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Dragonborne Review – Let Sleeping Dragons Lie

I didn’t think I’d be reviewing a Nintendo GameBoy game in 2021 but then again the past 365 days have brought a lot of interesting changes to our lives. Dragonborne is a game released this month for the Nintendo GameBoy and GameBoy emulators. While many games attempt to utilize older art styles, Spacebot Interactive and a few others have decided to try to make games within the technical confines of an older system. However, while this may be a novel concept, it doesn’t pan out real well in modern days as we’ve learned quite a bit about game design and philosophy over the past 30 years.

Dragonborne
Developer: Spacebot Interactive
Price: $15
Platform: PC, Game Boy Emulators (reviewed)
MonsterVine was supplied with a ROM for review

I don’t think it’s an unreasonable expectation to think that when someone makes a video game in the modern era to take a few lessons from modern games. I’m not expecting Spacebot to release a game that makes use of full 3D environments and branching story paths as a GameBoy ROM, that’s absolutely unreasonable. Dragonborne is light on gameplay elements even for a GameBoy title.

The story is about as basic as they come and even a little ridiculous. Upon starting the game we’re greeted with a cinematic set of images that show a dragon flying across the sky, a warrior riding a horse, and finally the warrior and dragon fighting. The warrior wins, the dragon’s blood (or sweat) rolls down his sword, and our protagonist, Kris, is awakened by his mother concerned for her missing husband. It seems Kris’ father, Kurtis, never came back home after he went out the previous evening. “He never does this!” Kris’ mother exclaims. So you grab some basic equipment and head to the nearest town only to find out that it’s being attacked by the dreaded Dragontooth Clan. This is a lukewarm start to the game and while the Dragontooth Clan seems bad, they flee once you kick a few of their butts. It doesn’t get ridiculous until you find out you’re a “hybrid” child because some dragon’s blood got on you when you were a baby and now you have mysterious powers. Unfortunately, you need to unlock these powers by finding people or items throughout the game, so we’re stuck with our basic attack for now.

I should point out that the spells and special attacks you receive for being a Dragonborne are quite boring and useless. Combat is handled in the most monotonous way possible. It’s a turn-based battle between single characters, you vs. one enemy. The enemies are all fairly generic with the exception of their battle portraits. On the overworld map, they aren’t very distinct. However, when combat loads up, they look exceptionally good for the hardware the game is meant to be played on. Even still, you just bash each other until one person runs out of health. This can be mitigated by the protagonist with the use of potions. Occasionally, the protagonist gets a critical hit and it deals double damage. That’s it. Even worse, the first magic ability I got actually did less damage than my regular attack and there was no discernable difference between my regular attack and special attack except that my special attack had a limited number of uses. Dragon Quest/Warrior 1 had a more robust battle system. Dragonborne’s battle system could be compared to Pokemon Red/Blue but even in Pokemon you have a large series of special attacks and moves to choose from for each Pokemon. Kris is supposed to have the power of dragons and deals a quarter health-bar’s worth of damage with each attack and has to chug 1 – 3 health potions at the end of every battle in order to move on.

Potions were another point of contention for me as they healed for a set amount of hit points but nowhere in the UI indicates how many hit points you have. There are 3 different types of health potions as well. You have your regular health potion, your big health potion, and your super healing spell. The super healing spell will heal you to full health, but there’s a lot of guesswork with the other, cheaper healing potions. Your regular health potion heals for 8 and your big healing potion heals for 12. This information is absolutely useless because enemies don’t deal damage in hit points, they just lower your health bar. Likewise, there are no experience points or level-ups, so the only way to increase your power is to upgrade your equipment, which comes at milestones in the game. 

What I did like about the game is that talking to people around town and in various locations throughout the game felt like a Legend of Zelda game. Lots of people talking to you as if they already knew you before and wishing you well on your quest. You must pay attention to exploration and talking to people in order to find out where to go on your quest. I don’t think Dragonborne does an excellent job of this, but it was good enough to tell me that’s where I should be looking if I get lost. Talk to townspeople, explore all areas, check areas previously visited. Although this did result in something bizarre where, when completing the first major dungeon and going back to town, I noticed all the important NPCs that helped me along the way were missing. You travel to some faraway places and talk to a blacksmith and a woodworker and every single one of them is gone after the first major dungeon. Eerily enough, my mother was gone as well.

I might have gotten my answer but unfortunately, my method of play wasn’t actually saving my game. I do not fault Spacebot for this at all, this was my fault completely. I never tested the save function with my chosen emulator and platform and was punished as a result. I tested on several other emulators and can verify that the save function works when I tried it out on both PC and my phone. I played Dragonborne on a hacked Playstation Vita and no matter what emulator I used there, the save functionality never worked. That said, Dragonborne felt like it was made for mobile play. The puzzle-solving and exploration felt like they were made to be played in chunks. Small puzzles to be solved and never so mind-bending that they took too long. Likewise, even boss battles were over fairly quick, so if I was only able to play for a few minutes, I knew the boss battles wouldn’t take me very long.

Dragonborne seems to be banking on a niche set of nostalgia that’s missing me completely. The design is archaic, the story is lackluster, and the quest felt anything but epic. Outside of a few spelling/grammatical errors and a few chest sprites showing as unopened after I had already opened them, there’s nothing particularly offensive about Dragonborne. However, nobody’s won my favor by simply being unoffensive.

The Final Word
If you absolutely must play a GameBoy game and have already played most of the other RPG/Adventure games on the platform, Dragonborne might be a worthwhile endeavor. If you do end up playing Dragonborne, please don’t play it on a hacked PS Vita without testing the save functionality first. Otherwise, you’ll end up like me, fairly ambivalent that the save is gone because you feel like you’ve already played enough.

MonsterVine Rating: 3 out of 5 – Average

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