Dragon Wars (Apple II) review
"Bard's Tale IV never came--in name, anyway. It took a couple times through Dragon Wars (DW) for me to see I'd found something as good. "
Bard's Tale IV never came--in name, anyway. It took a couple times through Dragon Wars (DW) for me to see I'd found something as good. I'd expected sequels to offer flashier graphics, more 5 1/4" disks, and such, but DW is possibly the most polished RPG all-around of the Apple II era. It snuck in at the end, but it offers more than just transparency in its animations or a neat auto-map or less keyboard bashing during combat. It's a full world full of Babylonian mythology where the bad guys never feel like a block of hit points to overcome, and the good guys do more than assign quests.
Perhaps it's a bit too full at the start. Your party starts in the city of Purgatory without any possessions. Each member has a pool of points for skills. Different ones allow different escape routes, but it's hard to know what helps, where. Magic, banned at the decree of big-bad-guy Namtar, is a big risk, since you need to find hidden scrolls to learn spells. Also, some skills wind up being outright useless, and perhaps the worst part is that there's a dead period in the game where levels (and additional points for skills and attributes) are hard to come by. There's some inconsistency, too. Several Lore skills are critical while others just add descriptive text. Others just provide slightly easier alternate solutions to mapping quests.
Unfortunately, this first impression, along with the intertwining world immediately outside Purgatory, can be overwhelming. Many may be frustrated they can't find any way out of Purgatory, much less the five or six that become apparent after you explore beyond Purgatory. Those finding the underworld may be baffled by all the stairs up and tough monsters, even if they can run without shame. Treasure, except for critical stuff later in the game, disappears when you leave the area, and often there's one interesting item that can't quite fit in your inventory. While important items are flagged as PRICELESS so getting stuck in a winless position is improbable, many interesting combat items may be left behind, even with the three early NPCs that fill out your party. While you can restart in Purgatory with skills but not possessions intact, there always seem to be more interesting items than you can experiment practically with. Some of the later areas would be more ideal starter dungeons than Purgatory.
Yet while DW may be unwelcoming to novices, the story pulls together, and many of the fights along the way are legitimate challenge. While there's no set best path, side quests reveal items that often help your party more than leveling up, and several locations and islands often weave together to create a clear back story. Fights aren't about who has the most hit or magic points. Different parties of enemies in one combat can block your attacks, stun the party, or quite simply not allow you to advance to hit the mage in the back row. Most monsters just stun your party and give experience but not gold. The ones that actually drain hit points generally drop gold, which winds up mattering much less than you'd think, or give items. And you usually have to be stubborn to get killed--healing spells can revive stunned players but risk them getting killed later.
And getting killed is serious business. There's no resurrection spell achieved by level grinding. There's an area in the Underworld you can't walk to, and instead you need to take a boat and fight through Necropolis. I've wound up immersed enough in the game that I forgot to save regularly, then groaned when I needed to sidetrack. But it makes for a much nicer story than Bard's Tale I or II, where resurrection in a temple was right around the corner. You just had to create a few characters, rob their gold, and delete them. That's dreadfully mercenary.
The big challenges in DW occur after building a strong party. For instance, raising a character's HP too far above another's bandaging skills increases the risk of death, but you never see these numbers, since they're replaced by colorful status bars. Similarly, gold doesn't matter--there's an alternate screen for all that--and relegating technical details to a special page keeps the focus on the story. With several pools, camps and items to recharge, the challenge becomes seeing if you can island-hop far enough without getting beaten.
DW isn't just about solving quests and making people happy, though. It's possible to wipe a couple cities from the map with your carelessness, or even to double-cross the good guys in a war. There's nothing resembling a forced riddle in the game. Though skills aren't perfectly sorted, you can save skill points for later, so you know what to do in a jail with squeaky floors or a collapsed tunnel. The skill and combat puzzles merge in an incredibly satisfying fight with a group of pirates who guard a speedy boat that can reach far-off islands. Several combinations of spells work, but each time through, I seemed to find better until I realized a way to win with mostly Low Magic. On the other hand, an optional fight near the end is tougher if you over-power your characters the wrong way. I once increased my healers' dexterity so high that they cast their spells before all enemy dragons breathed. I don't know if the developers planned that detail, but there are several like it elsewhere, which can't be an accident.
Exploring's as optional as leveling. Technically, there are only two critical quests before the nightmare-maze of the Nisir and the final series of combats with Namtar. The side quests generally give items that raise armor or weapon damage enough to survive later. Part of the magic for me was finding new items like The Slicer or magic chain mail and balancing items for how they help your attack and defense. There're clues the gods are squabbling, and you can see how they'd let Namtar take over Dilmun. If you do enough, they eventually tell you how to piece together a powerful sword. They all seem to be blowing you off a little, except for Namtar, who's wonderfully insulting because he knows he can resurrect--well, a few times. He and his henchmen escape from fights throughout the game to lead you on, and in fact his final combats force you to rely on different strengths. So the hubris fits in with the challenge.
You don't have to solve the main quest immediately. In some ruins, you may find pieces of a stone body and, eventually, the statue dais itself, and it's obvious there are other pieces. Certain squares explain you need to do something, usually finding an item or spell on an entirely different island to reach somewhere new. One useless-seeming spell suddenly becomes appropriate in a critical area if you're paying attention. A tough hack through Dragon Valley for some powerful items and then meet up with the Dragon Queen, who will destroy cheated characters without diplomacy. The Magic College is a beautifully minimalist combination of puzzles and fights. I remember thinking I shouldn't have killed two giant half-scorpions guarding a bridge and finding how to placate them later. In most games I'd have taken the experience points, but DW left that sense of mystery that actually made me want to read Babylonian mythology.
I didn't realize how good Dragon Wars was until I played it a few times. Despite some clever giggly anachronisms, fourth-wall jokes and paragraph book narratives (for copy-protection and saving disk space) it didn't quite have Wasteland's over-the-top humor, and it didn't have the baffling array of mazes and riddles of the Bard's Tale series. With more emphasis on where and how and when to complete certain quests or burn magic spells, DW found a new way to be tough than most early games. It's not any more. I've played too much, but there's still variety in the side quests to fiddle with. I loved other games more intensely as a kid, but when I replay several of my favorite Apple games, DW always seems to make it in there.
Community review by aschultz (February 06, 2012)
Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.
If you enjoyed this Dragon Wars review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!