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By Evan Norris 11th Feb 2019 | 1,596 views
Dragon Marked for Death has all the ingredients for a great game. With impressively diverse missions, four unique playable characters, a dark fantasy premise, and developer Inti Creates' arresting signature sprite work, it could and should be one of the better games of the first quarter of 2019. Regrettably, it's held back by a couple of self-inflicted wounds, including poor signposting and a late-game grind that stops the adventure in its tracks.
The story in Dragon Marked for Death is surprisingly dark and sinister. From its prologue, where players learn the Medius Empire slaughtered an entire village of "heretics," to the final two missions, where disturbing agendas reveal themselves, the game refuses to play nice. Your playable character, one of the last of the Dragonblood Clan destroyed by Medius, is rage and revenge personified; he or she bears the twisted marks of the Astral Dragon Atruum and finds nothing but disdain in the streets of the imperial capital. It all makes for a gripping tale of vengeance.
Looking at screenshots and reading the staff credits, you wouldn't be out of line thinking Dragon Marked for Death plays something like Megaman Zero, Azure Striker Gunvolt, or Blaster Master Zero. While those games do inspire the production, in reality the game plays more like Monster Hunter meets Dragon's Crown. From a central hub—the imperial capital—individual players take on contracts from the local bar. Here they can fly solo, or partner with up to three other players online or via wireless connection (the game does not support local single-screen co-op). Complete enough contracts and you'll gain access to the posher corners of the city. Complete all contracts and all sub-quests and you'll unlock the penultimate mission, which, once beaten, reveals the final showdown.
The game's fun 2D action-platforming, exploration, and RPG mechanics would do better in a more connected role-playing campaign, but this instanced gameplay works well too. Individual missions take place across several biomes and environments, and are refreshingly different from each other. Even contracts that take players back to old locations mix things up enough to feel like entirely new adventures. They also tend to build on each other narratively. In "The Frigid Nest," for example, the Dragonblood survivor will rid a snowy mountain of monsters. In "Lost in White," he or she will return to find a knight officer lost in the same mountains. There are also optional, hidden sub-objectives in several contracts.
These sub-objectives highlight a rather major problem in Dragon Marked for Death: some dismal signposting. It's almost impossible to know when you've accomplished one of these objectives, apart from a short musical jingle. Blue flags appear next to stages where all objectives are complete, but what the flags represent is a mystery to the uninitiated. More egregiously, the game fails to inform you that a level even includes a secondary objective—eight of the game's 28 levels do—and it obscures the fact that the penultimate level will appear only when all eight are complete. So it wouldn't be uncommon to finish level 26 and think the game is over.
Lack of sufficient signposting pops up in another smaller, less essential way. In levels set in the Litus royal tomb, there are several blank walls that NPCs tell you to read, to plan for the dangers ahead. What the game doesn't tell you is that you need to zoom in, literally, with the right stick to see the glyphs on the wall. Lots of time spent wasted in tedious trial and error would be saved with more obvious instructions.
It's easy to forgive these oversights because Dragon Marked for Death plays really well. Not only are missions impressive in their diversity—the Tower of Uos focuses on vertical level design while Cadena Forest is horizontally sprawling, to name a couple of examples—but combat situations are intense and exploration opportunities rewarding. Every Dragonblood character moves and fights in a snappy, responsive way, even though each owns unique commands and moves. The Empress character is a mid-range DPS fighter, with powerful fireballs that may burn enemies and a giant Dragon Sword. Her melee counterpart is the Warrior, who enters berserker rages and boasts a shield to protect himself and allies. Shinobi, the most agile of the bunch, is adept at finding shortcuts and mowing down enemies with shurikens. Meanwhile, the Witch is perhaps the most complex and challenging of the bunch, as her spells and incantations require multiple button inputs.
Editor's note - Each digital version of Dragon Marked for Death comes with two base characters: either Empress & Warrior or Shinobi & Witch. The remaining two can be purchased as DLC. Missions are identical across both versions.
Since these four characters feature complementary move sets and elemental powers, it's clear that Dragon Marked for Death is intended for multiplayer adventuring. Playing solo is doable—enjoyable even—until you reach the final two stages. Here, the regular, incremental forward progress of the game stalls, and players will need to replay finished contracts at higher difficulty levels to farm experience points, items, armor, and weapons. Inti Creates adds a couple of new wrinkles to replayed higher-level stages—enemies hit harder and bosses demonstrate new moves—but they all end up collapsing into a repetitive grind.
Retreading levels again and again has one benefit: revisiting the game's stunning 2D sprite work. Inti Creates has made a career turning in handsome retro pixel art in its titles, and Dragon Marked for Death is no different. Monster and character models are impressively-detailed and stand out clearly among beautifully-drawn backgrounds. Animations and special effects look excellent too, particularly during climactic boss fights.
There is greatness in Dragon Marked for Death, held back partially by its Monster Hunter-style contract system but more powerfully by a late-game difficulty spike (and resulting grind for experience) and a general opaqueness about how to actually beat the game. If you can gather a team of four players and don't mind consulting a FAQ every now and then, this might be a good investment. For casual fans of action-RPGs, however, it shouldn't be a priority purchase.