For years, games focusing on dragons seemed to be affected by some kind of curse. I’m not talking about titles in which the mighty beasts are just monsters to kill, but those that portray them as protagonists or allies.
Games like Lair and Crimson Dragon almost convinced us that it was impossible to give the scaled spitfires an honorable portrayal of their combination of might and majestic grace.
Now, at long last, Scalebound by Hideki Kamiya and PlatinumGames seems to be on the right track to succeed where so many others have failed. I kid you not: when I was presented with a hands-off live demo of the game, I most probably had the expression I wore when I was five, watching older kids playing during my first visit at the arcades. My eyes were pleading for that controller, begging “please, let me play even for just a minute.”
The demo starts with protagonist Drew fighting a bunch of imperial soldiers. Combat seems a little less frenetic than in other PlatinumGames titles, and at the beginning that might throw you off. Then you realize that this is an action RPG, and not a hack and slash game. It’s actually faster and a lot more dynamic than most games of its genre.
While fighting against humans, the dragon Thuban plays a support role, wreaking havoc on the battlefield and killing the enemies that would be unreachable for the protagonist Drew. It’s when the fight is shifted against giant monsters that the synergy between the two really shines, creating titanic encounters truly worthy of a game about dragons.
Elements like different weapons and shields, ranged attacks based on the magical energy called “pulse,” the ability to grapple on the enemy to reach their weak points and to rip their limbs off, create a combat system that seems very deep and interesting, and I’m quite sure that we’ve just scratched the surface.
Basically, Scalebound appears to be a wet dreams for dragon fans. It’s a “dragon simulator” in which you can customize your reptilian buddy with different elemental attack, armor and cosmetic options, and I can already see myself spending countless hours collecting all of those elements.
While Thuban looks absolutely fantastic, the design used for Drew is interesting: PlatinumGames seems to have opted for the “totally normal dude” look.” Kamiya-san himself heavily stressed on the fact that he’s not a mighty hero, but simply a guy like any other that needs to “go into the zone” when he fights, by wearing his headphones and pushing the music’s volume to the top. The only element that sets him apart is the dragon arm, symbolizing his bond with Thuban.
Of course Scalebound does not disappoint from the visual point of view. The world is absolutely stunning. While we don’t know how big it will be, nor if it will be fully open, it feels large and interesting, exactly as you would expect from a place where dragons live.
The biggest unknown element is, paradoxically, the RPG aspect of the game, as the demo we saw focused mostly of combat. The story will also need to be worthy of the theme, but that’s something we’ll have to wait quite a lot longer to be able to explore. If those elements will be worthy of the battle mechanics and visuals, I can already see this becoming a classic.
Another elements that left me with some unsatisfied curiosity, is the depth of the orders that we can impart to Thuban. So far, we’ve seen pretty basic commands, and while our scaled friend seems to have quite the personality, we’ll have to see the scope of the collaboration between him and Drew, and the width of the options that it will offer.
The demo ended with a a teaser of a boss fight in a dungeon, with other players joining with their own fully customized dragons for an epic co-op battle. Unfortunately we did not see it, but that’s another option that might contribute to pushing Scalebound towards the status of masterpiece. RPGs with good co-op elements are way too rare, considering that it seems a nearly obvious route to pursue (after all, tabletop role playing games were born as collaborative activities).
Saying that the demo impressed me is like saying that a tropical storm is equivalent to a “light breeze.” I came out of that meeting room with a stupid grin on my face, wanting to see more. Scalebound has the potential to be a real winner in the console market, and to finally do justice to the myth of Dragons in games pretty much like The Hobbit did with film.
I have a feeling that if there’s someone who can pull that stunt off, that’s Hideki Kamiya.