Sometimes, almost does count.
You can’t wander too far through the App store without stumbling over a clone. Quite a few games claim to pay homage to their sources of inspiration, but many use this as an excuse to outright steal from other games. Dragon Quest: Monsters is a game that has been accused of being a Pokemon clone. At the time of its release, DQM did just enough right and added just enough to the Pokemon formula to stand out. I quite enjoyed DQM, and my opinions on Dragon Island are almost unavoidably similar. Dragon Island: Blue takes from both Dragon Quest: Monsters and Pokemon (Blue), right down to the naming convention, but still manages to shine as its own unique experience.
You play a monster breeder in search of his father. The story didn’t do much for me, and definitely seems to exist in service of the mechanics. The driving factor here is that of every monster collection title: catch them all, and be the very best.
Much like in Pokemon, one starts the game by choosing a single dragon hatchling from a choice of three. After a brief set of tutorial quests, you are thrust into the world without much guidance. At the outset the map isn’t restricted physically like most titles of this kind (there’s no need to wake a sleeping Snorlax, or unlock a new Warp Gate). Instead, the game restricts the players by placing horrifyingly difficult opponents in areas where the player isn’t ready to venture. This is where the monster catching and training kick in.
As much as I hate the “grind” associated with fighting and catching enough monsters in the hopes of building a strong enough team in most monster collection titles, Dragon Island strips these mechanics down to their roots. The administrative side of monster raising is all available within towns. Quests are given out in a quest hub in each town. There’s no choosing between quests, you take the next one the guild member gives you. Arranging your party of monsters is handled in town, adding skill points to your hero is managed in town, even in-app-purchases are sold in town. Movement on the world map and in dungeons is handled by tapping the desired node, and the player’s avatar scoots to that point without taking time to animate. Battles are snappy, reviving in town after a party wipe takes seconds, and even breeding monsters doesn’t require a wait time.
The battle system itself is Pokemon’s, the only exception being that the use of monsters’ abilities is not governed by a limited amount of resource points. Instead, turns in battle are dictated by the amount of time points each move expends. This means more powerful moves will require the player to wait longer to attack again. Bear in mind, this is all within the course of a 30 second long battle. Picking a move is more of a tactical decision than one that will force you to wait any significant time. Monsters have elemental strengths and weaknesses (thanks Pokemon) which can be confusing at first if only because of the colored monster names in battle.
Dragon Island certainly goes out of its way to lay everything on the table, and make it as easy for the player as possible to “grind” for experience, but to what end? Is it really a convenience to the player if it is being made easier for them to fight repetitive battles? After all of the concessions the game makes, it still takes quite some time to level up one’s team and evolve their monsters. Dragon Island makes apparent the problem at the heart of monster collection games: the sense of progress is conveyed through repetition and the steady accrual of experience points. The player will always have the sense that there are just too many monsters to fully level, and the knowledge that this problem can be solved by investing more time.
This requirement of time seems innocent enough in most games, but when this time is easily purchased within the app… let’s just say that in-app-purchases muddy the waters of the traditional Japanese Role Playing Game system. In games where the player’s time is the largest investment, and not their dedication to learning a system or mastering a skill, it is extremely easy to put this commodity behind a pay wall.
Thankfully, Dragon Island only skirts the edges of this imaginary line between acceptable and unacceptable IAP. I don’t feel compelled to purchase any of the game’s IAP offerings, but that may just be my cheap Indian upbringing. It is also the fact that Dragon Island is constantly feeding the player new monsters, new quests, new challenges, new breeder levels, etc. There is usually something new to do or somewhere new to explore, and while you’re there, you get experience.
The bulk of the effort in Dragon Island was clearly spent in developing the game’s monsters. The developer has presented the player with a unique blend of visually and thematically interesting monsters to capture and evolve. Breeding monsters to make new monsters has the same evocative draw as it did in Dragon Warrior Monsters, and seeing the artwork for each newly-bred monster is a reward in its own. Character portraits and especially background artwork in battle are fantastic, if unfortunately static. This visual diversity, along with some minor diversity in monster abilities, and of course the need to see what comes next is what pulled me through Dragon Island. My favorite monster so far has to be Baby Nessie, the useless Magikarp reference.
I can’t say the same for the world design- not only are the maps and dungeons bland, but I have trouble moving through to my desired segment in the overworld. While the tie between progress and exploration reminds of Xenoblade, the visuals aren’t anywhere near as appealing on the world map.
Let’s not end the review on a sour note. I love much of what Dragon Island has to offer. There are just some elements that clearly lack the polish and depth of the Nintendo title it pays homage to.
Dragon Island: Blue is available on the App Store as a Universal App for $0.99
Want to hear my thoughts on these lengthy RPGs during the review process? Follow me on Twitter @TheGreybrick