towns to visit, enemies to fight, puzzles to solve and so on. All the usual stuff. But something is missing. You’re not gaining any experience from defeating enemies nor do you level up.
Dragonborne is in fact more akin to an adventure game than a traditional JRPG, but it still has turnbased combat. As you progress through the game you’ll get new items that you use to get past obstacles, and you need to solve some simple puzzles. The game world starts relatively small and then as you find the tools to bypass certain obstacles it expands more and more.
The puzzles themselves are of the simpler kind, though with the hardware this game is working with that is understandable. Many boil down to simple block moving puzzles, where you need to move block into the right position, or more trial and error-style puzzles where you’ve got a set of switches and need to find the right combination that opens the way. And there’s also some trading chains, where you start with one item, trade it with an NPC to get another item, then trade that item to yet another NPC to get yet another item, and finally use that to get the item you really need. The puzzles in Dragonborne are frankly not very good. Particularly not the trial and error puzzles. The number of possible combinations in these are manageable, but it’s not really fun to just try different combinations until you find the right one.
Combat is another area where Dragonborne does not do too well. Combat is turnbased, your character against a single enemy, and whoever reaches 0 HP first loses. In combat you’ve got the options of either attacking, using magic, using a weapon or using a potion. It takes a pretty long time before you even have access to magic or weapons though, and before that all you’ll really do is try to race the enemy down to 0 HP and use healing items when needed. There’s hardly any strategy involved, at best you might take the risk of waiting with using a healing item in the hope that the enemy will use a weaker attack next. But even after magic and weapons become available combat never becomes particularly deep and it still mostly boils down to if you have enough potions to survive.
Luckily dead enemies stay dead, and if you die you wake up back at your starting place, so death is just a minor setback. As most enemies are pretty strong for being basic enemies in a game like this it’s easy to die even against enemies early on, and they don’t get much tougher later on. Bosses are of course an exception here, so be prepared to spend a few healing items on those, but even doing two basic “trash” enemies in a row might be tricky.
Money is pretty easy to come by. Most, but not all, enemies drop a few coins, and you can also fish or do a mini-game in order to try and get more money. Money can then be spent on more healing items which in turn means that you don’t need to run back from the start after every second fight. Combat is really not the best way to earn money, as there’s a limited number of enemies you can fight and you’ll be spending more on healing items than you’ll earn from fighting.
There’s no in-game option for changing the controls and the controls are only using the keyboard. If you want to use a gamepad, or just don’t like the default controls, you’ll have to use an external program, like JoyToKey, in order to make that possible. The game is not reliant on precise input, but some kind of controller configuration utility would have been good. And on a related note, the game also does not full-screen, the best you can get is a maximized window.
Playing Dragonborne on PC really highlights what a difference the system you’re playing it on can make. Had I’ve been playing this on a Game Boy, chances are I would not have been nearly as harsh on it, though I still think it has a few flaws that would stop it from being a top tier Game Boy game. It’s far tougher to recommend it as a PC game though. Unless you really love the Game Boy aesthetic there’s simply better options out there.
The biggest issue with Dragonborne is its combat, of which there’s sadly a lot. There’s not much in the way of tactical choices in this games combat, you just hit the enemy until your HP gets low and then you use a healing potion. Rinse and repeat. Sometimes you might need to spend a healing potion to remove a status effect. And this is made worse by the lack of any experience system. At least in Final Fantasy it feels like you’re making progress when you’re fighting, as your characters grow stronger, even if the combat itself might be repetitive. Here it just feels like it’s wasting your time.
But there’s nothing in here to really make up for that flaw. The story is more than acceptable for a Game Boy game but it’s not the best the system has to offer, and even less so on PC, the puzzles are a bit lackluster and while the art is pretty good it’s not enough to carry the game. If you’re buying the rom directly from the developer and using a flash cartridge then you can bump up the score to a “save for later”, but unless you’re just starved for something that captures the feel of the original Game Boy, then there’s no good reason to pick this up on PC. There are simply too many better games out there.