DOS cover art
|Publisher(s)||Infogrames, Classic Digital (Windows)|
|Platform(s)||Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, SNES, PC-98, FM Towns Marty, Sharp X68000, Windows, Linux|
|Release||1989, 1990, 1991|
|Genre(s)||Role-playing game, Adventure game, Real-time tactics|
Drakkhen is an early-3D western role-playing video game, initially developed for the Amiga and Atari ST, and subsequently ported to several other platforms, including MS-DOS and Super Nintendo Entertainment System. It was a very early game in the North American SNES library, and as such, received almost universal coverage in previews of the then-upcoming SNES in gaming magazines of 1990 and early 1991. In February 2018, the DOS version of the game was made available on Steam and in June 2018 on GOG.com.
Drakkhen was notable for being among the first role-playing games to feature a three-dimensional playing field and for being an early example of the real time tactics genre. It did not employ a fully 3D game engine, instead implementing a hybrid approach using vectors and bitmapped character-scaling algorithms. Drakkhen features an animated day-night cycle, and the ability to wander freely about the game world, both rarities for a game of its era. The game spawned a sequel, Dragon View, for the SNES.
A player may freely travel the entirety of Drakkhen's game world not long after beginning a new game, although this can be unwise in practice. Chance encounters with hostile monsters are regular, and unlike many other RPGs, the player may be attacked while stationary. All battles against foe are automated by default, but allow the player to micromanage their four combatants. The player is given more time to focus on the real-time tactics of each enemy encounter, such as activating defense magic, moving around, or switching weapons on the fly. The player's party may also be accosted at night when viewing constellations in the sky, or any time after bumping into a half-buried urn. Players may attempt to flee from attackers, but defeating foes grants all party members experience points that go towards leveling up and improving character stats. Each of the four characters in the player's party have health points, magic points for spellcasting, power, defense, physique, fortune, intelligence, knowledge, and agility; each stat listed has a direct effect on how a character plays. Character stats are assigned by the player at the start of the game using a cap-and-trade system. Each party member[a] fills one of the four roles: scout, wizard, fighter, and priest, each with different strengths and abilities. Items can be purchased from traveling merchants who ambush the party, or at the tavern. Items are categorized as armor, weapons, healing items, rings, and misc. (such as torches).
Past castles[b] can be revisited at any time, which themselves act like Temples found in Legend of Zelda games. Castles are self-contained levels with obstacles, loot, enemies, and maze-like architecture.
Some standout enemies are "enormous" and imposing such as the black, stationary canine heads that rise out of the ground and growl while shooting bolts from their eyes in the event the player kicks one of the many urns. These encounters are quickly fatal to new players who don't know any better. They offer no experience points, suggesting that kicking an urn is frowned upon by the game. Another notorious difficult enemy is the "Shadow Man", a tall figure that can unexpectedly emerge from the ground, accompanied by an ominous tune. Enemies of this power are usually far from the starting area, but are nevertheless accessible to unsuspecting players. The game contains over one hundred different enemy types, including all variants of the Drakkhen soldier.
In general, the SNES version of Drakkhen is drastically different to the point of being more than a typical port.
Predating both Ultima Underworld (1992) and Eye of the Beholder (1991), Drakkhen was among the first action RPGs to utilize a permanent, real-time, text-adventure log window, demonstrating large influence from MUD games. This log functions like a dungeon master, frequently telling the player how much damage an attack did, explaining the outcome of intended actions, acting as the player's five senses, et cetera. This feature was de-emphasized for the SNES. The computer versions made heavier use of the adventure game buttons within castles to solve deeper and more plentiful obstacles. The originals were criticized for lacking a compass, which the SNES developers took to heart when they made changes to the new version. The SNES doesn't use a visual compass but instead tells the player which of the 360-degrees he or she faces anytime the game is paused. The computer versions allow for greater nuance when traveling the 3D island, playing to the strength of utilizing a mouse cursor, while the SNES version uses the control-pad. As such, maneuvering around scenery is clunkier on SNES.
The short story collection that came with the game, aside from expanding the story of the game itself, also incorporated clues as to what the player needed to do, what enemies would be difficult, and other such context that the player was expected to know before playing. The SNES re-release of Drakkhen didn't come with this supplemental book that was written by Gary Gygax, who had a hand in designing the gameplay and story of the original, as well as many enemies. This exclusion was likely because the game story was entirely rewritten, which nevertheless rendered the SNES version without the context necessary to experience the game the way the developers intended. The SNES version has far fewer NPCs that can be approached.
Fleeing any battle in the SNES version is as simple as tapping the L and R bumpers, which makes all battles outside castles entirely optional, as this doesn't give enemies time to attack. The interface was changed to utilize visual means to more quickly communicate ideas, and the clutter originally covering the left half of the screen was condensed into the bottom. In the original two versions, crossing the borders between continental divisions would require a wait while the game loaded. In the SNES version, crossings are instantaneous; however, if the player attempts to cross between areas before the first few story beats, they are sharply rebuked.
The setting of Drakkhen is a large rectangular island, divided laterally into four smaller regions. Each region has its own terrain and climate and is ruled by two members of the Drakkhen caste, with all of them living in their own castle. The continent is bounded on all sides by a vast ocean; walking into this, or any other body of water, will result in the drowning of all party members.
Much of the game is spent traveling between castles, carrying out various political missions at the behest of the ruling Drakkhen elite. A player may also wander around without having a particular goal or destination, perhaps in the spirit of adventure, or exploration, or to fight wildlife, monsters, and strange supernatural entities, who may yield loot if they are defeated. Serious setbacks can easily occur through the death of one or more party members in combat, and bringing them back to life will often involve difficult and arduous travel in order to reach an Anak, where healing and resurrection are performed pro bono. If all four characters succumb to injury or drowning, the player will be informed of the dire consequences for the game world, before being returned to the title screen.
The story differs depending on which version is being played.
Long ago, the magic of "the world" faded away with the slaying of the final dragon by a selfish paladin all the while a plague is decimating humanity. Long after, a caravel ship of foreign countrymen shipwrecked on the island where the final dragon died, only to be attacked and sunk by a foe unknown and unseen from their perspective. These foes revealed themselves to be lizard-people, thought to be the evolved survivors of the ancient dragons and the dominant people of the island. Four survivors made it ashore and vowed to stick together. They soon discovered that to take back the island in the name of humanity and to end the curse, they will need to pillage the nine gem tears and use them to summon the dragon god. To their surprise, certain prince and princess of the Drakkhen clan offer their support--even their life--for the party, believing that their kind was never meant for Earth. As such, the four heroes get caught up in an ongoing war between those acting for the survival of their own kind, and those who see themselves as abominations.
An included short story book expands the backstory.
The storyline for the SNES game is the result of a broken translation and rewrite of the original, as well as lack of supplemental stories. Drakkhen was developed by a French team, which was then translated into Japanese for the Super Famicon, which was then translated to English and further rewritten with help from the original French developers. To exemplify the telephone effect of all this, the original game contained a French translation of an Emily Dickinson poem as quoted by a mysterious wizard, and that French translation of an English poem was then translated further into Japanese for the Super Famicon version, and then translated again back into English from Japanese. The version of Miss Dickinson's poem that survived into the SNES version of the game is almost unrecognizable and difficult to comprehend.
According to the SNES game, a subset of humans known as the Drakkonian people are presently doomed, for the dragon gods of the four elements judged them as unworthy and are soon to put an end to their survival. Each god has a son and daughter dragon prince and princess who rule the island of Drakkhen. Drakkhen, himself, is a 5th dragon god, one who the other four stole eight of the nine, magic, blue artifacts (the Nine Tears) from, to do their cruel bidding upon the Drakkonian people. Four warriors stepped up to the challenge of proving their worth as a people to Drakkhen. Their agreement is that if they can recover his eight Tears, their people will be spared, and the four Gods, their offspring, and their offspring's lizard-people armies, will all parish instead. Like in the other version of the story, some sons and daughters of the Gods agree to help the player even if it means they suffer extinction for doing so, demonstrating a deep selflessness.
The Anak music is arguably derived from the song 12 O'clock by Greek composer Vangelis.
The SNES version of the game censors the screams of the "Love Monster." In the original, a shadow shaped like a frantic, giant woman repeatedly shouts "I love you" in a chorus of demonic voices, but in the SNES version, she instead moans not unlike how other enemies do. This may be related to Nintendo wanting to keep their reputation as a family-friendly operation without any traces of sensuality.
Drakkhen is known for its unusual sound effects; in lieu of speech, monsters and NPCs make noises that resemble belching, chittering, or inarticulate rumbling. Early releases made only limited use of music during gameplay, but the game's soundtrack was expanded for the SNES version.
Drakkhen was originally released in 1989 by Infogrames two years after being presented at gaming expos. It was translated for North American release in 1990 by Draconian, a label from Data East. By the time review copies of the original were given to the press, Infogrames claimed to have no "immediate" intention of porting the game. The many subsequent computer ports were unannounced until the DOS port was about to be released in late 1989. In 1991, Drakkhen was ported to the Super Nintendo by Kemco-Seika, who made several revisions to the game, mostly by necessity.
Drakkhen was a commercial success, with sales above 350,000 units.
Drakkhen for the SNES attracted a modest cult following and was fairly well received by English game critics when first released in 1989. The game was reviewed in 1990 in Dragon #160 by Hartley, Patricia, and Kirk Lesser in "The Role of Computers" column. The reviewers gave the game 4½ out of 5 stars. Editor Paul Rand of Computer and Video Game Magazine gave the original versions 83 out of 100, praising the music and graphics, but found the value of the game to be lukewarm. He was also impressed by the imagination of the creatures and the sense of terror some enemies gave off. The German translation of the 1989 versions of the game were met with mixed reception.
Retrospective reception of the SNES version is very mixed, with many calling it confusing and "unplayable" by modern standards, while others find it appealing for its experimental nature, "cryptic" translation, and intense absurdities.