Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara Review
First and foremost: screw the people behind this game for making tagging this game so hard. I always tag by half-decade (mostly because it’s entertaining to look back and see how games advance—or don’t—over those 5 years) and wanted to reflect the original releases of Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara, but Tower released in 1993 and Shadow came out in 1996. Adding the modern incarnation’s 2013 release date on top of that, I’d have had 3 different tags for when this thing came out. Messy, messy. As for the game itself, it’s one of the most enjoyable, infuriating games I’ve played in a long time. As per the title, it’s based on Dungeons & Dragons, but it does nothing to ease you into all the little details you need to know. For example, there’s no obvious way of knowing that the final boss in Tower is completely immune to most spells because it’s a lich, making the final boss fight a huge pain when playing as the magic-using elf or cleric. That’s just one of dozens of things about D&D and the game in general that I had to figure out using a combination of trial and error and the internet, but despite how soul-crushingly unfriendly the game manages to be, you eventually start to piece things together. Once you’ve begun to pick up on its oddities, Chronicles of Mystara becomes an incredibly fun and deep beat-em-up.
The story and characters are standard fantasy filler
This being high fantasy, the story is basically “someone somewhere is doing something evil, so stop him/her/it by walking to the right and beating everything in your way to death!” It’s thin in terms of meaningful plot, but we are talking about games that released for arcades in the 1990s. Arcade games like these tended to focus more on stealing quarters with cheap game-ending tricks than telling players a story, but you have to respect the developers for putting in the effort to include something anyway. That said, Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara are replete with typos and awkward phrasing, though I can’t help but think that part of it was intentional by the time Shadow released; Tower of Doom includes a shopkeeper telling you about how she knows a hero will come on a white horse to save everyone from the monsters, only to quickly veer into a romantic fantasy, and Shadow includes an identical shopkeeper conversation that changes the original dialogue into a mess of spelling errors, superfluous commas, and words that are just plain wrong. “He’ll ride up to me on a white house”? Really? This conversation has to be some kind of inside joke. It’s just too bizarre that a perfectly fine translation would suddenly be butchered beyond recognition, or even randomly included in the first place. That’s not to say that the overall writing level is stellar to begin with (expect run-on sentences and other common translation issues common from that period), but it’s definitely not that jarringly bad.
There’s something weirdly refreshing about how straightforward the plot is, though. Especially that of Tower of Doom. It goes a bit like this: you go around helping people like a good adventurer party should (and everyone across both games speaks as though multiple people are present, even when playing solo), only to be hired by some guy who suspects that someone is orchestrating recent attacks. You follow some leads, fight a cocky elf who stupidly tells you where to find his master, and then you go beat his even-more-cocky master. Once you do, he goes through the typical villainous death throes: “Being hacked at with a sword—my only weakness! How could I possibly be defeated by such a puny whelp?” Etcetera. Good times.
Notably, there are several branching points where you can decide where to go next. The choices are completely arbitrary on a first playthrough since you’ll have no idea what choices do what, but they basically lead to different stages with different boss fights at the end that you can choose between once you know where everything goes. You end up funneled into the same endgame areas no matter which choices you’ve made, but your equipment (which is a thing—rare for a beat-em-up) will likely be different for the path you chose because the chests and enemy drops are different. Shadow takes these branching paths even further by including character-specific paths that only show up as options if you’re playing as a certain character when the choice comes around, and this only existing in Shadow is a bit of a relief; Tower sticks you with the character you started with through the entire game, while Shadow allows you to switch between its 6 characters whenever you die and respawn. The first character-specific branch I found was when playing as the elf and I got an option to cross a forest bridge that wasn’t there when I played as a different character. Not only was this really entertaining and a bit of welcome reactivity, but some of these exclusive paths even come with significant benefits. For example, at one point the Dwarf can guide you through an underground water passage that ends with a boss fight that not only ties up a plot thread left dangling otherwise, but also has an NPC finish off the penultimate boss fight on your behalf if you complete it in a specific way.
How the game actually works
Something I was wondering about before I started up the game: with these originally being arcade games designed to milk quarters out of players by subjecting them to some incredibly cheap deaths, are there infinite continues? The answer is yes, as far as I can tell. One would have to try incredibly hard to die more often than I did on my first couple playthroughs, and yet I was always able to keep going. It feels kind of like having an endless supply of quarters at your disposal, and it’s pretty great. That’s basically Chronicles of Mystara in a nutshell: make your way through tons of cheapness, relying on a seemingly infinite number of lives to fight through it.
The cheapness is everywhere. Take items: enemies often drop money or items, but the attack button is the same as the button for picking things up. As a result, you can fail to attack an enemy simply because the game instead thinks that you’re trying to pick up an item. Then there are the difficulty levels. When starting a game, you can choose your difficulty from four difficulty options, and I’m convinced that they don’t actually do anything. I started by playing on the easiest difficulty, then switched to the hardest so that the differences between the two were more obvious. There were no obvious changes. Enemies didn’t seem to have more health or do more damage. They certainly weren’t any smarter (90% of the enemies in both games can be killed with the ingenious strategy of “take half a step, attack, repeat”). I didn’t die any more or less. The only difference I noticed was that equipment I had picked up was suddenly being broken, but that continued to happen even once I switched back to the easiest difficulty. If difficulty settings actually control anything in this game, it’s meaningless enough that I never noticed it in my 10 hours of playing.
The games here aren’t 10 hours long, mind you. I simply began to obsess about areas I had missed, learning to play as different characters, and other stuff like that. In reality, Tower of Doom is maybe 20-30 minutes long (and that’s including long battles spent slowly chipping away at boss health), with Shadow Over Mystara lasting a little longer than that. Both are incredibly replayable, though, and I found myself having fun despite the many, many things wrong with both games (and there are far more than what I’ve already mentioned—I’ll get into them a bit later). That’s probably because for all of their flaws, they also have significant upsides. The games may be completely inaccessible at first to those unaccustomed to D&D, but once you figure out where enemy invincibility frames end and do something obvious like dropping a ton of fire items on an ice boss for huge amounts of damage, you can’t help but feel amused. I remember from the Baldur’s Gate games that trolls can only be killed by acid or fire, so I made sure to hold on to some fire items for the end of a boss fight against a troll. If you don’t, you have to fight it several times in a row before some NPCs set it on fire on your behalf. Then there are the magic-using enemies; I have no way of knowing this for sure because of how impenetrable the game’s rules often are, but I could swear that enemies used up all their magic on several occasions where I was having trouble and had boss fights run long. It’s little things like that which eventually make this game so much fun to play. Things like picking up boots of speed and having your movement speed noticeably increased. Things like using spell animations to make you invincible while enemies are doing their most damaging or difficult to dodge attacks. Things like being able to walk past some (not all, but some) groups of enemies without engaging them at all, or dominating bosses with magic.
But seriously, these games have issues
Tower of Doom is entertaining, but it’s laced with tons of QTEs where you have to quickly move side to side. You do this to wake yourself up if a spell puts you to sleep. You do this to put out the fire if hit by a hellhound’s fire breath or some other fire source. You do this if a random chest is trapped with a petrify spell. That last one in particular is a huge middle finger because failing it is an instant death. Here’s a video that shows me not only dying to an unexpected petrify spell (in Shadow, so no QTE), but also struggling just to get into position to open the chest in the first place. These games can be incredibly awkward like that, with simple positioning becoming a giant hassle. It’s just one of those things you have to pick up on through playing and then work around. A similar thing you have to work around is your inability to pick up all of the loot after boss fights and mobs that lead to scripted scenes. Basically, the game takes away control before you can walk over and pick everything up. This is somewhat remedied in Shadow by the fact that they changed the slide to automatically pick up loot, but that doesn’t work in Tower, and sliding is something I had a lot of trouble consistently pulling off on an Xbox 360 controller. I can’t even begin to imagine trying to do so with keyboard controls. There are a lot of moves you can use, but the more complex ones are almost always more trouble than they’re worth and subject to the game deciding that you don’t actually want to dodge so much as jump right into an enemy dragon’s mouth. Controls are finicky like that to the point of near-uselessness, at least for those who aren’t willing to sink an obscene amount of time into learning the game’s precise timings.
What bothered me more than anything, however, was the fact that all of the fun stuff is gated off if you’re playing single-player. At one point early in Shadow, you can choose a longer path to your destination that supposedly comes with fewer enemy encounters. This manifests in a weird raft section where the gameplay suddenly shifts. It comes out of nowhere and I still don’t know exactly how it works because nothing in this game is ever explained (the function of the timer in particular is a complete mystery to me), but that’s not the bad part. No, the problem I have with this is the part about 38 seconds into the video where the “immortals avatar” can share knowledge with you and you can ask about the so-called ultimate magic. It’s explained that this is powerful enough to instantly destroy an opponent, but that you have to be strong enough to withstand it. It’s not unless you choose to go to the gnome village that you learn details about how this magic actually works, however, with it being explained that you perform the spell by breaking a “staff of Wizardry.” I couldn’t figure out how to actually get this to work, however, so I finally looked it up online. Turns out you need to be playing with multiple people to actually use it, and it requires this big, pointless setup. If there’s anything in the game that explains that this magic only functions with multiple people playing, I never found it. Had I refused to look up how it works online, I’d have never figured it out because it’s simply impossible without other people.
And that type of needless confusion summarizes the game, really. I had a shopkeeper tell me that she could make me an item from part of a boss I picked up, but still don’t know if she ever actually gave it to me because the inventory system in Shadow is a mess and I never figured out how to tell which items I had equipped. Tower has a slightly better system, but that’s really only because that game as a whole has a great deal less complexity. While I’m on the subject of things I never really figured out, the fire resistance ring you can pick up after the optional red dragon fight in Tower. After beating that boss, you’re put on a timer and given free rein of the dragon’s hoard, which is just a bunch of chests with valuable stuff inside. The weird thing is that picking up the fire resistance ring automatically ends the room, so if you don’t know to pick it up last, you miss out on other items. This is terribly designed, and I have no explanation for why this could possibly be the case. Then there are the alternate characters in Shadow; every playable character has a different-colored alternate version. They seem to have all of the same moves, but I got the impression that they did different amounts of damage. Never figured out why you sometimes get them instead of the normal versions when you die and respawn, or what the exact differences are. I get the impression that you’d have to wiki-dive pretty deep to scratch the surface of these games, not because they’re more complex than your average cRPG, but because they make no effort to keep the player in the loop and instead obscure all of their whys and hows.
Classic music and good graphics, but with caveats
My first impression of Chronicles of Mystara’s music was overwhelmingly negative. Since Tower came out first, I decided to start there, and it felt like a giant mistake when I was greeted with a ~7 second loop that inexplicably makes up the entirety of its menu screen music and doesn’t even loop well. Shadow’s main menu music is a bit more tolerable because it’s longer and more detailed, but it was still a bit underwhelming. It was only when I actually started playing both games that I realized how suitable the cheesy music was given the high fantasy vibe and started to warm up to it (and the higher quality of the other tracks certainly didn’t hurt any). The graphics are a lot like the music for me, with the very first thing I noticed being the huge amount of screen flashing going on. If you’re sensitive to that kind of thing, this is definitely not the game for you. It really bothered me at first, but once I acclimated to the flashing, the high quality of the art really started to shine through. Everything here is really detailed and full of personality, and it’s easy to see how something that looks this good could trick a group of kids into foolishly trying to brave its barely tolerable cruelty.