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Austin Reviews – DragonFable

 

DragonFable is a serially updated turn-based Role-Playing Game (RPG) developed by perpetual indie studio Artix Entertainment. Created in 2005, it is a browser based RPG built on Java which is updated weekly by the developers.

One of the most impressive features of this is the serial nature.  In the eleven years the game has been around, only a handful of weeks have been without an update.  While these updates are never on the scale of a World of Warcraft expansion, they are never lacking in substance, and the wait is much shorter, creating a habit of checking in every week to see what the new content is.

DragonFable begins by setting the Hero, devoid of backstory, on a cliff.  By way of introduction, text across the screen reads “A Hero is born Bored” a master-stroke in sweeping away questions of character motivation and the like.  The story begins simply because the protagonist was enjoying an otherwise quiet day.  This also serves as an indication as to the tone of the game. Equal parts comedy and drama, DragonFable is a story filled with memorable characters, puns, and lighthearted humour.

The game provides a basic tutorial in movement, inventory management (both done with clicks on the screen) and combat, which is handled by a bar of abilities in the lower section of the screen.  This bar is split into two halves, divided by the basic attack. Every class has their own set of abilities, though the player only has access to Mage, Warrior, or Rogue at character creation. Unlike most RPGS, characters are not locked into a single class and are actively encouraged to seek out and use the many different ones in the game.  This feature is encouraged by having the character’s level individually tracked, separate from any class but the one chosen at the start.

With the tutorial finished, the game leads the player to their “starting area”, Oaklore Keep, where a variety of quests, frequently involving comedic elements such as box-loving goblins in tree forts, allow the player to meet characters, gain experience, and collect new gear, both in the form of random quest rewards and the occasional item purchased from a shop.  Unfortunately, this is also where the most prominent flaw in the game begins to show.

DragonFable has been around for more than a decade.  In that time, content has come and gone, areas have been tweaked and re-done, and the seams are not hidden well.  Non-Player Characters (NPCs) have dialogue options which pertain to content only available during holidays or other special events, and there is a quest chain which is not accessible until long after the content of the zone has expired.  While the latter is positive as a way of ensuring players revisit the location with a fresh perspective, it serves as a distraction, slowing the act of getting the story on the road.

Once the plot does get moving, however, the game’s tone shifts as the protagonist learns of the existence of eight elemental orbs and a villain out to obtain them.  There are still lighthearted jokes, meta-references, and puns galore. The cast of characters, many just as wacky as the world around them, drive home that this isn’t a world of jokes and make believe, but a place they really live in.  They actually have to deal with problems like “The Hero dumped a ship full of water-breathing potions into the ocean, now all the water in the ocean is breathable” rather than it simply being a Monty-Python style joke.  The character journeys from area to area hunting down the aforementioned orbs, a mad race that feels like one primarily because of the antagonist’s involvement every step of the way.  The ominously named “Sepulchure” is no Sauron-style villain in the shadows, but a commanding and present threat. Typically appearing at the end of each arc, as the player reaches the orb in question, he batters and harasses the protagonist in their mutual race.

Unfortunately, much of this impact is diminished by the nature of the seasonal content and other bits which were only available for a short time.  The best example of this comes in the form of the event which is done every Friday the 13th. As part of the overarching plot, Sepulchure would devise a way to distract, undermine, or harm the protagonist, typically through the use of legions of undead, often garbed in the mask of a famous undead known as Jay-Sunn (a reference to the famous Friday the 13th film series).  Unfortunately, none of this content exists in-game any longer, removing both the dialogue of these events and much of the feeling that Sepulchure was relentlessly striking out at the Hero.  The exception to this is the “Final 13th War” where the conflict between the two finally comes to an end.

Up to this point, all of the content still in-game has been readily accessible from a tab which lays out the plot of the game in order, to avoid players having to hunt through areas to find the next bit of content.  If one clicked the name of the quest, they were brought to the start point of that quest, no questions asked. From the moment the Final 13th War is over, however, this feature becomes less and less reliable, as it has only occasionally been updated since then.  If one is following a walk-through, it becomes simple enough to navigate from location to location during acts two and three, but the ease of the first act is greatly missed.

Complimenting the game’s rich story is a soundtrack which, while basic, delivers when it counts, rocking both the light and heavy side of the spectrum without ever becoming irritating.  The sounds of combat are quick and punchy, with attacks of each element having a different sound cue. The characters, zany as they are, never come across as caricatures or one-dimensional, and while the mechanics are simple, the variety of classes keep the game fresh and engaging.

DragonFable‘s art style supports the over the top and silly nature of the game, with designs like “flaming skull atop a thigh bone” being just as valid as a weapon as “a mop.”  This is, in small part, because the game is easy.  That isn’t to say that it’s simple, or that it is lacking in tactical options.  It isn’t, but barring a half dozen fights, at least one of which is actually impossible, some basic strategies will see you through.  Stun the enemies that you can, use attacks that hit multiple targets against groups, use the correct elemental weapon, and soon, you’re approaching the end of the game.  Enemies are scaled to your level, barring a few zones, and grinding for gear and levels is dead simple. To increase the challenge, one could attempt to play through the entire game with only one class, perhaps even the one chosen at character creation, but this would eliminate much of the game’s flexible character choices.

DragonFable is a fun, if lighthearted, RPG designed for children and young adults, with enough crunch to keep a serious gamer interested, and a plot that manages to ramble into coherency rather than nonsense.  If you’re looking for bang for your buck, hundreds of hours for free is hard to beat. The game does feature a “subscription” option, in the form of a one-time payment of $20 USD but none of the main-story content is locked behind it, and the difficulty spike of not having it may be preferable to some.  Even so, at the cost of 1/3 of a new game, it’s a steal.

6.2 / 10

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