The Dreamcast, being in truth little more than a shrunk down NAOMI arcade machine, inevitably played host to it's fair share of quick fire shoot 'em ups, outlandish time-limited driving games and amazing beat 'em ups. One genre it was perhaps too short on was adventure games. The few that did come along ranged from the sublime (Soul Reaver) to the dire (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation). And somewhere in the middle sits Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm. Known in PAL territories as Dragon's Blood, Draconus is a typical medieval fantasy hack n slash 'em up the likes of which rarely appears on the consoles, and in some ways is quite similar to that old PC stalwart, Rune. However, rather than being an out and out 'wander around killing things' style affair, Draconus adds a pseudo RPG element that sees the player assigning points to various attributes of their character to increase things like armour, weaponry and strangely, rank.
Starting the adventure, you are offered the choice of two characters to play as. Cynric is a hardened warrior complete with (an initially flimsy) suit of armour, sword and shield; whilst Aeowyn is a female sorceress who makes up for her lack of brute strength with her ability to devastate enemies with magical spells. The further you get into the game, the more 'stat points' you acquire; and with these points you can upgrade your suit of armour, your weapon and shield, and also the level of spells you can cast. By the 6th or 7th mission, you'll be happy to see that your character is no longer the unprotected greenhorn they once were - indeed, armour and pointy things at your disposal become quite fearsome. Horned helmets and chain mail, anyone?
After deciding whom to play as, the adventure begins. You start the game in a treetop village that is attacked by goblin type things and a village elder that you must rescue explains the plot. After this introductory stage, the true adventure begins as you are sent far and wide across the land to retrieve various mystical items from the clutches of level bosses. These mystical items are needed to prevent an evil army conquering the kingdom...or something equally clich?d. The nice thing is Draconus offers the player the choice of which missions to play first. It's not overly generous with the choices and it's hardly a free form, 'go anywhere' adventure, but it's nice to be offered the choice between two stages at each juncture. So, will you choose to enter the dark, scary looking forest...or the dark, scary looking dungeon? The choice, as they say, is yours.
At the core, Draconus is a third person roaming beat 'em up. You get a map of each level and the areas you must visit in each map are marked by a big red X. Once you've been to that area and completed the mission dependent task (kill a certain character, find a certain key etc), that X turns green and you are encouraged to journey to the next objective and so on. Eventually, when all the X's are green, you face the boss who must be seen off in order to get your hands on the object they possess. Then it's on to the next level for more of the same. Simple.
The great thing is, though, that Draconus's levels tend to be vast open-air affairs with huts, trees, rivers and huge castles and underground caverns dotted around that are all fully explorable. In certain circumstances doors are locked and paths are blocked, but a quick scout around usually unearths a key or a character that will give you access in return for a favour (e.g., in the first level you must make a pact with a tribe of goblins to avenge the death of one of their clan members. Do so, and they give you the keys to a Keep within which dwells a Minotaur who must be taken out to progress). The levels, though, whilst massive and sprawling are fogged up quite drastically to keep the frame-rate flowing - so Draconus looks a bit like Turok in places and as such you have to rely heavily on your map to get about. Whilst this map is quite good, the compass you are equipped with tends to have a mind of its own so it's virtually pointless (pun intended) and as smaller settlements and villages aren't shown on the map, you can often end up wandering into a whole camp site full of enemies as you journey from mission point to mission point. This is where the real-time battle element comes into play, and largely where Draconus falls down. Being a game based mainly on sword-play, this is something of a baffling problem - especially when the rest of the game is actually quite impressive. It's like this - an enemy approaches and you get a block (shield) and attack (sword) button. Pressing block when the enemy attacks deflects any damage, whilst naturally, pressing attack slashes back. The problem is, there is no real 'lock-on,' so you'll often find yourself facing the wrong way while an enemy darts behind you to get a cheap shot in. Furthermore, as the playable characters move quite slowly, it's a pain to have to realign in order to get a hit. An Ocarina of Time style lock-on would have eliminated this problem - and also the problem of constantly swiping over the heads of shorter foes. The battle system isn't by any means unbearable, but its small oversights like that that stop many games leaping from the 'good' shelf and onto the 'brilliant' one.
Further RPG-esque things pop up during battle too. Register a hit on an enemy and a little number appears, displaying the amount of damage you inflicted on them. Likewise, if you take a hit the same thing happens and the number is subtracted from your overall stamina. As expected, if it reaches zero - it's game over. Luckily, there are benevolent fairies dotted about the levels that will replenish you and even increase your stamina capacity if you collect enough; and the old staple of health vials is abundant too.
Overall, Draconus is a very solid adventure game. Sure, the characters, enemies and locations are ripped straight from the medieval fantasy textbook, but the witty script is refreshing, as is the amount of choice you are given (even if both characters' adventures are identical). As for the visuals and sound, it looks quite good as far as adventure games on the Dreamcast go - there are lots of special effects, dynamic lighting and some truly astounding architecture in places, and the animation of the characters is good (albeit a bit slow-mo). The frame rate is consistent for the most part but can get juddery when the action gets a bit tasty with more than 3 foes on screen.
The sound effects are as you'd expect (grunts, groans, birds tweeting, water rushing, portcullises smashing shut etc), but the story board sections are extremely well done and feature some exceptional voiceovers and fantasy art depicting the background to the mission. As an example of fantasy gaming, Draconus is by the numbers stuff, but as a videogame, it hits all the right notes: varied missions, lots of cool looking monsters, vicious looking weaponry and massive castles. If only the fighting system had been as impressive, I'm sure Draconus could have been a resounding success rather than the obscure title it is today.