It's never the most promising thing when a game's given you a headache before you've even booted it up. Trying to make sense of one of EA's launch schedule? You'll need a spreadsheet, of course. Want to understand exactly what the deal is with the two different SKUs of Dragon Marked for Death, the latest from brilliant boutique developer Inti Creates, and there's not even an Excel document to hand. Each one has two character classes apiece, each exclusive to each particular SKU and each presumably available as DLC at some point down the line.
Why is this? I'm not entirely sure, though there's probably good reasoning somewhere behind it. It is confusing, though, as is so much about Dragon Marked for Death. It's a co-op 2D action RPG that takes a number of cues from the likes of Monster Hunter, and at times it's absolutely brilliant; stylish, frenetic and with a decent serving of neat ideas. And then that all comes so frequently undone by a baffling design decision.
So, the basics. You pick one of four classes (the ranged weapon wielding Empress and tank-like Warrior being part of the Frontline Fighters pack, the agile Shinobi and support class Witch being in the Advanced Attackers one) and embark on a series of quests that climax in extended boss sequences. You do all this from a hub, where you shop for potions, weapons and accessories, rest at your home and equip the spoils of victory and your expeditions, while a tavern offers up a place to join up with up to three other fighters, online or off, to tackle quests.
There's a familiar, moreish loop in that, and it's quite unlike anything I've seen in a 2D action game before (although someone more learned than me did point out some vague similarities to 2014's Mercenary Kings, another ambitious pixelart action game, even if this particular effort lacks the more in-depth crafting found there, and there are definitely parallels to be drawn between this and Inti Creates' own Mega Man Zero games). The action itself is sturdy too, as you might expect from the developer behind the likes of Mega Man 9 and 10 plus the exquisite Blaster Master Zero and Bloodstained (and Mighty No. 9 too, but that's a whole different story).
It's wonderful to see Inti Creates' pixel artists unleashed and working on their own terms, and in Dragon Marked for Death they come up with some exquisite stuff. There are screen filling Ogre Princes, scuttling Hermit Crabs with huge health bars to be whittled away, all told with the kind of detail and fidelity that simply wasn't possible in the 16 and 32-bit eras that inspires the aesthetic.
This is clearly a passion project, and that shows beneath the artwork too. Here's an action RPG where the numbers are always exposed, the vitals and attributes of your enemies listed beneath their health bar while ever increasing digits float from their bodies as you batter them to bits. I love an RPG that shows its workings, so I've got a real soft spot for such an abundance of numbers, and beyond that the interplay between classes can be brilliantly satisfying. Tanks are there to draw aggro (helpfully marked by little arcs from enemy to player, making the compression that's necessary when squishing this particular RPG formula down to two dimensions that bit more readable), while ranged characters can sit back and spam with magic attacks.
Perhaps, though, Inti Creates got so caught up in the fun of playing Dragon Marked for Death with the full suite of four players that they lost sight of the problems for other players. This is a tough game to solo - with some of the challenges posed by bosses, it's does tend towards the frustrating - and no matter how you play it there's baffling design decisions everywhere you look. Partly that's how reluctant Dragon Marked for Death is to explain even its simplest of systems, and part of it is how it's not thought through others. Menus to equip potions are hidden in hard-to-reach places, XP is given out erratically and items you find out in the field aren't usable until after you've finished a quest, making it feel like you're constantly battling the game as much as you are its enemies.
But it's worth battling through, regardless. Dragon Marked for Death ends up feeling like a rough draft, with flashes of something special roughly sketched out amidst a fairly ramshackle whole. Those flashes are pretty special, mind, and worth persevering through the muddiness elsewhere to seek out. I've never played anything quite like Dragon Marked for Death before; I just hope that Inti Creates sticks with the formula and has another crack so I can have a chance to play something like it again.