Fantasy Stars

For me, the very mention of the word 'fantasy' when referring to genre instantly conjures images of semi-naked, sword-wielding warriors rippling with muscle; foreboding castles perched precariously atop crumbling mountains; and hoards of ogres and dwarves. Oh, and dragons. Lot of dragons. Mainly belching fire and soaring through the night sky looking for towns and villages to raze to the ground for their own sordid amusement. I wouldn't call myself a fan of the genre as such, but being someone who likes to occasionally remove myself from the boredom and drudgery of reality, I have dipped into the world of fantasy in the past. I've read a few books (mainly Tolkien's works), seen a few movies (mainly based on...erm...Tolkien's works) and even played a few board games (mainly based on Dungeons & Dragons), so while I would hardly call myself an expert in the subject, I do have at least a little bit of an idea what 'fantasy' is all about.

Actually, that's not totally accurate - my perceived knowledge is mainly constructed of Peter Jackson's show-reel mixed with a smattering of Krul and The Dark Crystal, but hey. To be honest, I'm much more of a science-fiction and horror fan when it comes to literary or celluloid classifications, and when the two combine (as seen in the Alien franchise), I'm pretty much in bio-mechanical heaven. That said, I do like to delve into fantasy realms as a gamer every now and then too, and recent titles such as Dark Souls and the upcoming Deep Down really peak my interest...even if I haven't actually played any of the Dark Souls games yet on account of their well-documented difficulty. I will in time, but I'll probably wait for the PS4 iteration of Dark Souls II which reportedly features a beginner-friendly difficulty option. Yes, I'm a wimp.
Anyway, what has all this got to do with the Dreamcast? Well, while the Dreamcast is now championed as a system with a catalogue bristling with arcade conversions and shmups, it wasn't always like that. Ask the average gamer about the Dreamcast and they'll no doubt recount the finer points of Crazy Taxi, Soul Calibur and Virtua Tennis. All fine games, I'm sure you'll agree. But what if you're after a darker, more gritty experience, battling the forces of unspeakable evil in a murky forest or swinging a sword through the dank corridors of a forgotten catacomb? I have news from the east, my lord - there's plenty of that going on in the realm of the Dreamcast too! Here, for your delectation is a mini run-down of some of the myriad fantasy-themed titles on the almighty 'cast...

Sword of the Beserk: Guts' Rage
Beserk is actually based on a fairly popular and long-running comic and anime series which never really gained any real exposure outside of it's native Japan. Created by manga artist Kentaro Miura, the series draws heavily from western Medieval-style fantasy and tells the story of a wandering mercenary named Gattsu (known as Guts to his friends), and his annoying flying elf chum Puck. This title is only based on a fairly small portion of the series, but the game revolves around a mysterious plant-based parasite which is infecting the citizens of the realm (known as Mandragora) and the failing attempts of the authorities to contain the outbreak. The parasite turns those infected into mindless zombies, so you can see why it's deemed as a bit of an issue. Guts is persuaded to get involved to find the root (see?) of the Mandragora outbreak and put a stop to it before the whole world is overrun.

The actual gameplay comes in the form of a fairly competent roaming hack 'n' slash where you control Guts and his massive sword, running around the various stages lopping infected villagers in half and generally kicking ass. The story is pretty good to be honest and is conveyed via some lengthy cut scenes - indeed, most of the game is comprised of cut scenes telling you what's going on. The 'rage' part of the title comes from the way in which Guts can activate a 'red mist' invincibility mode once the little meter has filled up, and this means you can just go mental swinging the massive sword around and filling the screen with claret. Berserk is a fun, albeit short-lived adventure and if you can put up with the constant movies and QTEs, there's a fine Medieval-themed adventure to be enjoyed here.

Dragons Blood
Known as Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm in other territories, Dragons Blood is about as close to something like Dark Souls as you're likely to get on the Dreamcast. Set in an fantasy world populated by giants, demons and magic, you begin the adventure by choosing whether to play as either Cynric - a warrior; or Aeowyn - a sorceress. As is the norm in these types of game, the character you choose dictates the way the adventure is played out, so while the levels and the objectives remain unchanged, the way in which you play varies. Cynric has a more direct 'stab everything' outlook, while Aeowyn's game is more geared towards using spells and magical projectiles to vanquish the enemies marauding around the neighbourhood.

Dragons Blood, rather oddly, doesn't feature any actual dragons as far as I'm aware and the name change for the PAL version is something of a mystery to me...but that aside, this is a fairly decent third person slasher. The levels are pretty open and free roaming (although there are way points that you must follow in order to progress the story) and you are often presented with forking level paths. At the end of each stage you get the chance to indulge in some fairy basic character levelling and upgrading so it ticks all the boxes as far as pseudo Dungeons & Dragons-style gameplay goes. Defence is as important as attack here, so you'll spend a good amount of time hiding behind your shield before darting out to attack foes with your weapon of choice...although it never really feels as good as Ocarina of Time's combat; but then, what does? The visuals are fairly nice and there are some very impressive architectural designs going one (the floating castle approach looks outstanding, for example); and the environments are very varied, but Dragons Blood sometimes feels as though it is adhering to too many stereotypes of the genre (if that makes sense?) - magic, elves, warlocks and the like all make an appearance. The floaty physics aren't great either. Those minor gripes aside, Dragons Blood/Draconus is an enjoyable fantasy romp and has high production values throughout.

Soul Fighter
Featuring one of the worst introduction sequences I've ever seen (where the king spouts boring nonsense to no-one in particular with the worst Sean Connery impression yet pressed to disc), Soul Fighter is a traditional roaming beat 'em up set in the land of Gomar, where a curse has transformed the majority of the citizens into mutated animal hybrids. As one of the three main characters, it's down to you to roam the towns and villages round-housing the souls out of these mutants and returning them back to human form.

Graphically, Should Fighter looks very nice - all of the characters and enemies have a very 'solid' look to them and the motion capture is really quite impressive - especially the kicks and combos. The thing is, Soul Fighter is pretty formulaic and actually a little bit dull. It does do some interesting things, such as allow you to play in a first person mode, but it's a by-the-numbers kind of game. Follow an arrow, smash some heads, collect the items...move on and repeat to fade. You'll find boss battles at the end of stages and chests to break open...but it all moves at a very sedentary pace and you'll ultimately find yourself getting a little bored before you get very far. Soul Fighter was quite an early release for the Dreamcast and I do remember seeing a lot of adverts for it back when it released and while it does look nice, the gameplay experience is pretty dated.

Gauntlet Legends
The third game in the Gauntlet series, Gauntlet Legends started out as a 4-player arcade game that allowed players to save their progress via a unique password system. The game was later ported to the main home consoles of the era, one of which was the Dreamcast (obviously). The gameplay is pretty basic to be honest - you choose a character from one of the various classes (differentiated by strength, speed, armour and magical ability) and then set off across the realm ridding the land of all sorts of evil imp-type creatures who pour into the stages through portals. You can destroy these portals to cut off the never-ending supply of foes, and also level up your chosen character by defeating more enemies and collecting gold and other power ups.

As stated, the game is a pretty standard port of the arcade title and as such it looks fairly decent. The levels themselves are less like the standard mazes of the original Gauntlet and feel more 'organic' on account of the multiple levels and 'outdoors' nature of the majority of the environments. Upon first playing Legends I wasn't really taken with the basic nature of the game - you simply wander around the map collecting keys and hemming the attack button and searching for the exit...but after a while a sort of naive charm shone through and I kind of 'got' why some people like this series. It can be quite satisfying levelling your character and finding stashes of gold. Overall, Gauntlet Legends is a fun little game and is really meant to be played with three other players alongside you, but even as a single player experience it can be fairly entertaining.
While this is by no means every fantasy-themed game on the Dreamcast, the boundaries do get a little blurred with some of the other titles I could mention. Things like Dragon Riders, Silver and Lodoss are indeed set in their own fantasy worlds, but they are more RPGs and if I start talking about those, other things like Evolution, Grandia and Time Stalkers could also get pulled in. There's Soul Reaver too, but again that's more of a supernatural adventure and is slightly different from the games listed above as it has you playing as a vampire rather than as a sword-wielding hero type. But what do you think? Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments...


pcwzrd13 said...

Great article Tom! For some reason I always thought Soul Fighter was a 2d fighter. Could be something to do with the name! Haha! The only game I own on this list is Draconus/Dragon's Blood; haven't played much of it though.

Tom Charnock said...

Hey man, thanks for reading! Draconus is worth playing though although it does get stupidly difficult the further you get. It's got some cool-looking later levels though. Soul Fighter is worth picking up if you can find it cheap, but it's quite odd that it's a single-player only game.