Friday 1 April 2016

Mega Drive Review - Alisia Dragoon (Game 103)

When you only know the most famous games, its very easy to miss the great but ignored. Alisia Dragoon may be part shooter, part platfomer, part RPG but that doesn't stop it being all great.

Developed by Game Arts
Published by Sega
Released in 1992

Behaving like a blinkered fanboy is clearly a very silly approach to gaming, but there is at least one huge benefit. When you come out of the other side and realise there is more than one console for you, you're suddenly embraced by a huge selection of games. Growing up, I was so devoted to Nintendo that I didn't even like multi-format games magazines. It wasn't because I wasn't interested in what Sega owners were enjoying, I was appalled by even catching a glimpse of a screen shot for platform exclusive games. Of course, as I wasn't living under a rock I knew of the big titles; the 'Sonics', 'MoonWalkers' and 'Streets of Rages' but the smaller more quirky titles totally passed me by.

Anyone interested in video games can probably list the big titles for most systems but often the lesser known, more obscure games offer just as much, if not more. To make things even sweeter, because less people know about these forgotten greats, less people search on eBay for them. Less searches means less competition and less competition means a lower final price. So, when someone embarks on a new games collection adventure I would always suggest they search for "hidden gems" on YouTube. This is why I have YouTuber "MetalJesusRocks" and his pal Reggie to thank. They introduced me to 'Alisia Dragoon', a game that came very highly recommended on their video. It'll come as know surprise that this MegaDrive exclusive game hadn't registered at all on my Nintendo loving radar.

It was developed by Game Arts in 1992, the very same studio who would eventually go on to create the 'Grandia' and 'Lunar' series. Despite a limited print run and some terribly off putting over-sexualised box art, the title was loved by critics at the time. "'Alisia Dragoon' is a welcome addition to the MegaDrive arcade adventure collection" SegaPro magazine wrote. It was something critic Julian Rignal agreed with in his review. "'Alisia Dragoon' is an excellent platform-based blaster and sports challenging gameplay and some pretty unusual features. [It] is a game that's highly recommended to shoot 'em up and platform addicts alike!"

The fact that the reviewers couldn't agree on the genre of the game is testament to the unique gameplay offered in 'Alisia Dragoon' and there is no game that it can be directly be compared to.

The game sees you in control of Alisia, who moves through eight increasingly more difficult side scrolling worlds shooting lightening from her hands. However, there is a power meter for your lightening attack meaning you're unable to fire continually. Once entirely depleted Alisia is left defenceless until the gauge refills. Conversely If you refrain from firing the metre fills and when charged fully, you can do a "rolling blast" attack that usually clears the screen of lesser enemies.

To aide her on her quest she's is joined by four dragons, who can be selected one at a time. On offer is a dragon which shoots flames, a roaming fireball which acts as a shield, a lizard that shoots out boomerangs and finally a slightly over powered thunder raven, which every minute launches a screen wide flash that damages all enemies. However, despite their powers, each are vulnerable and able to die permanently. Deciding which, if any, to risk in a given situation is key to success in the game; a thought that Mean Machines magazine agreed with. "Although it doesn't seem like it at first, the different dragons are very useful" they noted. "Especially on later levels where they can be used tactically to make the going easier." When not in use the dragons are safe, but they can only level up when in play and are able to kill monsters. Like Alisia herself, each dragon is able to upgrade their powers, so there's a risk reward mechanic at work.

Given that 'Alisia Dragoon' a 2D side scrolling game, the constant shooting action may remind you of games like 'Super Probotector'.
However, this game is far more tactical and doesn't offer a variety of weapons or even a need to aim at foes. Alisia targets every onscreen enemy automatically leading to a focus on dodging attacks. With her dragon companions the game feels very different to a "run and gun", if anything it's more like a grounded "bullet hell shooter". The fantasy setting, character design and levelling up may seem like RPG fare but that's where that similarities would end. Additionally, despite platforming elements which play similar to 'Valis' or 'Actraiser' games, 'Alisia Dragoon's emphasis on frantic shooting action kills that comparison. While it may have a projectile firing female protagonist like 'Super Metroid' this game is far more arcadey and immediate, with no back tracking and far less exploration.

However like all of the aforementioned games 'Alisia Dragoon' is exceptionally hard. "At the beginning, I thought that the homing lightning beam would make this too easy, but as soon as I reached the end-of-level boss, my preconceptions were horribly dashed" critic Richard Leadbetter once commented. "'Alisia Dragoon' is a tough mother of a game, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you in an attempt to end you game".
A difficult first stage is actually intended to be an introduction; easing you into the game. From stage two onward the number and difficulty of the enemies significantly increases, so judicious use of the lighting attack is essential if Alisia is to survive. She starts with only one life and continues are extremely rare. Worse still using one after death means you're mercilessly put back to the beginning of the level. By the end of the game, you'll be fighting enemies nearly nonstop. Many of them just appearing out of thin air and absorbing multiple hits before they disapear. All the while, more foes are piling into the melee often swamping Alisia and her dragon of choice. Amidst all of the chaos, you need to be mindful of your magic meter, as otherwise you can easily end up being unable to attack leading to an inevitable and quick death. In addition to all of the enemies, there are also traps in various stages such as moving platforms, hot lava, and discarded munitions that explode when struck by magic. However a difficult concealed route is often an indication of upgrades ahead.

If you're anything like me, you'll play 'Alisia Dragoon' continually looking for ways to not head in the direction you're suppose to go. Heading off the beaten track yields rewards, so the best approach to the game is to try to find hidden paths to keep levelling up Alisia and her dragons. Doing this gives you the greatest fighting chance towards the end of the game when enemies come thick and fast. Without a high enough ranking character you simply won't be afforded enough time to recharge your lightening power, making completion of the game impossible. Like so many RPGs, the longer you spend exploring the easier environments, the greater your chance of success when things step up in difficulty.

Of course, should all that seem like too much work there is a cheat code that can be used to skip levels, become invincible and even to fully power up Alisia. Though it means the game can be finished in just over an hour, it's worth using rather than simply giving up on the game.

There's lots to see in 'Alisia's Dragoon', it really isn't a game where the first level is indicative of the rest of the game. Often, to elongate their length, many action games are guilty of simply reusing the same level templates, but 'Alisia Dragoon' couldn't be accused of this. There is a huge variety of stages and by the game's conclusion Alisia would have traversed a mountain, swamp, temple, volcano, airship and castle. She would even have ventured inside a collapsing spaceship, when the whole impressive level is set at a slanted angle. It illustrates how every stage not only looks different but plays differently too. Each demand different approaches and the creative game design means that you very rarely have an entire level moving left to right.

The creativity extends to enemy variety too. Almost every foe is unique to one stage, you won't see cave trolls in space or robots in temples for example. As they don't have to be generic, each enemy can as a result be reflective of the world they inhabit giving a nice sense of cohesion to the game. But even with such stage diversity the transition between the stages is thoughtful and logical. Alisia won't just appear on a spacecraft, she will board it in the previous stage and would have seen the exterior of it in an even earlier level. It's attention to detail like this that really makes 'Alisia Dragoon' feel lavish and it's no surprise that It was produced by the anime studio Gainax, of 'Neon Genesis Evangeleon' fame.

With Gainax involved you would expect a great story, but the truth is (Like most older action games) the plot is pretty thin. There are two interludes when characters talk and a pre-game set up but most of the story can only be found out by reading the manual. Alisia's father was a mage who fought against the dark god Baldour, who has visited Earth for to spread dark magic. Essentially, Alisia's father was captured and murdered before her very eyes by the dark god and his right hand man Ornah. Now grown, Alisia has become a magician of great power specialising, naturally, in her father's  power of light and thunder. This means that when Baldour's cocoon returns to Earth, she is able to pursue Ornah and his master across eight stages to seek her revenge, ideally before the dark cocoon hatches releasing Baldour's personified fury. It's a slightly silly story, and even if you manage to overcome the difficulty and reach the end the narrative isn't really concluded. Yes, Alisia defeats Ornah and Baldour but upon returning to her village all she gets is a handshake from some random mystic. This is hardly the work of great fiction and not a suitable reward for the effort spent reaching the story's conclusion.

So, the plot is lacking, the visuals are impressive but it is the game's audio that really stands out. As SegaPro magazine put it, 'Alisia Draoon' is "Graphically great, but musically masterful".

Game reviewer James Scullion in particular loved the game's score. "Possibly the most astounding thing about 'Alisia' is the music" he once wrote. "There are 21 in game tunes, including Elizabethan Waltzes, techno moshes, medieval fripperies and New Age meditationals all of which add marvelously to the scenario". The sound effects too were of note for Scullion and according to him the game had more sound effects than any Mega Drive game up to that point. "All are loud and proud and deserve full volume" he adds.

'Alisia Dragoon' is clearly a Hidden gem, a cult classic but that also makes it a game that is unappreciated. While that allowed me to get it for a bargain price, it does mean not enough people know of its majesty. It proves that the Mega Drive isn’t just fast hedgehogs and scrolling fighting games. While it’s hard to define 'Alisia Dragoon's genre, it isn’t hard to appreciate its quality.

Where did I get this game from?
After watching 'MetalJesusRock's recommendation on YouTube, I went straight to eBay to buy 'Alisia Dragoon'. Three years of buying Snes games for increasingly inflating prices left me shocked when I saw the going rate for Mega Drive games. Were this rare gem on a Nintendo 16 bit machine I have no doubt it would've set me back over £50, but Mega Drive games command a fraction of that price. A near mint boxed version was less than £15 posted. For the same price you can barely get a Snes boxed sports title, which shows just how silly I've been devoting my time to one console for so long!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.