Unlike a lot of arcade mainstays, brawlers haven't made as strong a transition to the modern gaming environment for some pretty obvious reasons. Plenty of brawlers were cheap to the point of frustrating, sucking quarters from players through a combination of ruthless difficulty and sometimes-unbalanced, downright unfair gameplay.
Capcom's Dungeons & Dragons arcade games are responsible for a shift in brawlers toward a more RPG-like mindset, letting you customize and level up characters to break up the "tedium" of beating down an army of bad guys. They've directly influenced some of the best that the genre has to offer, including Treasure's Guardian Heroes, the recent Code of Princess from Agatsuma, and the hotly-anticipated Dragon's Crown from Vanillaware. However, the two Capcom D&D games--Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara--have only been available in arcades in the west, with a very limited Saturn release only available in Japan.
If you saw this machine in the arcade, you knew it was time for you and your friends to lose all your money
Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara brings the series back to modern platforms (the collection is available on PSN, Xbox Live, Steam, and the Wii U), updating both games with HD graphic filters, a variety of viewing modes, leaderboards, online play, four-player local co-op, a lengthy list of challenges, and a surprising amount of unlockable content. But do these classic action-RPGs still hold up?
While you think about that question, look back at some of the classic arcade titles that have been re-released as digital downloads. We were excited that the insane six-player X-Men game was coming back, but beyond the sheer novelty of a six-player brawler, how many of you are still playing it? The same goes for Konami's four-player Simpsons arcade game, so you can understand my concerns for this D&D collection.
Chronicles of Mystara defaults to the second game, Shadow over Mystara, but it's worth checking out Tower of Doom to see just how much Shadow improved on the formula. Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom gives you a choice of four characters--Fighter, Elf, Dwarf, and Cleric--and sets off on an adventure with upgradeable armor and weapons, persistent character experience, and branching story paths determined by player vote. The HUD is pretty basic, showing your character's sub-weapon or equipped spell, and the gameplay makes a few additions to the standard brawler formula, like simple command specials and dash attacks.
The combat never feels stiff or repetitive because you're given so many options from class to class, whether you're carving up hordes of enemies with a sword in each hand as a Fighter or Dwarf, turning them into pincushions as a bow-wielding elf, or wreaking havoc with support spells and hilarious debuffs as a Cleric. When you switch over to Shadow over Mystara, it follows the same template of Tower of Doom, but with quite a bit more extra content.
Shadow over Mystara adds the Magic User and Thief classes to the game, each perfectly balanced for team play--the Thief can freely unlock treasure chests or strike distant enemies with her sling, while the fragile Magic User can use screen-clearing spells and deal massive damage to bosses. Melee combat follows almost the same setup as Tower of Doom, but it feels tighter and more polished in Shadow over Mystara. The HUD has been vastly improved, showing up as a ring menu around your character. It might take some players a bit of getting used to, but I found it faster and smoother than Tower of Doom's setup. Overall, Tower of Doom is a fun brawler that is completely overshadowed by the out-and-out better Shadow over Mystara.
Like Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition and Darkstalkers Resurrection, Chronicles of Mystara comes with a long list of in-game challenges, but they never end up being too difficult or obscure--all of these challenges will be completed in time by players who use a variety of characters to work through both games. The game also tracks which characters you use the most, keeps their levels for future playthroughs, and a full list of treasure and items you've collected. Completed challenges and collecting treasures earn you points to unlock concept art, arcade flyers, and my personal favorite new addition, House Rules.
Much like playing an actual game of D&D, you're able to flexibly customize your experience with adjustable House Rules settings, like "Unbreakable," which makes all items and equipment permanent for an easier game, or the hectic "Enemy Rush," which puts each level on a 30-second timer, only adding time to the clock when enemies are killed. "Vampirism" is a favorite of mine, where you're only able to regenerate health by attacking enemies, and "Make it Rain" is great for filling up your treasure lists, as enemies drop insane amounts of gold. There are plenty of other House Rules to tailor your Chronicles of Mystara games to your group of friends.
When Capcom gave me the review copy for this, I was only able to play local four-player co-op, which is an absolute blast, but now that the game is out I'm finding that the online is solid, if not amazing. I love the drop-in/drop-out online multiplayer, and while I've experienced occasional slowdown (usually with killstealing Magic Users), I'm not having any real problems with playing people across the country.
It's actually kinda hard to find screenshots of stuff other than the Magic User stomping all kinds of ass
The usefulness and sheer variety of equippable armor, weapons, and magic items make every fight a scramble for treasure, and the persistent character leveling makes the lightning-fast, beautifully-animated arcade action a chaotic romp. However, there are plenty of infuriatingly cheap enemies spread throughout both games--while there are unlimited continues, it can get irritating to have to keep dying over and over again when you're taking on enemies like Red Dragons who can kill you in one hit. On a final note, I'm in kind of a minority here, but I also find the HD filters to be ugly as sin. Pixel art tends to be a showcase of working wonders within specific limits, and these games were paragons of top-notch 2D game graphics--smoothing them out strips away a lot of the craftsmanship that went into these classic titles.
Taking all that into account, Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara is a worthwhile pair of high-action, high-adventure brawlers, with enough built-in replayability and additional content to keep players defending Mystara for a long time to come.
At least, until Capcom decides to release an HD version of Aliens vs. Predator.
+ Furious four-player fun, with deeper and more flexible combat than most side-scrolling brawlers
+ RPG elements like experience and equippable armor and weapons keep the game replayable
+ Instead of basic "balanced" or "speed" classes, D&D's character classes all play and fight very differently
+/- Comes bundled with both Capcom D&D titles, but there is little reason to play Tower of Doom other than for completion's sake
- The games show off the bad side of arcade gaming with some hilariously cheap boss enemies
- Compared to later Capcom titles, the HD filters actually detract from the visuals, in my opinion