Friday, September 24, 2010

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Dragon Half

Lately I've been playing a lot of Japanese games more or less successfully, so it's actually kind of refreshing to encounter Dragon Half, an odd RPG-board game hybrid based on the popular manga and anime series.  I can deduce a little bit of what's going on, but with my extremely limited knowledge of Japanese and no clue as to the ultimate object of the game, I hesitate to say that I'm actually playing it.

The game was released by Micro Cabin Corp. in 1994, fairly late in the PC Engine's life cycle, on the Super CD-ROM format.  According to Wikipedia, the original Dragon Half series ran in print from 1998 to 1994, with the anime OVAs released in 1993, so this game would have been a coda of sorts for the series, which often parodied RPG conventions.  The design is also technically interesting, in that it uses the onboard sound chip for all of the in-game music, reserving the CD capacity for loading graphics on the fly, and it does so fairly seamlessly.

Dragon Half's appeal is simultaneously of the kawaii and ecchi variety -- most everybody is cute and super-deformed, and most of the female characters wear revealing outfits heavy on the decolletage.  The fully-voiced, simply-animated intro sets up the premise -- it opens with an intentionally over-dramatic scenario of impending doom and the forces of good that oppose it.  Then we segue into comedy -- as near as I can make out, there is some kind of contest in progress, a handsome warrior is the object of too many girls' affections, and our swimsuit-clad hostess is rapidly losing control of the proceedings:

The game supports up to 4 players using the PC Engine's multi-tap adaptor, but even in single-player mode, there are four pre-defined teams, with the CPU handling any teams not assigned to a human player.  There's a second setup menu available -- the text is completely in Japanese, so I'm not absolutely positive, but while it seems there are options for turning sound on and off and speeding up play, there are always four teams in action.

The teams are made up of established characters from the Dragon Half universe, and it's interesting to see the variations in art styles.  One team's members look grown-up and serious (even when faced with what I can only assume is a bikini-clad mud monster):

While others are super-deformed and resolutely cute in the face of danger:

The game proceeds in board-game fashion -- each team rolls the die (it's more like a spinner, actually) and moves around the board using the resulting number of movement points.  The board is structured as a map -- there's no specific beginning or end, and the layout has loops and branching roads.  The team can make decisions about which way to move during its turn, but must use up all the rolled points, which can make landing on a desirable node difficult.

Of course, I can't quite tell which nodes are desirable, as I can't read the text or understand the characters who pop up to offer advice.  I can see that they're color-coded as red, blue and yellow.  And I know that after stopping on a node, the party encounters advice from other characters, visits an inn or shop, or enters a Battle Stage

The battles are handled RPG style, except only one of the player team's characters is allowed to attack during each round, and the character selection is handled slot-machine style, with a lot of  unpredictability.  We also can't select which comical attack our champion will use, or influence its success -- sometimes spells go wrong and do damage to our own team.  But this will be familiar stuff to any JRPG fan, with a twist of parody now and then:

The battles are fun, nicely animated with some funny attacks and results.  But in the end, while I had no problem maneuvering around the board and participating in battles, I couldn't figure out the actual object of the game.  Teams are unable to battle each other when they collide, it seems, and the board is circular in nature, with no clear end goal.  We earn experience and money along the way, which may have some bearing on the victory conditions, but that's all I have to say about Dragon Half -- without a working knowledge of Japanese, it remains largely unfathomable.

If your Japanese is in better working order than mine, or you're a big Dragon Half fan, you may be able to find this game for sale at a reasonable price here or here:

Dragon Half PC-Engine SCD

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