Crimson Dragon has something of a strange history. A spiritual sequel to the much loved Panzer Dragoon games on Sega Saturn, Crimson Dragon was originally announced for Xbox 360 (as a Kinect title), before being unexpectedly delayed and then resurfacing as a download-exclusive on Xbox One.
Stranger than its history, though, is the game itself. On paper, it should be a terrible experience due to a medley of design flaws with little to redeem it. And yet, it’s surprisingly enjoyable for what it is. Maybe not up to the calibre of director Yukio Futatsugi’s efforts with Panzer Dragoon, and far from as good as it could be, but it’ll keep you at least mildly entertained when, in reality, it should be making you throw the controller through the screen.
Like its spiritual predecessors, Crimson Dragon is a science-fantasy themed rail shooter. As a dragon rider, you fly through levels along predetermined tracks, moving an aiming reticle around the screen to target enemies. You do have some limited control over the dragon’s movement, in order to dodge attacks and avoid obstacles, but you can never stray too far from the path. The rail shooter formula can be fantastic when it’s done right, but Crimson Dragon is far from the pinnacle of the genre.
Most glaringly, the game is brutally unfair. The limited control you have over your dragon means that you have a relatively narrow field of vision; about 180 degrees or so to the front of whatever direction the track has you facing. This would be fine, only enemies aren’t restricted to your field of vision, so you’ll often get hit by fireballs suddenly appearing from offscreen. Worse still, some sections of the game have you attacking (and facing) a foe behind you, as you fly out from the screen - but there will still be obstacles in front of your dragon, off screen, that you can’t actually see until you’re crashing into them.
At points, Crimson Dragon breaks you off the rails and gives you full control (within a limited arena) in order to fight a boss. This is a neat idea, but awkward free flight controls make these fights more of a chore than they should be; it feels like you’re trying to drive a derailed train around an open field. It’s really easy to lose your bearings, and the dragons turn painfully slowly. Making matters worse are the small arenas for these free flight sections, with nothing to indicate the edges other than a small minimap in the corner of the screen.
Crimson Dragon introduces some RPG elements, but they’re rather bare bones. Completing missions earns experience, which in turn increases the level and stats of your dragon, but the dragons all follow very linear growth paths and you have no control whatsoever over how they develop. You can evolve your dragons, but again, this is very linear. Getting a dragon to the max level lets it evolve into a stronger version of the same beast, with the same stats and skills. In practice, all that evolving really does is reset a dragon’s level so that it can keep getting stronger.
This is where what is probably the most frustrating thing about Crimson Dragon rears its head. Evolving your dragons is more or less mandatory as you progress through the game, in order to keep up with increasingly strong opponents, but you have to farm specific rare items in order to do this. These items only drop from rare “gold” monsters, which show up at certain places in certain levels, so you need to know both what monster has what you need, and in which level you can find them. Neither piece of information is readily available in the game, so it ends up being a case of trial and error, picking levels at random until you find one that drops what you’re after. Eventually, guides will pop up on the net that make it easier to find where you need to farm what you’re looking for, but at least for now, you’re on your own.
Unless you’re willing to shell out your hard earned real world money, though. That’s right, microtransactions. You can purchase evolution items (among other things) through a cash shop, though what you get is random, so there’s no guarantee that your hard earned cash will get you what you need. Still, you could save yourself a lot of grinding time with the cash shop if you’re not sure which level holds the items you need.
You can also use microtransactions to turn Crimson Dragon into a pay-to-win game in its most literal sense. In lieu of checkpoints and and a retry option, Crimson Dragon gives you consumable Revival Gems. Should you fall in battle, you can opt to use a Revival Gem and continue right where you left off. The catch is that you need to purchase these, either with in-game credits or real money. Realistically, credits are easy enough to earn, so you should be able to keep yourself well stocked with gems without shelling out, but if any challenge becomes too much, there is always the option of throwing money at the screen to get past it.
All the above points make Crimson Dragon sound like a terrible game, and yet, it’s reasonably enjoyable in short bursts. When you ignore the microtransactions and shallow levelling system and accept that sometimes you’re going to get hit by things out of your control, the core rail shooter gameplay is still a lot of fun. Despite RPG mechanics that are somewhat lacking, you still get a sense of satisfaction as your dragons grow, and there’s a whole lot of replayability through trying to get high scores on levels and achieving optional objectives. As flawed as the game ism and as frustrated as it made me at points, I never reached the stage that I was just going through the motions and playing for the sake of finishing it.
If you’re looking for a game that shows off the power of the Xbox One, you’ll want to stay far away from this one. It’s not bad looking by any means, and in fact is quite pleasing on the eye due to some nice art direction and vibrant level design. It looks very, very last gen though - even as an Xbox 360 game (which is available as well), the graphics wouldn’t be anything to write home about.
Given how poorly designed some parts of the game are, its hard to recommend it to anyone. And yet, like I said, I had some good fun with it, despite everything else. As long as you go in not expecting a life changing experience, there’s an afternoon or two of enjoyment to be had here.