An unjust crusade! Monsters taking up their blades! In this review: we examine if Dragon Marked for Death (DMFD) honors Inti Creates’ legacy of fantastic 2D action titles – or if it struggles to take flight.
From Tragedy, An Adventure
DMFD has players taking on the role of four survivors from the Dragonblood Clan – a rural society that worships the fallen dragon Atruum, and are ostracized as monsters. After a self-righteous crusade burns their home into cinders and kidnaps their oracle, players set off on a bloody quest for revenge.
The core gameplay loop of DMFD might feel familiar to Monster Hunter fans. Basically, the player stocks up on useful items in a central hub-world, before setting off on missions with set objectives. These objectives can range from slaying bosses, delivering certain items, or escorting weaker NPCs – so the first few hours of the game do remain relatively fresh. Every mission rewards the player with different loot and equipment from enemies, providing some rewards when grinding through missions.
Players can choose to main as one of four characters with different play-styles: the Empress, Warrior, Shinobi, and Witch. The Empress is a basic swordfighter and most balanced of the group. Meanwhile, the warrior can cast a magic shield and shove enemies with his large (but slower) body. Next, the Shinobi can tag enemies for homing attacks, and has the highest mobility (despite being the most fragile). Finally, the Witch can cast spells through various button combinations – and boasts the most versatile (while complicated) move-set.
If you’re new to platforming games, The Empress is usually a safe bet. However, veterans might find a more competent challenge with the Shinobi and Witch classes. After several hours of experimentation, I found myself transitioning from the Empress to the Witch class – with both offering vastly different experiences.
Overall, the opening hours of DMFD set a good foundation for Inti Creates to dive further into the mission-based adventure genre. It helps that the game also looks pretty good visually – which is one of the game’s stronger points.
Visual Blast From The Past
Fans of the original Mega Man Zero series will immediately recognize DMFD’s art style. Inti Creates’ 2D sprite design is totally on point in this game – and offers some classic fantastical settings such as poison swamps, oriental cities, and even the innards of a giant squid. The variety of environments players get to run around is fairly vast, and it was certainly fun to search every nook and cranny of them on my first play-through.
Character sprites are also full of life and highly detailed. Enemies, NPCs, and the player characters are never noticeably pixilated – save for some larger bosses. Your mileage could vary, but DMFD is overall a pleasant game to look at. On top of this, the game runs at a smooth 60 frames-per-second – so battles rarely feel sluggish. The production value is there, and it’s on par with Inti Creates’ past projects like the Azure Striker Gunvolt series.
Unfortunately, this is where my praise for the game stops. After passing the 10-hour mark with DMFD, I started noticing some really critical issues with its core design.
Earlier, I spoke about the game’s main story of saving the Dragonblood Oracle – but this set-up takes forever to pay off. While there are core missions that progress the plot, they’re not marked as such to distinguish them from other side missions. As a result, most players will end up trudging through miscellaneous side-quests until they finally find the one mission that unlocks further core missions. It was painful to slog through.
What about the loot-based aspect of the game, then? Sadly, collecting new equipment from enemies rarely feels worthwhile. Unlike the Monster Hunter games, DMFD has nearly zero character customization. Aside from some select items, equipping different weapons or armor does not change your appearance significantly. The only real incentive of new equipment is better stats – so DMFD mostly felt like a soulless exercise in crunching bigger damage figures every mission.
This is coupled with a lack of an interesting progression system. The Empress, Warrior, and Shinobi learn essentially ZERO new moves – so gameplay never diversifies beyond spamming the basic attack loops. The only character who escapes this trap is the Witch, since she learns new spell combinations when leveling up. Otherwise, there’s no point to grinding except to ensure your damage output can handle the next major boss.
Overall, these problems compound into the game’s main failing: there’s simply too little incentive to entice further play. The story’s pacing is sluggish, loot is uninteresting, and the gameplay hardly evolves at higher levels.
A final pet peeve of mine is that all four characters level up and unlock missions separately, even though they all share the same save file. Essentially, pursuing the true ending of DMFD requires players to claw through the same content 4 times over. All this endless padding only serves to expose the game’s archaic roots as a previously-scrapped project from 2008.
A Friendless Whimper
One area which I have not addressed is the game’s multiplayer features. The game was always designed as a co-op experience, and this sort of explains the lack of a meaningful character progression system. All the characters were obviously meant to synergize with each other for more dynamic gameplay – such as Shinobi players teaming up with Warriors to make up for their low HP and defense.
Most of my review so far was based on my solo experience with DMFD. As such, one could argue I’ve been skewing things unfairly, and that the game only opens up when played with others. However, the main problem is actually finding any active players to team-up with.
At the time of writing, it is virtually impossible to find anyone to play DMFD with online. All I could really discover when searching for lobbies were level 50+ players grinding on end-game stages that would have squashed me (as a level 30+ player then). Do not purchase this game expecting to meet mysterious online friends at the start. It won’t happen unless you go out of your way to find other players on Discord or something.
To make things worse, the game doesn’t even offer a split-screen co-op mode. No, you need to have multiple Nintendo Switch consoles and cartridges to play local multiplayer. This is another mind-boggling design choice that completely squanders the Switch’s key gimmick of portable multiplayer. DMFD could easily have been a fun game to whip out during small parties – but its designers decided to leave such elegant ideas on the chopping block instead.
All in all, you’re stuck with either playing the game solo, or waiting eons to meet any companions at all. Sadly, DMFD feels like a dragon with clipped wings – struggling to take flight and fulfill its full potential.
If I had to describe DMFD with a single word, it would be “hollow” – oozing with style, but ultimately lacking substance. My stance from the start has not changed: DMFD does offer a good foundation for mission-based gameplay – but Inti Creates needed to flesh it out with so much more. The developer has always been spectacular at 2D adventures like the recent Blaster Master Zero 2, and perhaps they were simply out of their depth here. I sincerely hope that their next attempt at the mission-based looter genre will set things right, if it happens at all.
At $49.99 USD for the physical retail release, DMFD is extremely difficult to recommend to anyone else but die-hard physical collectors. If you really want to dip your toes into the game’s beautiful art style without breaking your wallet, you can purchase two digital packs for $14.99 USD each – one that gives access to the Empress and Warrior, and another featuring the Shinobi and Witch instead.
In our honest opinion, however, the biggest investment that DMFD will ask of you is your precious time – and it’s a big sacrifice to make.
- The 2D sprite-art is stunning and as expected from Inti Creates.
- Mission variety is somewhat decent (at first).
- Witch aside, the other characters never quite evolve or become more interesting to play.
- Earning loot feels worthless – as it just means better stats and little else.
- The story feels like molasses to claw through.
- Online or local co-op is rarely possible – so you’ll mostly be suffering alone.
VERDICT: This soup tastes wonderfully sweet at first – but you’ll soon just realize that a lot of it was empty calories. Here’s hoping that the next serving will actually be more nutritious.
Soup Temperature: 6/10
A review copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.