A war rages on for centuries between the powers of light and dark. After strife and sorrow, the light prevails in a veritable burst of glory that changes the course of the world forever. However, life goes on, and adventurers rise from the rubble of the old world to claim their fortune. This is where you come in. Considered the lowest of the low on the mercenary food chain, you harbor a dark secret and a tragic past: You've made a pact with an evil draconic legacy that seeks to disrupt the world anew. Unfortunately, you have to be a somebody to set things right, and so begins the true saga of many a video game protagonist--murder, mayhem, and fetch quests. Dragon Marked for Death delivers on all three fronts with colorful aplomb, but if you're looking for a solid single-player experience, then your prize is likely in another castle.
Inti Creates' latest offers a classic side-scrolling multiplayer action experience that will be instantly familiar--the studio is intimately acquainted with some of the most famous titles of the genre, such as Mega Man and Azure Striker Gunvolt, and Dragon Marked for Death appears to contain the necessary components for success. The big point of difference is the elegant anime visuals sprinkled on top of retro fantasy, which make it feel like a more original conception. It's a nice, modern facelift on the bare bones of Azure Striker Gunvolt, albeit with a less-stylised UI and a statistic display familiar to any RPG fan.
There are four distinct classes, all with their own quirks and charms, and each of the game's levels can be traversed in different ways that let you make the most of your character's capabilities. The Shinobi and the Empress classes, in particular, have gap-closing abilities that allow them to flit across stages with deadly efficiency, while the Warrior and Witch have far more situational movement inputs that open up the map in more indirect ways. Dragon Marked for Death differentiates these classes by difficulty, and this is evident in the way that the title has been released on the Nintendo eShop. There are two versions: Frontline Fighters (containing the Warrior and the Empress) and Advanced Attackers (containing the Shinobi and the Witch). In order to acquire the classes that your chosen version is missing, you'll need to buy them as additional DLC.
As indicated by the names of each release, some of the classes are better suited to getting hot and heavy up close. The Warrior is the most robust and is well-suited to living through absolutely everything that could be thrown at you. The Empress strikes a balance between mobility, damage options, and defensive capability--the perfect class for beginners. On the other hand, the Shinobi is more of a glass cannon, blessed with speed and damage in spades. And the Witch, potentially the most rewarding class to use if you can handle it, has powerful spell combinations entered with button sequences that you have to memorize, all locked inside someone with the physical constitution of wet tissue.
In solo play, it's easy to identify where things could get a little hairy for each class. Enemies are relentless in their pursuit of your character once they spot you, and each level sees you facing off against a variety of minions and sub-bosses that all have one single-minded focus: your destruction. You face down ogres who spew fire, cut a swathe through the bellies of seafaring monsters large enough to drown entire ships, and dodge bullets that take away your ability to control your movement. If you're advancing through the maps as they become available, each one will feel like a challenge and an exercise in how you manage both your class and your time. No matter which class you pick up, going toe to toe with the baddies is rewarding once you figure out the intricacies of damage dealing. Whether it’s suped-up spells that wipe out everything in a five-mile radius, knowing when to deploy a shield in that split-second between life and death, or running up walls and gleefully skewering your foes, there’s an interesting game plan for every character in Dragon Marked For Death.
Do you kill as many mobs as possible for experience and money? Do you skip all of the minor enemies in order to head straight for the sub-bosses at the cost of missing out on healing opportunities? If you run out of time on a level it's Game Over, and if you run out of your vitality, it's also a rude kick back to the starting line. Dragon Marked for Death forces you to find a strategy that works for you, and the timers are just tight enough that you're incentivized to learn the layout of maps and the quirks of the enemies inhabiting them if you want a chance at success. You repeat levels at different difficulties as you get stronger, farming missions for experience and for the gold to equip yourself with better weapons, all so you can chip away at the seemingly immovable wall of at-level quests to progress the story. This is essentially the gameplay loop that is fundamental to the title--grinding.
A frustrating difficulty curve emerges when venturing solo, and even if you're accustomed to this kind of loop, it's a bitter pill to swallow compared to the experience provided by the multiplayer mode. Each classes' distinct identity makes it feel like they've been designed for the sole purpose of filling a party role in an MMORPG, since their strengths and weaknesses are complementary. Playing as just one without any backup feels incredibly limiting--you aren't capable of much in the face of high stakes.
Luckily, linking up in multiplayer with your friends is as seamless as jumping into single-player. You need a Nintendo Online subscription if you're worlds apart, or simply flip to the local multiplayer menu if you're sitting next to each other. It's as easy as dropping in and out of a party, with the leader selecting what maps to tackle. After you finish a stage, you're returned to the map selection screen so you can jump right back into the action, and it's that kind of action that will keep you coming back for more.
Multiplayer is compelling because the classes work better in tandem--tank characters keeping the heat off damage dealers always results in a boss dying quicker--and levels feel less deadly when the Witch can focus on blasting through anything and everything with a Warrior to cover her from any fatal damage. In later stages, single-player requires an amount of dedication to the grind that can suck the fun out of the encounters, especially when you have had a taste of co-op and can spot moments where having a party would have helped save your bacon.
Akin to the classes themselves, the levels were clearly designed with multiplayer in mind. Because of the varied ways in which maps can be explored, including hidden segments that can be tricky to navigate if you don’t have a particular movement skill or the sufficient patience to figure out an alternative route, having more than one class in play at a time helps make those closed-off areas feel more accessible. The relentlessness of your foes is another thing which makes the single-player experience feel a little less than well-balanced in difficulty if you’re tackling new content as soon as you unlock it; you won’t have sufficient items or perhaps the know-how to navigate certain levels. As the Witch in particular, you only learn certain elemental spells when hitting level thresholds, which can leave you at a type disadvantage for longer than is necessary. What smoothes out all those little bumps, however, is another player to take the heat off you, and the experience bonus granted from multiplayer also sweetens that deal.
Overall, Dragon Marked for Death is a polished experience that draws on a lot of existing genre sensibilities, but with a heavy focus on aspects that make for a good co-op experience. The classes are thematically coherent and entertainingly distinct, and the levels are just varied enough that gliding through one for the first time is always aurally and visually pleasing. The unbalanced single-player experience is a big sticking point, but if you have friends who are willing to take up the Dragonblood mantle with you, then there are few action platformers more entertaining.