In a sea of mediocrity that was E3 this year, there were very few things that made you stop and want to take a second or even a third look. However, the animation of a character called the Insect Queen was one of them. A logical extension of the Mantis from Die by the Sword, the Insect Queen is one of the enemies in the new Crave action-adventure title Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm.
Founded in 1996, the developer, Treyarch, is better known in the console arena for Triple Play 2000. However, over on the PC side of the industry, Treyarch's groundbreaking Die by the Sword truly put the "hack" back in the "hack and slash" genre, not to mention a bucketload of splatter. Ironically, especially considering the success of the product, Die by the Sword was a tough sell in the business before finally finding a home at Interplay, after Treyarch had invested in a proof-of-concept demo. While not revolutionary, the ability to control the fighters' shield and limbs independently had not been revisited in a long time. A successful add-on product, Limb from Limb, followed, and Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm is said to have been envisioned as a pseudo sequel to Die by the Sword. Ultimately, through various Byzantine business deals, the title ended up at Crave, a privately held Los Angeles-based publisher, which is aiming at the end of the year for a release.
The fantasy genre takes a number of forms, covering the spectrum from bright and light to dark and brooding. Originally known as both Blades of Vengeance and Sword of Vengeance, the newly renamed Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm is most certainly on the extreme edge of the dark side. A marvelous concoction of influences include The Crow, Dungeons & Dragons, Aliens, Tomb Raider, Dragonlance Novels, The Hobbit, Blade Runner, Golden Axe, and of course Die by the Sword, all blended into a third-person medieval setting. The engine was built from scratch but took into account the lessons learned from Die by the Sword.
The Treyarch component of the combined 27-member Crave and Treyarch team is headed by former Die by the Sword producer Chris Busse, while long-term industry veteran Mike Arkin heads the Crave effort. Arkin's background is impressive, with stops at Acclaim and Activision, and he has such hit titles as Die Hard Trilogy and Battlezone to his credit. We asked Arkin to update us on the back story. "The hero is the fifth child of a fifth child who is the ruler of a small kingdom near the 'borderlands' between mostly civilized territory and hostile wilderness. An ancient legend, from the early days of the Empire, has it that there was once a mighty hero who saved the land from a great dragon. Because this hero was a fifth child of a king who was himself a fifth child, it has become tradition to give any such person the honorary title of 'dragonsbane.' Now, dragons have long since vanished from the land, so the title is not taken literally anymore. Instead, it has been customary for the dragonsbane of a kingdom to be given special training and sent on dangerous but vital missions in the service of the kingdom."
But what is any fantasy story without a little discord? The threats that the hero will uncover and oppose are threefold but all related. A great dragon (X'calith) from another plane has magically opened portals to the hero's world and is planning to conquer the entire planet. The dragon has enlisted the aid of two allies: the stone giant Rakka and the Insectoid Queen. He is allowing them to cause disorder on their own while he prepares his Draconus army for invasion.
In true cliched marketing spiel, your job is to embark on an epic quest to unite the shattered kingdoms of humanity while saving them from the evil clutches of the rampaging dragon. To accomplish this feat, two characters are provided for the game player to play. Cynric is a muscle-bound knight who has superior hand-to-hand combat capabilities, while Aeowyn is a beautiful indomitable sorceress who, not surprisingly, prefers magic to defeat her enemies. Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm is a level-based game featuring 15 levels. There are three hubs (forest, swamp, and mountains) with five levels in each hub. These run the gamut from the standard indoor fare of dungeons and caverns to sweeping outdoor settings. The dungeons in particular follow the tried and tested method of traps and surprises. In putting together the levels, the team followed a four-layer approach. Once the level builders had set up a basic level with placeholder textures, AI scripting for various traps and detailed AI for characters were added. The level builders then added additional items, such as barrels, torches, and carts. Finally, special effect animators implemented such refinements as fire, fog, and waterfalls, while the texture map artists added the final textures.
For all the talk of polygons, frame rates, and other technical mumbo jumbo, the average consumer is only interested in the game looking good and playing well. The Dreamcast has the opportunity to shine by finally giving console animators the opportunity to impress with their talent for creating fluid models. Real artistic vision combined with superior modeling and engine design are now required. There's a definite leap in the overall "wow" factor, and this can be seen most prominently in the enemies that Treyarch has been creating for Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm. The previously mentioned Insect Queen with her slicing teeth and blade arms is one example, but there are others, such as a skeleton, a werewolf-style creature, the fire-breathing dragon, murderous giants, and goblins, to name a few of the more than 30 enemies expected in the final product.
The overall enemy AI is promised to be quite sophisticated. Gone are the days of characters attacking predictably. Now they can attack in a pack, dodge, and perform complex avoidance maneuvers. Again, Arkin expands for us: "There are 15 basic enemy types," he says "with variants pushing the number to well over 30, maybe even 40 different enemies. The variants are quite different from each other in both look and fighting style, so there really are over 30 enemy types."
One of the few criticisms of Die by the Sword was that the combat system was far too involved. In Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm, the complexity of the weapon combat has been lessened. Overall there are two kinds of combat: hand-to-hand, which includes weapon-based combat, and magic. Over 30 spells and power-ups are provided to cast against the assorted foes. Hand-to-hand combat features a combination system that allows a number of different moves but is simple in its implementation. Weapons can be upgraded depending on how the player character performs in a level.
Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm is in many ways a curious beast. Is it an action title? Is it an adventure title? And should it be considered an RPG? The answer to all those questions is yes. Regardless of what label we can or can't put on it, Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm may just turn out to be impressive fantasy adventure delivering swordplay and sorcery to the Dreamcast.