Dragon Force was not the first game I ever played, nor was it the game that got me into my favorite genre of games. But it was the first game that I found myself playing for hours on end – losing track of time, forgetting to eat, putting off sleep, ignoring friends and schoolwork alike. If that’s not a defining game for a “hardcore gamer,” I don’t know what is.
I had been gaming for as long as I can remember. I owned an Atari 7800, neighborhood friends who had an NES allowed me to play Mario, and my brother at one point had a TurboGrafx-16 – which gave me access to more off the wall games. The first system I personally owned was a SEGA Genesis, which served my fanboy-ism for years to come, as afterward I went on to own a Game Gear, a Dreamcast and a Saturn, which to this day is my favorite console of all time.
Needless to say, I had a varied exposure to games and gaming up to that point, and developed a love of RPG’s, which was funny as the SEGA systems were not known at the time for that genre, since the big names like Squaresoft and Enix published mostly for other consoles. Not to say there were no good RPG’s, because there were; it was just a little more tricky to find them.
Since I didn’t own a PS1 at its height of popularity, I missed out on playing Final Fantasy VII myself; though I was able to watch as my friends who did own the console became engrossed. So I was elated to hear there was a PC port of the game so that I could finally sink my teeth into it. Being new to PC gaming, I was hesitant to spend the money on the port, as I wasn’t sure my computer was capable of playing it. So as a solution, my dad (who I have realized later in life did a lot of my video game scouting) found a local video store that happened to rent games – even PC games – and happened to have a copy. So we went and rented it to give it a go.
As I said, it was the early days of PC gaming, so I did not realize they only gave me the game disks and not the install disks. I was quite unhappy when I couldn’t even get the game to install so we headed back to the store to tell them it didn’t work. They gave me a free game rental to make up for it. At this time I wished I had a PS1 instead of a Saturn so I could play an RPG. My dad suggested a game he saw on the Saturn section titled Dragon Force. I looked at it and thought it wasn’t a typical turn based RPG but I didn’t have any other options so I took it.
On the way home, I browsed the manual to learn as much about the game as I could before I started playing it. When I started up the game, I couldn’t really make heads or tails as the style of game play seemed so foreign to me. But once I started to get the hang of it, I noticed more and more time slipping away into the game. Each time I turned the system on, I played it for longer and longer, without realizing how much time I had actually spent.
Dragon Force is a title that few are familiar with, so I will do my best to explain its mechanics and appeal. Starting off, you have access to 6 out of 8 monarchs. The last two are only playable after you have a save file with a completed game. Each monarch starts with four generals that can be Knights, Priests, Shamans, Thieves, Samurai and several others, with their own strengths, weaknesses, and inherent abilities. Each monarch also starts on a different section of the world map, which can make for an easier or harder game depending on how many fronts you have to protect, as all the other monarchs will be against you for control of the map.
Battles are a very interesting thing, as your monarch and generals can engage in large scale epic fights as they control their army. Each officer can control up to 100 troops of various types ranging from soldiers, cavalry, archers, and the less traditional beastmen, zombies and dragons. They each have strong points and weaknesses against other troop types. The most common example is, dragons are strong against every troop type, but samurai can cut through them like a hot knife through butter. Officers themselves cannot move but with enough energy and MP they can use special attacks that can affect the enemy troops, officer or everyone.
Battles take place all over the world map. Changes in terrain can affect certain troop types and can change the flow of battle. Where you thought you had the advantage in troop type, the terrain can flip the odds in your opponent’s favor. If a battle takes place in a castle, the level of the castle can add massive defense bonuses to the troops inside, making it difficult to lay siege to a high level castle. Strategy is a very fluid but key point of success.
The art style and music help to flesh out this fantasy world. The character sprites can be repetitive as most are just recolors of the base class, and troops all pretty much look the same except for, similarly, the recolors. The core story for each monarch is told though the use of still images and text, though even those are few and far between. There is a FMV sequence or two, but nothing remarkable or even competitive for the era. However, the music is quite amazing – each monarch has their own unique theme which admittedly can become monotonous – but the battle theme changes depending on the location of the battle, which is the bulk of the game play, so there is some variation.
The story is a bit difficult to describe as it is slightly different depending on the monarch you choose. It then becomes their focus as well as gives you their back story relating to this world. The two un-lockable monarchs have a drastically different story, as they have insight as to whats really going on and the things you learn in a first play-through. The ending is the same no matter who you choose so there is no requirement for multiple play-throughs to obtain a specific ending.
Multiple play-throughs are surprisingly fun, as the number of variables in stats and the somewhat unpredictable nature of the AI makes no two games the same. There is always change, as in one game it’s possible your enemies may recruit a powerful general, making it hard to take over their primary defenses, or the exact opposite can occur, and you can gain access to powerful troop types early on and make short work of your enemies. So while there is no story related aspect that prompts playing the game over and over again as seen in some modern titles for a specific ending or scene, the game encourages playing again and again for a unique game experience.
That’s why it has stuck with me for all these years – because no matter how many times I play it, I can learn a new strategy, or get a new general, or find something that I just didn’t know before. Every year I will pick it up and play it again, and each time it feels like I have played it again for the first time. The only difference is that each time I lose fewer and fewer battles, but they are by no means easier.
There was a sequel released in Japan which sadly never saw an English release. There was also a PS2 remake made as a part of the SEGA classics collection that was given new artwork for the character portraits and the stills showing the story sections, which also never had an English release. I do hope that given the recent re-release of Nights into Dreams and Guardian Heroes that at least the PS2 remake could surface to allow modern gamers a chance to explore that unique tactical experience, as it would be a shame to lose this to the annals of history.