When it comes to developing and publishing retro games, the UK/Germany-based Spacebot Interactive takes it one step further. Not only do they create their games as authentic and true to Gameboy as possible, but they also create a full physical edition on cartridge that can be played on the beloved handheld console itself! I’m totally on board with this idea; I would love to see more people use this approach to making retro games. I can imagine busting out my SNES to pop in a brand-new RPG cartridge and the thought genuinely makes me smile. Of course, not everybody has retro consoles and it is much more convenient for people to download a digital game rather than track down a physical, and Spacebot gets that. I assume that’s why their new title, Dragonborne, is getting a digital release for PC as well as a physical one. Today we’re taking a look at the PC version of Dragonborne; if you are curious about their physical games, you can check them out on their website here: Indie Developer | Spacebot Interactive (spacebot-interactive.com)
As a newly-made Gameboy game, Dragonborne certainly looks and sounds the part. Some of the music tracks can grate on your ears after a while, but honestly, I found that to be the norm for a lot of GB games. The color palette is in the traditional grayish-green soup with some solid pixel-work thrown into the mix. I particularly liked the battle sprites. Unfortunately, it’s all down-hill from here on out because Dragonborne seems to take the most archaic mechanics and systems found in early GB RPG games and sticks to them like stricture.
In my personal opinion, the best way to make a retro game is to stay true to the core concepts and visuals while adding modern amenities because let’s face it; we’ve come a long way in making videogames and fine-tuning the mechanics through trial and error to make them as fun and as engaging as can be to players. I feel that even by the era’s standards, Dragonborne is barebones and draconic. Let’s take a look at the battles. They very quickly turn in to a pound for pound battle, a literal war of attrition due to a lack of choices. They are turn-based, and for much of the opening hours, the only two options you have are to attack or use a potion to heal. The first few potions you have access to don’t even heal you much. The enemy can deal almost as much damage as you can heal, turning your fights into a tedious attack/heal routine. It doesn’t help that coins are scarce and enemies later on in the game stop dropping them completely. There is no experience to gain, no levels to gain, no gear to equip. You do gain a bit of magic during your adventure, even a new sword or two but they are all limited in use, once your charges run out you need to sleep or use a potion to replenish. The swords are especially useless, as they don’t do much more damage than your basic attack. You’ll feel like you’re using the same weak character throughout the entire game, you never get that sense of accomplishment you would by powering up your character enough to dispatch enemies with ease.
You will spend a lot of time in Dragonborne exploring and back-tracking. You are the son of famed dragon slayer Kurtis, who went missing just before the start of the game. Now that the dragons are awakening, you need to get a move on and find him. What it breaks down to is you searching high and low for dragon scales, which are needed to get into dragon’s lairs so you can pummel them to death while they’re just trying to rest in their own cozy homes. Who’s the real monster here? Getting the required scales often means doing errands for people or completing awful minigames. One nasty minigame, in particular, is given to you by the Gaming Grandpa. Not only does he charge you ten coins a try, but you also have to find him first by uncovering a secret entrance in a town shop and traveling to him. He gives you 40 seconds to find 8 coins hidden in the grass. Sounds easy in theory but in practice, it will take quite a few tries. Even if you know the exact location of the coins (which are spread out over multiple screens) the hit detection is bad enough where you may need to wiggle around a bit on the spot to make them appear. Since there are no hints as to where the coins can be found, you will need multiple tries to find all their locations and memorize them, which can get expensive. The only way you can farm coins is by fishing. You can sell them for 4 coins each but only carry 20 at a time, requiring more lost time in traveling to a shop. The fishing itself requires no skill, just standing there tapping the button until you’re lucky enough to grab a fish. Yes, it is as repetitive as it sounds.
Due to the lack of guidance, you will usually find yourself in a spot where you can’t progress until you go to a non-specified spot or talk to a certain NPC. The most egregious example of this when you reach the town of Argonia. I already made it my priority to fully explore every area and talk to every NPC when I reach a new town, yet I was still stuck. After exploring the surrounding area and returning to town, I spoke to each person again, this time an NPC mentioned a friend who is knowledgeable about the royal family. Okay, the castle drawbridge was up when I got here, so maybe that’s what I had to do. I followed the thread. After tracking down the woman, I found out that the princess was due to speak to the blacksmith. Following up on the lead did nothing. Long story short; I had to return to the lady’s husband to thank him for telling me where to find his wife, pass by the blacksmith to travel up to the castle drawbridge, then travel back down to the blacksmith to activate a scene. Needless frustration for minimal results: the perfect way to describe how I feel about this game now.
Puzzle-solving is another huge element of Dragonborne. The problem is that they aren’t fun or clever. They are more about guesswork and trial and error than lovingly-crafted brainteasers. They either involve moving stones or pushing buttons in a certain order, often without instructions. This is taken to an even higher level of frustration when you reach a cave late-game where you take control of two characters, swapping between them solving puzzles just to reach the next room. There are four buttons in the room. One opens the door for the other character while the others can either summon monsters or throw you right out of the dungeon, forcing you to do it all over again. If that wasn’t needlessly annoying enough, they double the number of switches for the next room. I’ve said it before but there is absolutely nothing fun about this style of trial and error puzzle solving.
So, what started out as a hopeful venture turned into a frustrating slog through a world full of equally frustrating gameplay designs, and a stark reminder that older is not always better. If you’re a sucker for retro games, a glutton for punishment, or just a person who likes to see things for themselves, then by all means check it out. I have a hard time recommending Dragonborne to anyone else, though.
Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 4/10
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