So it turns out the age of misinformation isn’t quite a recent as we once thought… according to Red Zero Games at least. In this turn-based strategy game, learn the REAL story behind Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas in 1492, taking charge of the ‘Avant Armada’ in their quest to vanquish the mythical monsters blocking your path to the new world. You’ll be sure to meet a host of wacky creatures, deadly foes… and a pirate who can only say the word ‘fish’? Be on the lookout though me hearties, this journey will be far more perilous than you might think.
Jokes and pirate-talk aside, I want to make it clear from the start that I had a great time playing ‘Here Be Dragons’. Witty dialogue, a fantastic art-style, and most importantly, captivating gameplay all combine into a game I had difficulty putting down. I’ll get into the nitty-gritty soon enough, but I think it is important to note that overall, ‘Here Be Dragons’ provides a rich and engaging experience for those fans of strategy-based games.
Particularly impressive for an indie game, ‘Here Be Dragons’ provides players with a marked degree of substance and depth in its gameplay. At its core, the ‘Dice Activation System’ introduces an essence of randomness and luck, which when done just right, creates a sense of freshness to each battle. Yes, this can be both frustrating and limiting at times, which is something I will discuss later into the review, but on the surface, this rather simple mechanic helps create variation in gameplay, especially when replaying certain levels. The wide range of ships given to players, as well as diverse enemies with equally diverse move-pools, ensures each encounter is different from the last. What stood out most to me was the sheer amount of problem-solving this game requires – having to compute so many different variables during a battle means every decision counts. Assigned the wrong dice to one of your ships? Well you may have just given the enemy the chance to wipe you out next turn. Red Zero Games has done a fantastic job of creating depth in the battle system, which frankly many more heavily-funded titles lack.
The compliments don’t stop here though. One of the most notable features of ‘Here Be Dragons’ is its minimalist, yet impressive art-style. A ‘living map’ provides the backdrop for a vast majority of the game (aside from inter-level dialogue), and it certainly is one that fantastically balances simplicity with visual depth. Despite fundamentally being a 2D game, the choice of design goes a long way in creating a sense of openness – crucial for a game that is almost solely centred around ocean-based battles. In addition, art choices for the UI and character design beautifully match the overall aesthetic, and as a result, much praise should be directed to Red Zero Games for the visual design of ‘Here Be Dragons’. Similarly, the sound design is equally impressive, which despite being somewhat limited (you’ll hear the same SFX constantly), never once begins to sound repetitive or irritating.
However, you might be asking – ‘Well, these battles sound fun, but how’s the story?’. Well don’t ya worry mateys, Red Zero Games’ got ya covered. What goes a long way in ‘Here Be Dragons’ is the cast of characters you are introduced to throughout. Although I will concede that I would have preferred a continuous experience with a familiar crew, each new protagonist provides their own dose of charm and wit. One minute you’ll be an optimistic sailor, looking for adventure, and the next, a strange old pirate talking to a dead parrot. The mix of recurrent cast members and fresh faces is certainly what drives ‘Here Be Dragons’, and the dialogue between them will be sure to have you letting out a chuckle or two along the way.
Unfortunately, this is where the game does reveal some of its flaws. The revolving cast of characters is a double-edged sword, as although providing freshness to the experience, it does ultimately draw the player out of the main narrative. To be honest, after a few hours of playing, I had forgotten what the main objective of the game was. I did enjoy playing as new characters, and seeing what role they played going forward, but these experiences were usually cut short. Consequently, players may fail to develop any real connection to the multitude of protagonists. This is a real shame, as some of these characters were excellently-written, and I feel that Red Zero Games would have been better off using one or two of these characters throughout, rather than chopping-and-changing every few levels.
This lack of cohesiveness is reflective in the gameplay as well. I mentioned before about the depth in gameplay provided by ‘Here Be Dragons’, which, to its credit, does prevent the monotonous grind many games fall victim to. However, the almost insane number of mechanics introduced during the story, some permanent, and some dependent on specific battles, means it can become far too complex at times, meaning you are frequently wiped out by your enemy with little understanding of how. Furthermore, the ‘Dice Activation System’ can become a significant hinderance in battle, as despite offering the opportunity for ‘luck of the dice’ moments (literally), when battles often require a particular strategy to win, consistently rolling unhelpful dice can become tiresome. I will admit that this may be down to personal preference though, as someone more favourable of ‘Dark Souls-esque’ games may appreciate the value in repeated attempts at the same level. Nevertheless, for many, the 10th attempt at the same battle may just be one too many. I will note that I was playing on the highest difficulty (granted, of only two options), and maybe I just suck at strategy games, but I think it is important that potential customers are aware of the (potentially) repetitive gameplay loop offered by ‘Here Be Dragons’.
Lastly, I know I previously heaped praise on the visual design of ‘Here Be Dragons’, and I do not wish to detract from that, but one notable issue in this regard was with the battle UI. Maybe this was a consequence of playing on Switch, but my screen was often bombarded with a number of different menus, crammed into very little screen-space. Especially whilst getting to grips with the game, it can become more of a challenge figuring out what button you are meant to press next, rather than how you will defeat your foe(s). This is not a glaring issue, but one that may irk players from time to time.
To conclude, I want to reiterate my enjoyment with ‘Here Be Dragons’, despite the flaws noted above. Red Zero Games should receive mountains of praise for a funny, rich and beautiful game, which for me was one I found myself repeatedly drawn to. Yes, there are minor issues that cannot be overlooked, but these may or may not be problematic depending on the player. Some polish to the gameplay design would have served ‘Here Be Dragons’ greatly, as a focus on a more streamlined story and gameplay loop likely would have provided the icing on the cake. However, I can appreciate the attempt by Red Zero Games to create a deep, and ultimately enjoyable, experience for its players. I will keep my eye out for future releases from the developers, but until then, I’ll grab me rum, and set sail again with me mateys on adventures new.