Crimson Dragon Side Story Lead

The Xbox on Windows Phone lineup, on the whole is far too casual for some gamers’ tastes. Xbox Live features have attracted a sizable minority of Xbox 360 fans to Microsoft’s mobile platform, where they find an abundance of puzzle games and a disarmingly small number of established gaming franchises. Microsoft does sometimes throw the hardcore crowd a bone though, as evidenced by the recent release of Crimson Dragon Side Story. Not only does Side Story tie into the upcoming Xbox console game Crimson Dragon’s fascinating universe, but it’s also one of the more robust and ambitious mobile Xbox games in sometime.

Panzer Dragon or Crimson Dragoon?

Crimson Dragon is an upcoming Kinect-exclusive rail shooter for Xbox Live Arcade from a small Japanese developer called Grounding. The game bears a striking resemblance to SEGA’s classic Panzer Dragoon series, which spanned three Sega Saturn installments before culminating in Panzer Dragoon Orta for the original Xbox. The similarities should come as no surprise because Crimson Dragon’s Director, Concept Artist, Lead Designer, and Sound Designer all worked on the Panzer Dragoon series. Crimson Dragon and Side Story are in every way the spiritual successors to Panzer Dragoon.

Panzer Dragoon Mini

People in Japan paid over $30 for this. We get Side Story for $1.

Fun trivia! Before Side Story brought dragon-riding goodness to mobile phones, Panzer Dragoon Mini appeared exclusively on the Sega game Gear portable system in Japan. Despite Side Story’s shift in perspectives, it’s clearly the more faithful (and prettier) take on the concept.

Pernacious gameplay

Crimson Dragon Side Story World 4 boss

World 4 boss

Previous games in the series have utilized a 3D perspective in which the player simply controls his or her dragon’s vertical and horizontal movement as it flies through each level. Side Story keeps the 3D graphics but shifts to a 2D perspective, a situation often referred to as 2.5D. Here players only control vertical movement, which both captures that ‘on-rails’ feeling and simplifies dodging compared to traditional shoot-em-ups.

Another key element of past Dragoon games is their lock-on laser system. The dragonrider could hold a button to highlight and lock-on to multiple targets at once, then release the button to fire at them all. Side Story lets users choose between six main weapons, two of which utilize the lock-on system. When playing with these Ray weapons, you’ll tap and swipe all over the screen, taking down squadrons of aerial enemies as they appear. It feels just like a rail shooter and much different from regular shmups like Dodonpachi.

The other two weapon styles: Cannon and Lightning work much differently. Cannon automatically fires rapid shots in a straight line. Lightning fires at all targets within an area surrounding the player’s finger; basically you just hold your finger down and move the targeting box around without releasing. Unfortunately neither weapon style holds a candle to the Ray’s effectiveness.

Cannons can’t keep a combo going as well, plus they forces your dragon to line up with enemies in order to hit them, making it harder to dodge. Lightning is just terribly weak, making combos harder to maintain and bosses take long to kill. You’ll need to dabble in both weapon styles in order to unlock specific Skills, but otherwise Cannons and Lightning mostly go unused.

Skills and Subweapons

Crimson Dragon Side Story Skill Equip

Skills are the game’s big collectible. You’ll unlock many of them by clearing Story Mode worlds and missions. Others require playing worlds with specific main weapons equipped (which can be frustrating when those weapons suck), reaching certain high scores, or S-Ranking missions. Mostly they’re easy to get, but 10-20 of them will require a well-leveled up dragon and great mastery of specific stages and boss encounters.

Skills break down into two types: subweapons and action skills. Subweapons are like regular weapons that you can toggle to at any time. The catch is they slowly drain your dragon’s willpower (which refills slowly over time), so you can’t use a subweapon the entire time. That’s a downer for me, as I’d get a lot more use out of subweapons if they were just like regular weapons. Also, it’s difficult to tell how much damage subweapons do from their descriptions; the game really should display DPS information to help players make informed choices.

Action skills cost willpower too, but they’re more like items than weapons. Typical effects include refilling health or activating temporary buffs. No complaints about these other than you pretty much have to choice between either subweapon or action skill, since they both draw from the same resource, willpower.

Jewels and the Trading Post

Crimson Dragon Side Story World 3 boss

World 3 boss. This guy takes forever to beat.

Oddly, unlocking skills doesn’t immediately let players use those skills. Instead they have to be awakened (purchased) with jewels. It also costs 1 jewel to continue mid-mission, for better or worse. Jewels can be earned by completing worlds and missions for the first time, reaching leaderboard milestones with your friends, and on very rare occasions from random drops.

The game’s Trading Post feature offers two more ways to get jewels. The GPS function basically tracks how far you’ve traveled while playing the game. Reaching distance milestones unlocks jewels, skills, and an Achievement. Unfortunately, the GPS function is buggy at best. You're supposed to just check in with the game from different locations, but right now it only counts distance travelled while the game is running. I’ve heard enabling Cellular data can mess it up too, but I’m not sure.

Alternately, you can just buy jewels with Microsoft Points. The prices:

  • 80 Points = 50 jewels
  • 160 Points = 120 jewels
  • 400 Points = 400 jewels
  • 800 Points = 1000 jewels

I like how spending more nets a significantly larger volume of jewels.

Control woes

Crimson Dragon Side Story Concept ArtMuch as I enjoy Side Story, it controls like Grounding has little to no experience with mobile development. First, instead of dragging up and down anywhere on the left side of the screen to move, you have to tap a tiny virtual stick in the bottom-left corner and then slide your finger up and to the right a bit in order to fully move up or down. Sliding to the right is necessary because the buttons for subweapons and action skills are located above the virtual stick, exactly where they shouldn’t be.

That’s bad enough, but you can also activate action skills by sliding your left finger to the right. Considering how the game forces you to slide to the right a bit anyway in order to steer, it’s way too easily to accidentally activate an action skill by mistake and waste its effect.

Similarly, performing a two-finger tap anywhere on-screen activates subweapons. The game sometimes mistakes the combination of my left finger’s movement control and my right finger’s aiming as a two-finger tap, switching weapons and ruining my combo. At the very least players should be able to switch both of these ‘shortcuts’ off since they are wholly unnecessary.

Achievements

Side Story’s Achievements are a mix of fun to go after, challenging, and frustrating. Due to space, I’ll just point out the tough ones. ‘GPS Specialist’ initially appears to be bugged, as you’ll unlock several gems from using the GPS function without the Achievement popping. In truth, the description is bad. The GPS counter has to reach a certain distance milestone (reports of the actual distance vary) in order for it to unlock.

‘Dragon Master’ requires players to beat the final boss a whopping 200 times. A grueling and pointless requirement, but it’s slightly better than it seems. Right now - whether on purpose or by mistake – clearing World 5 (the boss fight) nets 15 jewels every single time instead of only the first time. Thus it’s the best way to get jewels without paying for them, and you can work on the Achievement simultaneously. Update: The version 1.2 patch closed the jewel loophole, sadly.

Only dedicated and skilled players are likely to get the ‘Hero of Draco’ Achievement for beating a mission with all five bosses without taking damage. A few people have done so, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to it.

Overall Impressions

Crimson Dragon Side Story is flat-out one of the best Xbox games on Windows Phone. It’s beautiful, has an interesting world, and the Mission Mode and skill system instill tons of replay value. Those things plus the low price and two free avatar awards make Side Story a tremendous bargain compared to most other titles. I wish the controls were better, and the game deleted all of my progress once, so not all is perfect in this world of dragons. But Side Story’s overall level of quality bodes very well for the console Crimson Dragon. I can’t wait to try it out on the big screen.

  • Crimson Dragon Side Story – Windows Phone 7 and 8 – 206 MB – $0.99 – Store Link

Update

Microsoft held off on releasing Crimson Dragon for Xbox 360 in favor of launching it on Xbox One. Check out our full review of the console version.