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I remember when I first heard of this game. It must’ve been in the year it was released or the year after. A friend of mine and I were pooling money to get some games. (At the local shop you could get one free game if you bought four or something like that, so it was a common practice for us.) He was the one who wanted the game, yet all he knew was that it was a fantasy RPG. At that point we had some history of playing pen and paper RPGs, and being both fans of fantasy literature, we were predisposed to like the game. Yet, with our (always) limited funds, it was a leap of faith… which we never regretted.
The story of Dragon Wars is set in the world of Oceana, located in the orbit of the star Sirius. For years, the heat of the star has been melting Oceana’s polar ice caps, turning it into a world with 85% water and becoming wetter with each passing year. In that world of islands the biggest of all is Dilmun, a place where many inhabitants of other areas wish to go, either as pilgrims or adventurers, and plenty of ships sail towards it.
Your party is aboard one such vessel, yet upon arrival at Dilmun, the local authorities seize the ship. Every tenth passenger is taken and sacrificed to dragons by orders of Dilmun’s ruler, Namtar; the Beast from the pit. The fortunate ones (including your party) are stripped of all of their possessions and thrown into the walled City of Purgatory. This is where your adventure begins, with the ultimate goal to defeat Namtar and bring magic back to Dilmun.
As you start the game, you have the option to use the existing party of four or create your own. To create a character, you have to delete one of the existing ones first. That action is permanent, so be careful what you do. Here I would strongly recommend referring to the manual, since creation of characters is a complex process, and the system is nothing like the more popular D&D games. What I suggest is to play with the default party a bit, to see their strengths and weaknesses and therefore get an idea of the kind of party you will need. Of course, there is a risk that you will get too far into the game and won’t feel like starting all over again. (I know - it happened to me with different games.)
The main screen is divided into three windows. The biggest one is the game view, which is first-person. This view only shows you buildings and stationary objects, while the creatures (which are most often enemies) will just appear from nowhere when you step on a tile which they occupy. Some encounters are random and some scripted. You can move in four directions, and the game supports both keyboard and mouse. It’s easy to get lost, especially in places with many open areas, but there is a very helpful auto-map to assist in preventing such an outcome. Just press the ‘?’ key and scroll the map with the arrow keys.
The second window contains information about your party, which can include up to seven members - three NPC players or summoned creatures may join your initial four. The order of your party members is important since only the first four can fight in melee, while the members in the fifth, sixth and seventh place are limited to use of ranged weapons and/or magic (though only at a certain range). Below each adventurer’s name are up to three bars. The red one represents the character’s health, and if it drops to zero, he/she dies (in which case I recommend loading the last saved game). An injured character can be healed either with bandage skill or magic, or by visiting one of the healers in the game. The green bar represents stun, and if it drops to zero, that character is stunned and out of the battle. Stun returns to maximum after the battle, so unless all the characters are stunned, you shouldn’t worry too much about it. The blue bar is shown only if the character possesses magic abilities and represents power. Power is spent by casting spells and is restored either by using Dragonstones or visiting some places where it can be regenerated. Both options are not widely available (though there is a regeneration pool in Purgatory), so you should be conservative with your magic.
The last window is at the bottom of the screen and is reserved for messages, although some text will appear from time to time in the middle of the screen, especially if a reaction is required from the player. As for the messages, sometimes you will get full instructions, but more often the game will refer you to a certain paragraph from the manual – a feature typical for many games from that time.
Graphics in the game are good considering the year it was made. Some of the enemies you encounter will be slightly animated (moving an arm/limb or blinking). Sound is limited to PC speaker. The only music I could hear was at the opening screen (and considering its quality I was quite happy not to hear any more of it). Sound effects include sounds of moving, thumping into a wall, or screaming when a character is hit during battle. Spellcasting is also accompanied by a specific sound. You have the option to turn all battle sounds off.
Battles are turn-based. As I said, enemies appear from nowhere. Instead of the screen with party info, now you have information about the enemy, including their numbers, name, and distance from the party. There can be a few groups of enemies in one fight, located at various distances. Your party has options to fight, quickly fight, run, or advance ahead. The difference between fighting and quickly fighting is in the number of options you get later. Running means running away, and is a good way to avoid a fight with more powerful enemies - you just run back to the previous square you came from. By advancing ahead, you reduce the distance between you and your enemy by 10’. Keep in mind that only those enemies that are 10’ away can be attacked in melee. Against those farther away, you can use ranged weapons or magic. I don’t recommend advancing unless the enemy has the ability to fight from a distance and is not advancing. If you select attack, it may happen that the enemies move within your range during the following turn, so you can still attack them (and some enemies can cover more than 10’ when advancing). Once you issue your orders for each character, you wait for the results and so on until the fight ends one way or another.
As I said before, you begin the adventure in Purgatory, without any items or spells. Don’t worry too much about it. Default characters (and hopefully those you create if you choose to) are quite capable of defending themselves against the inhabitants of Purgatory, and in one location nearby you’ll be able to find all low-magic spell scrolls, from which your magic users can learn those spells. For other spell branches, you’ll have to put in some extra effort. Although you only have the freedom of movement within the walls, there’s more than one way to leave the place. I'll leave those for you to find out.
The main fault I find in the game, and the reason I’m giving it 4 out of 5, is that there is only one slot for saving the game. This can be by-passed by making your own back-ups every time you save the game, but that includes putting forth some extra effort, and for the compulsive ‘game saver’ that I am it would mean leaving the game every five minutes to do it. Another flaw is a certain lack of realism: you may defeat a pikeman, but you won’t be able to take his armor or pike.
Besides those faults, this is an RPG jewel from the dawn of such games which I strongly recommend to all fans of the genre. The game is complex, with many places to explore, puzzles to solve, creatures to fight, and side quests to complete. Those that liked the Bard’s Tale series will find many similarities to those games - after all, they’re made by the same company. There is even the option of importing characters from BT games, but you may find such an action successful only to a certain degree.