While being easy to pick up and play increases the chances of a game reaching a wider audience, sometimes a game can be crippled from the beginning by having too much of an emphasis on ease of use and nothing to keep the interest of those who play it. Dragon Rage is a game that relies on simplicity as a function, and the result is a game that doesn't attempt to go beyond what is to be played in the first level. Riding shotgun with this flaw are subpar visuals, while uninspired music and poor voice acting take the two backseats.
The game's only strong point lies in the story. Dragon Rage takes place in Ardon (though the world is called Zeen on 3DO's Web site), a world in which orcs have enslaved all mystical creatures that would return the world to the way it was a thousand years ago. Presumably, Ardon was more peaceful before the orcs twisted dragons and sprites into the means by which they implement their destruction. Dragons and sprites use the magical powers of an element called zeenium, which grants them the power of magic and fire. The only way for the orcs to bend this element to their will is to harvest it from the dragons and their eggs. They do this by slaughtering every dragon and cracking every egg they can get their hands on.
The story opens with a CG sequence in which the main character, Cael Cyndar, is about to be harvested for zeenium. As he approaches his fiery demise, he regains consciousness, and in a fiery struggle he breaks free of his bonds, destroys the slaughterhouse, and escapes in the nick of time. The game kicks off with a tutorial mode, where Cael is transported to the magical equivalent of virtual reality, where a sprite guides him through a number of trials that should get you accustomed to the game mechanics in no time.
Cael's control is simple. He remains airborne throughout the game, and flying around is an easy endeavor. The left analog stick controls direction, pitch, and yaw, while the right analog stick can make him hover when you press R3. L1 and R1 let Cael strafe left and right, and L2 and R2 let him flip 180 degrees and do a complete loop, respectively. The control is easy to get used to, but the game would have benefited from a more complete system. Airspeed remains at a constant pace, and the only way to speed up is to use magical powers, which in turn drain mana. Similarly, the ability to slow down is absent. The only option available is to risk a complete stop, which makes Cael an easy target for the ever-present orc archers on the ground.
The most damaging weapons in Cael's arsenal require some restraint to be used efficiently. Your offensive powers range from the dragon attack, which causes Cael to swoop close to the ground and physically attack or eat enemies, to the breath weapon, which changes according to the most recent elemental gem you've picked up. A red sphere grants the power of fire, a green sphere gives you the power of earth as an earthbound rolling ball, a blue sphere is the power of water in the form of high-velocity ice shards, and a white sphere gives the power of air, which manifests as lightening bolts. Holding down the square button while using a breath weapon releases a more powerful version of the basic attack, but it also drains more mana.
The game uses a very robust auto-aiming system when you're using projectile weapons, which is to say that the game aims for you. There is no reticle that you can use to aim--you can only point Cael in the direction of the bad guy and hope for the best. This works well enough when there are only a few enemies onscreen, but when you're strafing a town, Cael's neck will be pulled from side to side while his attack is steered toward the nearest target. This is particularly frustrating when you're trying to take out orc captains--much more powerful enemies who are typically surrounded by a group of less powerful orcs. Sometimes the only option is to destroy every surrounding target until the captain is the only thing left to shoot at. Later on, as your weapons become more powerful, this is less of an issue, but for the first half of the game it can be a pain.
In sticking to its obvious shooter roots, Dragon Rage also has a powerful attack that can be used once before it needs to be recharged. This attack is aptly named the fury attack, and it lets Cael inflict massive amounts of damage on everything in his immediate vicinity. Like the basic breath weapon, this attack changes according to the element you're currently using and is typically a much more powerful version of the regular breath weapon.
As mana is drained, breath weapon attacks will no longer be available. To restore lost mana points, you'll need to swoop close to the ground and, ironically, eat orcs, which will replenish your zeenium. Restoring lost hit points is in turn done by eating farm animals. In an amusing twist, restoring the fury attack is done by eating cows and collecting their souls. Eating them will restore some hit points as well, but to completely regain your fury attack you will need to collect five cow souls and drop them off at a shrine, which lights up when you've met the quota. The cow souls moo deeply as they are sucked away into the shrine; this makes for one of the game's humorous high points.
Dragon Rage is mission based, with each level presenting an obstacle to overcome. They are generally of the most basic variety: Destroy all the orcs in the level, destroy the town, destroy the tower, and so on. There are also a few rescue missions where orcs have captured either dragon eggs or an ally, and it's up to you to stop them and release your friends. Take those two basic schemes, rinse and repeat, and you have the bulk of the campaign mode in your hands.
Graphically, Dragon Rage won't impress anybody either. Much like the game's theory of control, simplicity is the rule. Textures are pretty basic, and there isn't much variety as they are reused throughout the game. The terrain is also basic, but at least the environments aren't barren. To the game's credit, there is always plenty of stuff for you to incinerate, blow up, or smash. That said, the environments also tend to be small and have a tight draw-in distance. You won't spend a whole lot of time exploring in this game--destruction is the law. Cael is pretty decent looking, but his animation is basic. When he swoops to eat hapless enemies and animals, it looks like he merely impales them on his snout and shakes their bodies until they fly apart in blockish pieces. The cinemas are nice looking though, but nothing we haven't seen before either. And they certainly aren't enough to offset the overall visual shortcomings.
The music is what you would expect from a middle-of-the-road game. It doesn't exactly inspire you to fight harder or fly faster, but it never gets in the way either. The sound effects are along the same lines. There's nothing that stands out about them; they're just there. Explosions sound like the artillery impacts you'd hear in an old war movie or in a Sunday-morning action cartoon. The sound of fire crackling is pretty decent, but there's not a whole lot of variation in sound for all the havoc being wreaked. Cael himself never speaks, but he snorts a few times during the CG sequences that pepper the downtime between levels. The real problem with sound lies with the voice acting of the supporting cast. The voice of the sprite that tutors you in the beginning is the definition of bad voice acting--you can almost see the actress reading her lines while rolling her eyes. The other sprite that accompanies you throughout the game, Adara, quickly becomes an annoyance. With every completed goal comes more of her monologue, and if you take too long or fly the wrong way, she'll chime in with a comment or two as well. It's not so bad at first, but after about five levels, you'll be wishing you could turn your fury attack on her.
It should also be noted that during the review process, our retail copy of Dragon Rage locked up on three occasions--once while in the tutorial after completing a mission and twice while in the thick of battle during the regular missions. The game's suggested retail price of $30 might offset this annoyance, but paying any amount of money for a game with crash bugs, especially a console game, can be very frustrating for consumers.
Dragon Rage comes down to being a very basic shooter with a number of flaws thrown in at no extra cost. With a low price tag, you might expect to get less game for less money, and in this case, that assumption would be correct. The game can be fun at first, but that fun quickly dissipates as the same basic formula is reapplied again and again, and you'll soon realize that if you've played the first level, you may as well have played the whole game. Gamers who are in dire need of a dragon fix might want to give it a rental, but even at $30, it's hard to recommend the purchase of this game.