(Xbox 360 Review) Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara

Developer: Iron Galaxy
Publisher: Capcom
Genre: Action / Beat 'Em Up
Players: 1-4
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 8 = Excellent

Capcom was one of the premier beat-‘em-up developers throughout the 1990s. Two of their more popular titles that never received a console release stateside were brawlers based on the Dungeons & Dragons license: 1993’s Tower of Doom and 1996’s Shadow over Mystara. The only way gamers have been able to enjoy them at home up until now has been by having an import copy of a two-disc set released in 1999 for the Sega Saturn, Dungeons & Dragons Collection. As part of their continued efforts to update their extensive catalog of titles for digital release, Capcom has finally released both games in North America as part of one pack, Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara.

News about Chronicles of Mystara‘s impending console release was undoubtedly welcomed by fans of beat ‘em ups. For years now, the only way to try the D&D-flavored side-scrolling brawlers was by plunking down for the Sega Saturn version, which could easily run into the triple digits, or by finding one of the very rare cabinets left in one of the few arcades still operating. Both titles have remained in demand not only because of rarity or novelty but because they were both well ahead of their time. Unlike most other beat ‘em ups, Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara are far from the linear button-bashers that dominate the genre. Instead, players are able to equip special gear, visit shops, utilize several types of secondary weapons, level up their character, and choose where they want to go in a branching campaign. The variety on offer has only been bested once, and that is by Treasure’s genre-defining classic Guardian Heroes.

Despite Shadow of Mystara being a direct sequel to Tower of Doom, it isn’t absolutely necessary to play the original in order to enjoy the sequel’s more refined adventure, but I definitely recommend it. The primary reason is because the games are rather lackadaisical about their combat systems, even though both are surprisingly involved. The collection does have a How to Play section, but it can only do so much with games that have such unique control schemes. To get the most out of both titles, it’s best to start with the first in order to get the hang of things before tackling the even more involved sequel. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Tower of Doom is still pretty charming.

As the cleric, dwarf, elf, or fighter, players will answer the call of the populace in order to drive monsters from towns, save caravans, and eventually aid the local lord in ridding the land of evil for good. Each character has access to a standard attack, a crouched attack, a counter, a block, a backwards evasive roll, a forwards evasive slide, and numerous supplementary attacks: a knockdown heavy attack, an air attack, a rush attack, and a dash attack. Secondary weapons can also be held in each character’s inventory, including a bow as well as daggers for horizontal long-range attacks, explosive bottles of oil, and hammers that bounce off the ground and stun enemies. Loot can also give the characters access to special abilities not normally associated with their class, such as a fire ring that allows the fighter to blast off a fireball. Each class has traits that have to be accommodated for as well, such as the dwarf’s inability to use magic and the elf’s lower life meter. The trickiest part isn’t coming to grips with each class’ quirks but the control system, which uses four buttons for everything. This cumbersome approach is a byproduct of the game’s arcade heritage, but I would’ve really liked for the extra controller buttons to have been opened up for assignment. Take the attack button, for example, which also picks up items and also doubles as block (the shield is drawn whenever the button and back on the direction pad are held down). This results in moments when the character picks an item up instead of attacking an enemy or taking too long to draw their shield. Crouch also uses the same button as jump, which can lead to some serious screw-ups when the action gets hectic. It’s a slippery system to come to terms with, but it offers a lot of tactical possibilities for those that put in the time to practice. Tower of Doom features the same branching system and simple leveling mechanics as its successor, but with fewer selectable classes and enemy types, it serves as a great way for players to hone their skills before trying their hand at Shadow over Mystara. The adventure is worth trying in its own right, offering some great locales and solid medieval-styled brawling action.

Shadow of Mystara is a textbook case of a how a sequel should be. The game not only adds new locations and enemies, but it also adds two new classes (the magic user and the thief) and four new moves. As mentioned, players jumping feet first into Shadow of Mystara are really doing themselves a disservice because Tower of Doom provides such a great foundation for learning the core mechanics. All of the moves save one are back for the follow-up—the rush attack was lost as characters now stay crouched—plus a new two-hit knockdown attack, a life-draining desperate attack (except for the magic user), a crescent attack that lunges forward and strikes multiple targets, and an aerial attack that launches enemies into the air. Unfortunately, the game uses the same four-button scheme as the original, which means that there is an even greater chance of whiffing a move. The 360’s weak directional pad does neither game any favors, either. After some time, though, the new moves become essential elements in the player’s arsenal against the nefarious evils of Mystara. In addition to lusher visuals and more varied settings, the design is a bit more devilish as well, with more booby-trapped areas and enemies that are only weak against certain classes. I also especially enjoyed the ending working in each player’s name for the characters’ various sendoffs, offering a satisfying cap to a perilous journey.

For those who prefer to face the dangers with allies at their side, multiplayer is supported for up to four players locally or online. The drop-in/drop-out function works well and kept games going even when players headed out, though having four characters all sort through their inventories, rush for loot, and haggle at town shops did make things a bit chaotic. Then again, arcades were chaotic.

Gamers familiar with some of Capcom’s recent updated re-releases, such as Darkstalkers Resurrection and Marvel vs. Capcom Origins, will have a good idea as to what kind of extras are available in Chronicles of Mystara. Iron Galaxy, the same studio behind Resurrection and Origins, developed Chronicles of Mystara, and it features a similar suite of customization options and bonuses. The latter are unlocked in the Vault by using Vault Points earned throughout both titles by meeting set Challenges, such as felling a certain number of the same enemy type or hitting a set number of enemies with the same long-range weapon.

Challenges pop up throughout play and are easy to achieve, though even the tougher ones are worth the effort because of some really good unlockables: scans of old advertisements and Capcom company newsletters, concept art, and an array of customization options known as House Rules. House Rules allow players to switch up the rules of the games for new challenges and opportunities, from having health replenish each time an enemy is hit to all treasures chests opening without the need of a key. The most interesting of these modes is Enemy Rush, which starts a countdown timer at 30 seconds and requires players to kill enemies in order to earn more time. There is also an assortment of video settings, with options to stretch the image, add scan lines for a look more akin to an older monitor, and the ability to customize the setting by placing the video in an arcade cabinet.

Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara offers gamers two great beat ‘em ups that feature robust combat systems, branching campaigns, and a plethora of extras. While the games are enjoyable solo, multiplayer keeps the old arcade feel alive with local and online play with drop-in/drop-out support for up to four players. The control scheme is one of the more cumbersome that I’ve experienced in the genre, with several buttons having to pull off multiple functions, which isn’t always easy when the action flares up and enemies closing in from are all around. After a few practice sessions, though, the moves become easier to pull off, and the games’ forward-thinking design begins to shine through—that’s when things really get good.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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