Dragon Blaze (Arcade) review
"Dragon Shot enemies for gold coins."
Let me make one thing absolutely clear: Iím not a shooter expert. I wish I could prove my credibility with a list of titles that Iíve conquered on one credit or a table of high scores that would make your eyes widen with admiration, but I canít do this and Iím not going to pretend. My efforts are usually shot down in flames by an impenetrable burst of neon pink bullets. I never seem able to muster the concentration required to memorise these patterns, let alone understand their intricate scoring systems.
Itís not that I havenít played enough shooters. Iíve enjoyed the whimsical humour of Gunbird 2, relished the destructive power of the DoDonPachi weapon system and invested hours in GigaWing without really understanding the logic behind its million digit scores. I even bought the Sega Direct version of Under Defeat, complete with the collectible poster and sticker! Despite this, Iíve never really felt that Iíve been playing these shooters properly. My casual approach and superficial appreciation have prevented me from comprehending the true intensity of a high score run.
As with most rules thereís a lone exception to this tale of scoring inadequacy. That exception is Dragon Blaze, a shmup I return to again and again in the often futile hope of bettering my hard-fought score. Iím hooked on its dark fantasy world, uncompromising bullet patterns and the transparent simplicity of achieving a high score.
Psykioís penultimate arcade shmup features an unconventional scoring system that rewards your ability to Dragon Shot enemies. In this exuberant realm of goblins, monsters and bullet-spewing fungi, your avatar is an heroic knight who sits atop a mighty dragon. The Dragon Shot is a destructive move that sees our intrepid hero thrust his steed towards the creatures that litter the screen, obliterating everything in its path. The rider is then left alone to glide through the electric storm of projectiles until the dragon is recalled, at which point the process can be repeated. The value of the Dragon Shot is in the gold coins left behind by the enemies it slaughters, as opposed to the silver coins yielded by the normal shot. If you want to score well you must rely heavily on this technique. Aside from two extra tricks that reward you with bonus points, this is the extent of Dragon Blazeís scoring system. Dragon Shot enemies for gold coins. Thatís it.
Any illusions you have about the ease of collecting gold coins will be shattered by the ferocity of the enemies as they unleash bullet hell. Herein lies the terrific intensity of playing for score in Dragon Blaze. You need to stay close to your enemies in order to keep them within Dragon Shot range, but doing so poses a massive risk given how fast and intricate the bullet patterns can be. The Dragon Shot does enable you to take down certain enemies in an instant, which is a relief when you manage to destroy the larger creatures before theyíre able to deliver a single bullet onto the screen. Yet this approach forces you right into the thick of the action as you weave through the fluorescent pellets left by smaller pests in order to collect precious gold coins. You could hold back and settle for silver coins, but scoring only becomes more difficult as the game goes on.
Dragon Blaze is given extra depth by the Coin Heads hidden in each stage and the Technical Bonus awarded if you manage to survive the daunting patterns emitted by the bosses and Dragon Shot their weak spot. But these are unrelated extras that donít drastically affect your run if missed. You donít need to chain coins or worry about multipliers in Dragon Blaze Ė just Dragon Shot enemies for gold coins! Itís simple, but itís so intuitive that playing for score becomes second nature as you Dragon Shot your foes and collect their gold coins almost by instinct. The clear, uncomplicated brilliance of this system allows you to devote maximum concentration to your memorisation of bullet patterns. If youíve played a Psykio shmup then you might feel a deep sense of foreboding at the mention of pattern memorisation. Bullet formations in Psykio titles tend to be elaborate, plentiful and fast, which makes dodging them on reactions alone almost impossible. You need to have some idea of whatís going to happen if youíre going to survive the neon pink storm!
This is not unreasonable, however. Stages in Dragon Blaze are short and tend to feature around five unique enemies per level, which makes recognition easier as most patterns are repeated. It doesnít make the game easy, mind you. Quick reactions are still required to evade the monstrous patterns, especially when youíre forced to squeeze through the tightest of gaps. But it does at least make the game manageable. Dragon Blaze is a demanding shooter that punishes sloppy play and requires dedication if you want to achieve a good score, but itís never unfair. Youíre never bogged down by an incomprehensible scoring system or absurd patterns. Towards the climax of the first loop the action becomes truly manic, but even here there are still slower moments. (The second loop, however, is completely insane.)
Perhaps the most telling appraisal I can make is that Iím not done with Dragon Blaze. Despite my track record of quickly losing interest in any attempt to really understand a shooter, I keep coming back to Psykioís hostile world of dragons, monsters and gold coins. My efforts often result in failure, but I persist for those rare occasions when I manage to forge on and beat my previous record. Improving a high score by as little as ten thousand points feels like an achievement in Dragon Blaze because Psykio make you work bloody hard for those points. My personal best of 583,400 is not going to have people clamouring for a Super Play, but the very fact that Iíve devoted time and effort into achieving this is a testament to the compelling excellence of Dragon Blaze. Psykioís shooter is something different. It does dark fantasy without resorting to cutesy themes and its scoring system is unique yet simple to grasp. Dodging murderous patterns of neon pink bullets is still an arduous task, but itís a task I will continue to take on. The allure of thrusting my dragon into an armoured turtle or giant mosquito for a treasure trove of gold coins that will tip my score over the 600,000 mark is just too enticing. This is the intensity of a high score run.
Community review by JANUS2 (February 18, 2009)
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