Drake of the 99 Dragons Review
Developer: Idol FX
Platforms: PC, Xbox
Reviewed on Xbox
For 3,000 years, the 99 Dragons clan has guarded the Soul Portal Artifact, an object with the power to cross the boundary between the living world and the Spirit Realms. As their greatest assassin, Drake has been endowed with the Tattoo of the Undying Dragon. Thus, Drake was forced to cross into death, and return in a state of undeath, as protector of the 99 Dragons clan. Still new to his state of living death, and to the supernatural powers granted to him by that state and his tattoo, he awakens to discover every member of the 99 Dragons murdered and the artifact they guarded, stolen. The artifact could be used to perpetrate tremendous evil, leaving Drake as the only one capable of preventing this force from being unleashed upon the world, while avenging the death of his clansmen. As Drake himself says:
"Those who know my name whisper it in fear. Most people I meet, I only meet once. I am Drake – the assassin. To me, life is all about death."
Drake of the 99 Dragons should be about the struggle of a man, neither alive nor dead, against the evils of Tang Industries to save the world and avenge his adopted brothers. Instead, Drake is a perpetual struggle against the Xbox controls to progress just a step further in an unfinished game based on an interesting conceit. It's easy to see how Drake, in an early stage of development, would seem like an exciting project for a publisher to take on. The lead character is a striking and stylized undead assassin, wielding a weapon in each hand on an extended quest of vengeance. He is capable of supernatural acrobatics, can run along walls, slow or stop time, and even "Release the Undying Dragon" from the tattoo on his chest to inflict grievous damage on his foes. The plot of Drake is appropriate for a comic book-style action game, set in the dystopian city of Neo Macau. Tang Industries manufactures cyborgs, machines built around the reanimated corpses of the recent dead. Heck, the official site even has a comic that serves as the game's background.
All of that potential was unfortunately squandered on an incomplete game with difficult controls. The control scheme is the first problem players will notice, as soon as they begin the tutorials. As with many action/platformer games, the left analog stick on the Xbox controller moves Drake, and the right analog stick controls the camera. Firstly, the controls feel very much as if they were developed for the PC, and no allowances were made for the transition from PC to console controller. It's very difficult to swing the camera smoothly while engaged in any sort of action, and the controls are in no way configurable. Worse yet, Drake spends plenty of time in cramped, indoor spaces, and the camera automatically attempts to swing to give you better views of such rooms, so that it's impossible to keep the camera aimed where you wish. This means simple acts like walking Drake up a flight of stairs become a tremendous and frustrating challenge. When you factor in camera swings every time Drake jumps near the ceiling or runs on walls, you realize it is difficult to keep the camera pointing in one direction long enough to walk down a hall or go through a door. Fortunately, Drake automatically aims the lead character's guns at the nearest enemy, or players would never be able to shoot anything. Of course, Drake doesn't automatically aim at elements of the environment. In some cases you need to shoot objects (oil drums, fireworks, etc.) to hurt enemies, but since the controls are awful and Drake won't automatically aim at them, completing such objectives is maddening.
The fact that the controls themselves are a problem is exacerbated by problems with the game's code. Drake will often run through the walls and be trapped outside the level, forcing the player to restart. Other times, he will wade waist-deep in the floor as if walking through a pool of hip-deep water. If allowing Drake to exist outside the strict game world was a design decision to support Drake as a member of the undead, that might be entertaining. As it is, these problems are just clear evidence that the game doesn't work. There are also problems with the routines for enemies. These were exemplified by an early mission in which Drake has to pursue a courier running away with the Soul Portal Artifact, shooting the courier in the back just to create a trail of blood for Drake to follow. The courier repeatedly became stuck in the corner of a room with a pool of acid. Drake could shoot him as much as he wanted, but the fellow wouldn't die. He also couldn't budge, running in place in the corner, leaving Drake no trail to follow. The only way to complete the level was to try over and over again, wandering aimlessly until the "Mission Complete" message appeared before the mission timer ran out. Some enemies (not the ones with jet packs) will even walk or be pushed off an edge and just hover, stuck in the air.
If the above problems aren't enough to discourage you from trying Drake, they are compounded by poorly designed levels. Many missions are timed, forcing you to rush headlong without time to cope with the controls. Such missions are filled with blind alleys and wrong paths, so if you don't stay on top of the target you must tail, you can get hopelessly lost. Missions are also filled with "Gotcha!" moments in which buses screech out of alleys to smash Drake against a wall, or explosive crates detonate, killing Drake instantly. On top of the many problems with the design and controls, every level is a process of learning a few more seconds of motions for the controls by rote, until you are able to complete the entire mission and move on to a new sequence. Later missions add hunts for keys to the fun.
Every time Drake fails, the player is treated to an interminably long load screen (every time you retry, the level must reload). This means gamers will spend more time staring at the load screen than playing. Adding insult to injury, after every death Drake is sent to the Serene Garden. In the Serene Garden (a stately location in the Spirit Realms) Stone Gods will taunt Drake as a timer runs down before Drake can restart the mission (after a long detour to the load screen). If the Serene Garden were a cover for the loading screen, it might be clever. As it stands, the Serene Garden is just another delay keeping gamers from playing. As one of the gods says herself, "We are wasting time here."
In the few moments when Drake does work as intended, you catch glimpses of how slick this title could have been. Drake can turn in mid-air to blast evil henchman after evil henchman. He never runs out of ammunition – once Drake acquires a new type of gun, he has an endless supply, discarding each gun as it empties of bullets in favor of a full weapon. Each trigger on the Xbox controller fires the gun in Drake's corresponding hand. When you can manage the controls, it can be exciting to leap through the air, firing rounds into everything that walks as Drake bounces, wraith-like between walls. The cut scenes that open the story and come between each mission are stylized and skillfully done in a comic-book style. There seems to be a simple but engaging plot, appropriate for an action game that would be compelling if the game didn't break the dramatic tension at every available opportunity with Drake's death. The scenery is basic, but follows the illustrated theme with bright colors and the game draws "Ra Ta-Ta Ta-Ta"s or "Ka-Thoom"s to give a comic-book flair to the gunplay.
Drake of the 99 Dragons was developed by Idol FX, the same folks who brought you Nosferatu: The Wrath of Malachi. Ultimately, it's hard to say if the game is merely unfinished, or if it is a misguided execution of an interesting concept with a stylish protagonist.