The Japanese RPG is a curious thing. In many ways it's hardly moved on in 15 years, yet it still attracts an avid fan base.

Look closer and you can see why - epic storylines, dozens of hours' worth of gameplay, immense depth, stunning cinematics, and self-contained worlds to explore tempt you back.

But there are a couple of lingering old tropes that can blight even the best of them. Repetitive random battles, interminable grinding, and clichéd characters can take the edge off a modern JRPG if they're not deployed intellegently.

Unfortunately, Drakerider uses a few too many of these tired elements while missing many of the hooks that attract many die-hard J-RPG fans back time after time.


You play the part of Aran Lawson - would you believe it, a young, brash orphan who's completely unaware of a dark power that lays dormant within him?

That dormant power is the ability to control an ancient dragon. There's only one of these beasties, and it falls to Aran to control it and save the world from the sinister Dread - a bunch of icky demons and monsters looking to bring about the apocalypse.

Your guide in all this is a mysterious and somewhat ethereal being called Quory. She's wise in the ways of dragons, and dots her speech with Latin phrases like a particularly pretentious middle-manager.

Despite this Quory manifests herself as a teenage girl with the kind of dress sense that would get you arrested in stuffier parts of the UK.

Epic fail

Let's break down the pattern of Drakerider's gameplay: Wander-exposition-wander-exposition-wander-boss fight-wander-pointless flying section, and repeat.

There's a lot of wandering. Not 'adventuring' or 'exploring'. Wandering. Each level is a series of bleakly sparse, repetitive and almost completely unpopulated zones. Occasionally the road down which you're being funnelled will split, but it will only ever end in a chest with some item in it, followed by much backtracking. Which means more fights.

Littered throughout these stages are numerous randomly occurring fight scenes that serve to hold you up when all you want to do is get. To. The. End. You can't see these coming so you can't opt to steer around them. They just happen.

Of course, Japanese RPGs have been doing this for years, but the best ones (like Square's own recent Final Fantasy Dimensions) manage to make their fights entertainingly snappy or strategic. Drakerider's are neither.

Hit points

Drakerider's fights initially look much like those in any other big budget J-RPG of the last 15 years, which would appear to be a good thing. While they are loosely turn-based, though, they're actually built around a surprisingly original - but deeply flawed - system.

It's your dragon who fights for you, and it's just up to you to keep it under control and give it the odd nudge in the right direction. You need to keep the attack gauge from straying into the red while steering it towards the three other colours to initiate attacks by tugging on an endless chain that moves back and forth along the bottom of the screen.

Hit red and your dragon will go berserk, lashing out at everything on the battlefield - including poor Aran.

As you may have established from our description, fights feel curiously passive and out of your control in Drakerider. I guess this mimics what it must feel like to be strapped to the back of a raging monster, but it misses one vital ingredient - excitement.

Hard slog

Once you've mastered control of the chain system, fights become dull formalities. Tougher fights don't require any more skill, and are if anything even more dull, as you stay parked in the blue zone until you have enough health and time to launch a sporadic attack.

Despite this, you can't actually see most of the fireworks happening elsewhere on the screen, as you have to keep your eyes glued to the attack gauge lest it slip into the red. It's like driving your car past a parade while your attention is, by necessity, glued to the busy road ahead.

The fight system's most interesting feature could also be considered something of a game-breaker - at least early on. Having struggled with a few boss characters on consecutive occasions, I opted to allow my dragon to go berserk. It turned out I could take a bigger beating from my treacherous dragon than the previously imposing boss, resulting in a number of ridiculously easy wins.

Additional elements like sending out a character to forage for interesting items to sell so that you can purchase new weapons and a series of abstract battle-heavy stages provide welcome relief, but little in the way of depth.

There's also a skill tree to follow as you level up, but progress through it is disappointingly slow and relatively linear.

Production values

I've been pretty harsh on Drakerider, despite the fact that it does attain a base level of competence. Its tale is reasonably well told, with full (Japanese) voice-acting and nicely detailed character models (except for some uninspired monster design).

But here's the thing - Drakerider comes in an episodic format where buying all five chapters will cost you £15. We wouldn't mind paying this amount (indeed with the aforementioned Final Fantasy Dimensions we've paid more) if Drakerider was a genuinely top notch Square Enix RPG, but it's not.

Put it this way: you could pick up Horn, Bastion, and Infinity Blade II (which together supply all of Drakerider's key elements) together for less than £15 - and each of those is significantly more fun to play than Drakerider.

The game's saving grace is that you can play the first chapter for free. This offers a healthy three or four hours of gameplay, by which point you should have decided whether you want to pay for more (you can buy each episode individually for a fiver a pop, too).

The first episode doesn't really stand alone as a game in terms of plot resolution, but then the core gameplay doesn't develop much in subsequent episodes either.

This flexible structure saves Drakerider from our unrestricted berserker rage, but with its tired J-RPG tropes and a lack of those positive elements that make the genre endlessly appealing, we're still chained to it somewhat grudgingly.