Ohhhhhh boy. I've been super curious about this game since its release. The author chose to release his game as a Microsoft Installer rather than the more traditional zip with a game in it. To me, that's fishy, especially for a file that's 111 megs. I know we talked about it in IRC, and I'm pretty sure it was TMC who drew the short straw and downloaded it to make sure it wasn't some kind of malware. Having now tried it myself I can say that this is a very boring game, but probably not a virus.
When it comes to making a good RPG, the best philosophy is that of vegetables and dessert. You can't eat your dessert till you've had your vegetables. The dessert is an engaging story, cutscenes, shenanigans, etc. and the vegetables are the boring RPG battles. It's easier to eat your carrots when you know there's a big bowl of puddin waiting for you at the end. In a perfect RPG, there's a whole smorgasboard with just enough vegetables between the perfect bite-sizes of dessert to keep you going. Too much of one or the other is gonna be a tummy ache.
Unfortunately, Dragons! is a big bowl of vegetables. No dessert, no side dishes, no salad dressing. You can eat it for a while, some of us more than others, but eventually you're gonna get sick of it. There is *NO* story. The King tells you his princess is being held hostage by another King on the other side of the continent and that you need to get her back. That concludes the story. You leave the castle and find yourself on a Super Mario 3 kind of world map. There's a forest and a gate. You can't open the gate till you beat the forest, but the game doesn't tell you this, you have to guess. The forest is BIG and empty, save for bunches of bosses and a few NPCs who want you to find something for them. The bosses don't even get dialogue they just ROAR or HISSSSS and then you fight them. Eventually, you'll beat all of the bosses in the forest, the gate magically opens and now you can go to the mountain... and do the saaaaaaaaame thing.
The battles are turn-based which alleviates a lot of the common OHR Pacing issues, but opens up a variety of other issues. For one thing, you can't run from battles ever. If the bad guys gangbang your healer and the shit hits the fan you're out of luck, go back to your last save. This makes the grind even worse, because you can never be sure you're really safe to move onto the next area. Furthermore, you can't cast your healing spell outside of battle, meaning that if your healer has 3 HP when you win the battle there's a decent chance he's gonna die at the start of the next one with nothing you can do about it. You can buy potions, but they're ridiculously expensive, 50 GP, the same as any piece of equipment. Getting 50 gp takes a long long time, about ten battles in the first dungeon.
I did the math, and assuming 5 GP per encounter, about 20-30 seconds an encounter, 4 party members to equip, and the cost of equipment you're looking at about an hour to 90 minutes of uninterrupted grinding just to get starting armor: Not to mention the weapons which are even more ridiculously expensive. You get a couple pieces in the dungeon, but even after 2 hours and completing the first dungeon I wasn't totally kitted out. The most cost effective way I found to heal was through levelling up. Without a timely level up here or there, I would've been deeply screwed. It's hard to say whether or not this is by design.
There are some generous touches in the dungeon design. Save points are numerous and have an attached inn (though the 25 GP charge can be steep at first), and most of the time there's also a shortcut back to the world map. You can heal and save for free out there, but then you have to walk all the way through the dungeon to get to new areas, while having your health whittled away the whole time. Some kind of "teleport to last inn!" thing would've been nice, just to cut out some of the boring walking.
The encounter rate is okay for the map size. With maps this big, a higher rate of encounter would make getting anywhere a nightmare. The downside is that if you want to grind, you have to walk back and forth FOREVER to get an encounter. One thing I kind of like is how the designer tries to raise the stakes. Your first battles are against tiny rats, then small rats, medium rats, and a GIANT RAT boss fight. Then there's large rats and small goblins, who turn to medium goblins -> hobgoblins -> LARGE HOBGOBLIN BOSS FIGHT. It's an okay way of making you feel a sense of progress, but at the same time just having the two types of enemies feels very limited. It's even worse when you get to the second dungeon and find "small CAVE rats -> Giant Cave Rat -> medium MOUNTAIN goblins" and feel that noose starting to tighten again. Gimme some dessert! Some different fancy pictures! Some lizards or birds or monkeys or something. Don't limit it to just two types!
Hero design is also super generic. You've got a warrior, an archer, a wizard and a cleric. You don't get to choose your own party, you're stuck with one of each. The mage can cast ONE offensive spell, which doesn't do much better than his standard attack. The cleric can cast ONE healing spell, which could heal a little more damage than it does. Like I mentioned earlier, battles are turn based and you can't heal outside of battle. This leads to a really big problem: You can't skip someone's turn. If you're in a battle, and you've whittled the enemy down to a single pathetic enemy, you can't "skip" to the cleric's turn and use that opportunity to get everyone back in health. The fighter has to attack, the archer has to shoot, and by the time it gets to the cleric's turn that enemy might be dead. If there were more inter-party healing, or skips or buffs, things would be better.
Around an hour in, my party DID learn some buffs that allowed me to play games with the turn order and sneak some extra healing in and it felt good. My wizard also learned a very fancy sounding attack which ultimately did about 4 times LESS damage than the spell he started with. Not a promising sign for any possible attacks that come after it. Being able to choose your own party or hell, even making the enemies drop some healing items would make the game less tedious at this point.
As is, you mostly hold down enter and occasionally heal. The wizard's spell isn't much better than his attack (Though strangely it does seem to become better than his attack as the game progresses. Must be some kinda stat gain thing). There's a weird thing where the game seems to prioritize attacking the enemy with the MOST health. You can aim the attacks and properly clump up one one guy to wipe him out, but it's weird that the game deliberately tries to trap you with as many enemies as possible. Either it's a weird choice to increase difficulty, or the author didn't know what he was doing when he set up the attack priorities.
The graphics continue the author's "No frills" policy. The title screen black text on a white back ground, I think there were a total of 5 different tiles in the gigantic first dungeon, and I already mentioned the enemy variety issue. He's got a very simple style for his walkabouts, for his enemies, and they aren't bad they just don't have any flavor to them either. When people walk, it seems like one leg moves and the other doesn't which leads to this really weird "limp" effect as you wander around. Take a look at the screenshots (You can do this for a few other games this year too) and look at what percentage of the screen is covered by one particular tile. If nearly the entire screen is just grass, then maybe try to think of why that particular "room" is so big. Maybe try to think of something else that could go in there, to aid a sense of progress, exploration and wonder.
There's some things it gets right: The maps are big, but at least have a sene of direction unlike some other games. The shortcuts back to town are nice, as are the no-frill "Shop + Inn" town outside of every dungeon. It seems the gameflow is meant to be like, running "loops" through the dungeon, each time getting stronger and eventually being able to move forward to the the next exit and lengthening your loop. It just takes too damn long though.
Even with the few nice touches here and there, this game is a literal grindfest. Perhaps the most literal grindfest. If this was some kind of subversive stab against the Heart of the OHR Contest, some kind of "This is what RPGs look like without plotscripting!" I could understand a little bit more. I gave up at just under the 2 hour mark, and apparently the designer of the game's final run took him between 5 and 6. It's hard to imagine enjoying three more hours of this. The EXP and money were starting to get better in the second dungeon, but without any kind of story or sweet stuff to look forward to I just could not stomach another minute.
There's a certain kind of person who would like this game. A certain masochistic, old school kind of guy. Someone who prides himself on liking the unlikable. That's not to say that this game couldn't be likable, if the battles were a little more forgiving and equipment a bit cheaper it could be nice. It could also be nice if it eren't one of those super-low stat kind of games, if you could spend an hour levelling up and say "Whoa! I'm doing 100 damage instead of 65!" instead of 11 vs. 6. It's shallow, sure, but in the RPG genre it's sometimes fun to see big numbers. There's a primal thrill to it. But that would be too much dessert for this salad.