In the midst of new AAA and indie titles being released, Iron Galaxy Studios has reached into the chest of 90s arcade games and pulled out two Capcom arcade classics inspired by the Dungeons & Dragons table-top adventure game. Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara contains two D&D-themed button mashers: Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom and Dungeons and Dragons: Shadow over Mystara.
As the name suggests, the two games take place in the land of Mystara, and together follow a storyline seen many times before in games. An impending doom looms over a joyful land and a team of misfit heroes is needed to eradicate the evil. Dungeon & Dragons fans should not expect to see a story as detailed and elaborate as ones created by an ambitious dungeon master. The story is slightly above the bar set in terms of 90s arcade games, but pales immensely in comparison to most retail games found today, so don’t expect to find yourself becoming invested in the storyline or characters. While mildly interesting, the plot serves mainly as a flimsy push from point A to point B to point C. It’s forgettable and events happen very quickly, making it easy to miss important plot points on the first playthrough, especially if you’re playing with a trigger-happy companion.
After further playthroughs, I discovered that although I may have missed some details in my first run, some events are just never explained. There is a point in Shadow over Mystara where the heroes are in peril but are saved by a random figure that appears out of thin air, standing next to the heroes as the stage ends. This figure is never seen again, nor is he even given any kind of name or identification--not even a label of “mysterious figure.” A minor gripe, but it’s one that can actually fit under the overused term "plot hole."
Of course, for those looking for an old-school arcade experience, Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara delivers in full force. Both beautifully rendered 8-bit games have surprisingly detailed characters and environments that add impressive atmosphere. The environments themselves also often have various hidden secrets that encourage multiple playthroughs (especially so in Shadow over Mystara). The all-important gameplay also has been left raw in all its perfection, or imperfection.
Arcade games are known to be notoriously difficult in order to literally nickel-and-dime players. The two entries in Chronicles of Mystara were no different when originally created. Fortunately for the console player, instead of dishing out quarter after quarter to bring your character back to life, a simple press of the Start button puts the player right back into the action. While financially forgiving, this feature is also an unfortunate one. The player is allowed an infinite number of deaths, completely alleviating the fear of death and essentially removing any challenge. There is a counter that keeps track of every “continue” used during your playing, which presumably affects your final score.
Both titles found in Chronicles of Mystara fit the definition of button masher. The first game, Tower of Doom, has four playable characters to select from: warrior, dwarf fighter, cleric, and elf sorceress. The second game, Shadow over Mystara, has six characters which include the previous four characters and the additions of a sorcerer and thief. Each character has clear advantages and disadvantages to them. For example, the dwarf has a short reach but deals sizeable melee damage and has a large health bar, while the sorcerer deals minimal melee damage with a small health bar but has magical attacks that devastate enemies. While character stats are hidden, they become quite apparent as soon as they are used. I personally found the magic users to be the most interesting and effective, but using a spell temporarily pauses everything onscreen while the spell animation plays out. This can get tiresome for players using melee-focused characters, because they'll be forced to sit and wait until a magic user runs out of spells before they can truly contribute to a fight.
Both games can be experienced independently or with friends, supporting up to four players at once on a single console. These arcade ports also offer online matchmaking, letting you play with up to three other players online. Joining up with friends or people online is highly encouraged. Playing through either game on your own can be a slog no matter what difficulty level is selected, and you can quickly become overwhelmed by enemies. Having multiple players onscreen makes fighting more interesting and boss battles more tactical.
All things considered, combat in Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara improves from Tower of Doom to Shadow over Mystara, but it is still not perfect by any means. Many of the mechanical discrepancies are understandable due to the nature of these games being originally made in the 90s, but could pose issue to the taste of today’s gamer. Players can attack and pick up loot with the X button, jump and crouch using the Circle button, select usable items with Triangle, and use those items with Square. A sometimes-fatal issue that arises with the X button when fighting is having your character start looting fallen enemies in the middle of a hectic battle. The overall game mechanics are solid in both games, but the hit range of attacks for both melee and magic seem to be inconsistent at times, including attacks from enemies. This can make it difficult to anticipate enemy attacks or where yours will land.
Still, my greatest concern with the combat system is the inability to block. Enemies frequently block your attacks, while you are left with no means to defend yourself. Sure, in Shadow over Mystara you can equip a shield as a usable item, but it is essentially worthless, rarely able to successfully stop even the weakest of opponents’ attacks.
An option made available in Shadow over Mystara is the ability to switch to a different character upon death. The return of your character also does significant damage to all enemies on screen. In Tower of Doom, you are forced to play as your originally selected character through the entire campaign and your character’s return does not damage enemies. Another improvement over the first game is the music. The 8-bit music in the first game is almost painful to listen to, but Capcom redeemed itself with a fairly infectious soundtrack for Shadow over Mystara.
Chronicles of Mystara’s most endearing quality is the addition of the Vault Points system, another tool used to encourage multiple playthroughs. Players earn Vault Points by completing Challenges, such as getting 100 kills or collecting 1,000 coins. These challenges are shown on the side of your screen as you progress through them and are also closely tied with the game’s Trophy list. Once Vault Points are earned, they can then be used to unlock cheats for the games, original posters, and brilliant concept artwork. I probably spent an hour just admiring and reading the footnotes of the artwork I unlocked.
In the end, Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara is a competent arcade port with tasteful additions. It preserves the original Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom and Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara games, in all their quality and imperfection. The themed button mashers are a far cry from what inspired them, but provide several hours of entertainment for not so conservative D&D fans and classic arcade fans alike, be it online or off. They are fitted with great art and sound that envelope a predictable storyline seen many times before, but the addition of the Vault System, Challenges, and Trophies provides a new dimension to the arcade ports and rewards players surprisingly well. If you're a D&D player, or just a fan of arcade classics and solid gameplay, this package is for you.
-The Final Word-
Chronicles of Mystara won't wow gamers with modern tastes, but it's a competent arcade port that pays due respect while introducing tasteful new features.