Dragonsphere (1994)

A magical kingdom populated by humans, fairies, dark elves and shapeshifters is threatened by an evil sorcerer. A spell to trap the wizard inside his tower is crafted and deployed at the last minute, but it won’t hold forever. 20 years later, the king who had led the initial fight against the sorcerer has died, and the dragonsphere, an artefact designed to show the progress the villain makes in weakening the spell, has begun to crack. Now, the new king must go on a quest to find a way to defeat the wizard once and for all.

That’s the apparent premise for Dragonsphere, a point-and-click adventure from 1994. I say “apparent” because there’s a fairly good twist two thirds of the way in that changes the nature of the story substantially, though not in a way that distracts from the fairly generic setting. It is a bit disappointing, though understandable given the limitations of the era, that the protagonist’s epic quest is rather understated. The dragon-like mounts seen in the animated intro stay in their stables, our hero using his feet to travel from location to location. The king of the fairies holds court in a small garden, and the majestic civilisation of the dark elves turns out to be a single tent near an oasis. I can’t help but think that if the production team didn’t want to or couldn’t create appropriate, large-scale locations, they shouldn’t have promised them early in the game. Some seeming inconsistencies (like a small infusion of science-fiction into the fantasy world) are never fully explained.

For the most part, the story unfolds in a non-linear fashion, in that the player can journey freely amongst various locations, all of which need to be visited several times in order to complete the quest (night and day never change despite the distances travelled, nor does the hero ever die of hunger, thirst or exhaustion). On at least one occasion, I went to two places in the “wrong” order, though, because one of the NPCs assumed knowledge my character already knew, but I as a player did not. The dialogue trees showed weakness in design several other times, too, because I never got a chance to use some of the offered options, but the protagonist and their conversation partner carried on as if I had asked them and gotten them answered.

The general gameplay is typical for an adventure: verb parser, inventory, dialogue trees, puzzles. It’s nothing special, but that’s hardly a bad thing if you like that kind of old-fashioned game design. I do like that it’s possible to customise the default action for a right-mouse click on-the-fly, but there are only a few situations where it makes sense to go with anything other than “look at”. The other possible innovation I noticed seems rather superfluous: All the objects in the inventory come with their own unique action words, e.g. “attack”, “carve up” and “thrust” for the hero’s sword. These commands all do basically the same thing and could have been replaced by the more generic “use (on)”, which is missing in the explicit parser (conversely, I cannot remember a single time I had to use “open” or “close”, which are present).

There are a number of minigames, which are not too difficult. One in particular is quite clever, and I played it more often than necessary.

The puzzles are mostly okay, though it’s not always easy to find the pixellated objects you need or completely self-evident what you need to do (using a frozen rat and shorn-off tentacles to roll up a portal and place it somewhere else? really?). There’s also one very difficult logic puzzle early on where I’ll freely admit that I gave up quickly in favour of a walkthrough solution because you didn’t just need sharp thinking, you needed sharp reflexes and a sharp memory, all at the same time. There are other quick time events, too, but they’re not nearly as punishing and usually give the player enough time to react sensibly.

And if the player doesn’t, that’s fine, too. The protagonist may die, but it’s never exasperating, because the game simply rewinds a bit to give you another opportunity. (This seems to not cost any of the points you can earn by solving the puzzles in an efficient manner; I’m not entirely certain because I rarely pay attention to the points in these old games.) Occasionally I caught myself intentionally acting in a stupidly dangerous way just to witness whatever amusing death animation the producers had inserted into the game. Despite the pixellation, the player animations are a graphical highlight, far more varied and impressive than usual for this time. For that reason, after a while it stopped bothering me that the protagonist would only walk at a rather slow pace and that the long cut scenes (like the one used for climbing up a mountain) aren’t skippable even after the third or fourth time you’ve seen them.

One thing I never got used to, though, is the voice acting, which is mostly atrocious both in sound quality (oftentimes the dialogue sounds like it was recorded in a bathroom) and prosody.

That said, I played the game because I was looking for something to pass the time on an otherwise boring weekend, and that it did reasonably well. If you have a little less than six hours to kill (more if you don’t sneak a peek at a walkthrough once in a while), Dragonsphere is a decent option, especially since it’s available for free on GOG.

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