Outdated but not outclassed
Part of the appeal of Dungeons and Dragons (the table top RPG) is that it takes you out of the modern day of 24 hour news cycles and constant connection to everyone everywhere through multiple simultaneous internet portals. It takes you to a place of pen, paper, monsters and real human to human socialization. Appropriately enough, Capcom's re-release of these two Dungeons and Dragons games also work to take you back to bygone era -- the arcade era, a time that was also focused on the tactile and "irl" interactions.
Though there are plenty of coin gobbling design choices here that simply don't make sense for today's consoles, they still offer some of the best opportunities possible to escape into the medieval world of the 90s.
Dungeons and Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara (PC, PlayStation 3 [reviewed], Wii U, Xbox 360)
Dungeons and Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara features two similar games, Dungeons and Dragons:Shadow Over Mystara and its predecessor Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom. is the ultimate evolution of the Capcom beat 'em up. Along with Battle Circuit, it stands as one of the final iterations of the Final Fight design. There are even Holly Wood-style jerks that run on screen, throw a bombs at your face, and run away (a Final Fight trademark troll post). Captain Commando, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, and The Punisher (co-starring Nick Fury) were all building up to this.
It was released in a time when the competitive fighting game had all but replaced the cooperative combat genre as the biggest money maker in the industry. Shadow Over Mystara acknowledges that by incorporating a few Street Fighter-style moves into the controls, while never shying from its Dungeons and Dragons namesake. Choose one of 6 well-balanced character classes (Warrior, Dwarf, Cleric, Elf, Magic User, Thief), team up with up to 3 other party members (local co-op or online), fight a large variety of enemies (Manticores, Kobolds, Displacer Beasts, etc), gain experience, abilities, and loot, repeat.
The fighting system is fairly simple (no 50 hit Guardian Heroes-style combos here), but there are plenty of different moves to utilize (slide, dash, dodge, block, shoryuken, etc) and character specific moves (Theif can steal, Magic User has specific spells, Cleric can turn undead, etc) to master. If you just jump right in without reading the manual, you'll definitely miss a lot of the specifics on what each character can do. There are also plenty of random (sometimes hidden) items to find that have abilities and attributes all their own (like the Dragon Slayer Sword. Still can't find that one).
The game takes about two hours to get through on the first try, with multiple branching paths, shops, and plenty of little secrets to enjoy as you go. No two games of Shadow Over Mystara ever have to be exactly the same. You can even shrink down to the size of a pixie if you play your cards right. That said, a lot of levels are mandatory on each run, so if you don't enjoy bashing the same Owlbears in the face over and over again, then you may get a case of the grumbles after the 3rd or 4th replay.
The art and music are among the finest in the genre. It's a decidedly different style than you often find in beat 'em ups today. It's clear that Capcom spared no expense on the visuals, with highly detailed individual sprites and traditional yet vibrant character designs. It's the tech of the time that holds the game back, limiting how many frames of animation could be stored in the RAM. The giant boss at the end looks particularly stiff by today's standards. It's interesting contrast to the visual style we see in most beat 'em ups today, where the only things limiting the graphics are the time, budget, and skill of the artists creating them.
It's also interesting to experience just how much less fun it is to play an arcade game of this type in on today's consoles, where replays are endless and success is inevitable for all who choose to persevere. All coin-enabled continue arcade games suffer from this problem when ported on home consoles. The only way to try to remedy the issue is to limit continues (which is more annoying that anything else), or to actually charge you per continue via in-game purchases with real money (which would be extremely disrespectful to the player). These games were designed to be exciting and stressful because in-game mistakes meant actual financial losses. Take that out of the equation and it feels like God-mode is always on.
Capcom added a loot/achievement hunting metagame to try and keep players engaged. There are tons of unlockables (like original D&D monster art and a bonus survival mode) that you can only score by collecting in-game experience. There's also some encouragement to collect every item (which is something that will require exploration upon multiple replays to achieve), coupled with online online leaderboards. None of these things change the core game in any way, but they may work to sway you into jumping back into the fray for one more play when you might have otherwise felt like hanging up your sword.
Oops, almost forgot to talk about Tower of Doom! There is almost no need to play this game when you have Shadow Over Mystara on hand. It's got fewer playable characters, is slower, has a worse UI, and is generally less fun. It has a few unique traits that make it worth checking out once, but it looks pretty unappealing in the "shadow" of its superior sequel.
Still, Chronicles of Mystara is worth the purchase for any fans of beautiful sprite-based artwork or classic beat 'em ups. Its only flaws come from the technical limitations of its time and the design decisions that defined the arcade era. Gauntlet, Golden Axe, and Cadash all suffer from similar issues. Thankfully, Shadow Over Mystara trounces them all. It's the king of D&D-themed arcade action games, and should be respected as such.
THE VERDICT - Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara
Reviewed by Jonathan Holmes