Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara
Mystara’s a bit of a footnote these days, but back in the nineties when TSR tried to relaunch the Basic rules for Dungeons & Dragons–the old-school style of play where being an elf or dwarf is a character class in its own right and the rules are vastly simplified–it was the stock campaign setting. There’s not much to it beyond that, as it was generic by deliberate design.
Its big claim to fame, really, is that it’s also the setting for Tower of Doom and Shadows Over Mystara, two of the more ambitious beat-‘em-ups to come out of Capcom’s arcade division. They’ve had a rabid fan following for years, thanks to MAME and other such emulators, but their only home ports until now were on the Japanese Saturn.
Chronicles of Mystara is another of Capcom’s two-packs of old arcade titles released as downloadable content, and you can flip between the two Mystara games by pressing the Back button on the title screen. Both are the same kind of game–your party of up to four adventurers sets out to find trouble and is almost immediately successful–but Tower of Doom is a proof of concept and Shadows of Mystara feels like a much more finished product.
Both games are proud entrants in the same tradition that created Final Fight, Knights of the Round, and Alien vs. Predator; they’re shameless quartermunchers that don’t even pretend to be fair. Healing items are few and far between, monsters come in waves, the bosses can knock you down on a whim, and treasure chests often come with traps that can kill you in one hit. It’s made explicitly to suck all the change out of your parents’ pockets and mastery involves a great deal of pattern memorization.
It’s surprising how much of Dungeons & Dragons is wedged into the game, from the characters spending an inordinate amount of time in taverns to the spells, monsters, and magical items. Make no mistake, though; this is a brawler to its fingertips. There are some slight RPG elements, like leveling up, finding new gear, and managing a small inventory full of magic, throwing weapons, and vials of Greek fire, but most of the time, you’re pummeling entire crowds of goblins and gnolls into a fine red paste. If you’ve played any of the classic beat-‘em-ups from the period, you’ll immediately be on familiar ground and you’ll know right away whether or not you’ll like this.
Tower of Doom is the original game, and suffers a bit in comparison. The inventory’s more cumbersome, as it requires you to look away from the onscreen action, and the characters don’t control quite as well. Shadows Over Mystara added two more characters, the magic-user and thief, and gave the entire crew an expanded moveslist that includes rushing attacks, slides, kicks, and ground pursuit. Shadows also has a lot more branch points within its level design and even within individual levels, so it’s much more replayable.
The bonus content for the Chronicles pack is actually interesting, although it’s hidden and difficult to access. At the bottom of the Vault pages, underneath the usual massive amount of concept art, you can unlock “house rules” that dramatically alter how the games are played. This includes a “vampirism” mode that heals your character in direct proportion to the damage they inflict, a “hedgehog” mode where your character loses currency instead of health when hit, and a couple of additional modes. Activating them is bizarre, since it requires you to host an online game before you can implement a house rule, but it does let you change things up by adding cheats. The vampirism house rule is borderline broken with a melee character, since they can go from almost dead to full life in a few hits, but the game is otherwise so relentlessly cheap that it doesn’t feel much like a cheat at all.
You’re buying the Chronicles pack for Shadows Over Mystara, with Tower of Doom as a sort of optional curiosity. It’s a fun way to pass a couple of hours and the online play is generally solid (at least, it is on XBLA; I’ve heard nothing but bad things about the Steam version), so this would be a great pick for those of you who’re looking for a four-player party game.
Reviewed By: Thomas Wilde
This review is based on a digital copy of Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara for Xbox Live Arcade provided by Capcom.