Is Square Enix pushing its luck on iOS?
I will be the first person to say that Square Enix has been doing a bang-up job on the App Store as of late. Chaos Rings II and The World Ends With You are both fantastic titles, and Final Fantasy Dimensions was a decent take on the classic FF formula. Drakerider is one of several other games just released by SE for iPhone and iPad, and as expected it is a riff on the Japanese Role Playing Game.
It wasn’t too long ago that I mentioned the inherent dangers of building “freemium” content, or progress oriented in app purchases, into the JRPG formula. JRPGs have traditionally required players to exchange time to strengthen their characters through the pursuit of battle with random enemies on the world map. By “grinding” out enough battles, players are able to increase their player level enough to surpass any challenge with little regard to their skill. The sense of progress as a function of time commitment has been softened in more recent games that feature complex battle systems, or more heavily integrated story elements.
Time leading to accomplishment becomes a particular problem when time quite literally equals money. Drakerider features several elements that allow the player to bypass the grinding within the game for a fee. Players take control of a dragon by stabbing it in the neck and tugging its chains to force it in to battle (it sounds a bit severe when put that way, but some of the cutscenes invoke an awkward feeling as you stab your dragon “buddy”). All attacks and healing actions outside of the default attack require the consumption of crystals. Crystals are earned at the end of each battle, and can be used to unlock new skills, change which skills are equipped, and as previously mentioned, to also execute these skills within battle. It is a system that feels like a distant cousin of skill drawing in Final Fantasy 8.
Oddly, saving enough crystals to buy a new skill often requires that the player refrain from using skills. Battling bosses can also require heavy use of crystal skills, and thus force the player to grind crystals from easier enemies. Of course, all of this can be circumvented by purchasing crystal boosting items with your real world money. Other mechanics can lead to purchases, particularly the dragon’s “beserk” mode. The entire game is played by swiping vigorously at the bottom of the screen to shift between four segments of the battle gague. The blue field typically triggers healing skills, yellow and green house attack abilities, and the red segment triggers the dragon’s rage. The dragon can do significant damage while in this stage, but can also permanently lose health. This health can be recovered via an item in the in-game store- which requires gold. Players can earn gold by sending a Valet creature out into the field, and as expected this Valet can bring back their loot all the quicker if an emergency flair is purchased with real-world money.
I don’t want to make a review entirely about critiquing a monetary system, but a problem arises when the ‘game’ is a monetary system. Sure, some may argue that the ever-present store icon is just a time saving measure to skip portions of the game, but why on earth would I want to skip parts of a game? Shouldn’t I be playing because the mechanics are stimulating, and not because I get a sense of progress from watching a virtual gauge fill? Even if I enjoy watching that progress bar fill, would I get anything out of knowing that I just paid to make it so? This isn’t an MMO where I may want to catch up with friends, this is a single player experience that should be a diversion in itself.
If the developers notice that grinding gets in the way of enjoyment in their single player game, it should be designed around. The fact that the monetary exchange for time is even present makes me suspect that the system wasn’t entirely engineered to make the player want to indulge in an additional in-app purchase within a game that already costs $20. I can guarantee that the store isn’t there as a favor to gamers.
The questionable tactics could almost be ignored if I found the game enjoyable enough, but I don’t think Drakerider surpasses Square Enix’s other App Store offerings. The mechanics, as mentioned before, are limited. One’s eyes are fixated on the gauge, and their sole interaction is swiping across the bottom of the screen to guide the battle. These battles don’t offer much in the sense of tactics, but rather a simple push and pull of attack and healing routines. The player is literally moving back and forth along a number line with four numbers. The arcade-like swiping mechanic is intentionally unreliable, and doesn’t provide a way to alter targets in situations that involve multiple enemies.
The story of Drakerider is overly dramatic from the start. Characters are not fleshed out in a satisfying way at the opening, and seem to develop irrational ties and opinions over short time periods. The writing is limited, making the characters seem one-dimensional except for the occasional shift in writing style that just feels inconsistent. I wasn’t comfortable playing Drakerider on the train, either, as your companion is a scantily clad young girl.
My interest in Drakerider faded as quickly as the “freemium” elephant in the room grew. I wouldn’t be so exasperated if this wasn’t a $20 game to start with. Gamers should value their time and money enough to stay away from games that are out to con a dollar from them after they have already paid a substantial amount of money for the experience. I have absolutely no problem paying for quality content, FF Dimensions was a step in the right direction, but don’t make me pay for my own time.
Drakerider is available on the App Store and is free to try, the full game costs $20.99