Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Genesis look: Alisia Dragoon

Action-platformers are in no short supply when it comes to the Genesis so what can be done to help a title stand out from the pack? Game Arts tackled this problem with Alisia Dragoon. While at its core it has the same basic elements as other titles in the genre it introduces some interesting ideas and executes them quite well.

In a land where evil is up to no good it's up to a vengeful princess and her trusty dragons to stop an evil priest from awakening a great demon. In order to accomplish her mission the princess must journey through 8 stages of multi-scrolling platforming and shooting. Not only are there scores of respawnable foes to destroy there's also many hidden items that will strengthen Alisia and her dragon friends.

While Alisia is familiar with concepts of walking and jumping its her methods of attack that really help give this game an identity. Her main weapon is lightning which can be used a number of ways. Short bursts are fine for taking out weak groups of enemies while concentrated blasts might be necessary for larger foes. Although her energy drains after a short period it refills very quickly. What makes this attack unique is that it automatically homes in on enemy targets Alisia is facing. This allows her to focus on dodging their attacks. If Alisia allows her energy to charge up all the way(which takes a couple seconds) she unleashes a fully-charged blast that covers the screen and does immense damage. This is a very handy weapon though at times the player can become over-reliant on it and thus halt the pacing as they'll have Alisia stop every few seconds to make sure she can pull off another blast.

The other key weapon is Alisia's array of Dragon friends. By hitting the A button the game pauses and Alisia can choose from four different dragons. All of these dragons have an energy meter that when filled up will cause them to unleash their attack on the nearest enemy target. They stay behind Alisia at all times and this important to consider as they can catch bullets or be used to arrange an attack. These dragons have varying abilities and their own health meters, thus giving Alisia an incentive to keep them alive. The secret to using these Dragons effectively is to summon them when they're ready to attack. Their energy meters recharge even when they're not currently selected and since the game pauses while choosing dragons it's easy for Alisia to bring one out for a quick attack. The more time a dragon spends with Alisia the more likely they are to take damage.

Alisia has many power-ups she can collect. There's the typical gamut of extra health and lives but the really interesting power-ups are of the permanent variety. Some enable her dragon friends to level up(which raises their attack power and life). Others will strengthen Alisia's lightning by one level or raise her maximum health. It's not uncommon for these to be found at the very ends of dead-ends so nudging every crevice and jumping into every hole is recommended to finding some of these secret items. 

The levels in Alisia Dragoon share a common theme in that they're large and not always straightforward. There are many deviations from the main path and plenty of secrets to find. The game does a fine job of keeping these level designs interesting by employing basic traps and some platforming. Another great aspect of the level design is that the enemies are placed so that Alisia's weapons can really be put to the test. There's a lot of angular structure in the design and despite having a homing weapon Alisia can still run into a lot of trouble when everything is designed around blocking her shots. 

Most of the enemies in Alisia Dragoon are of the respawnable variety. Weaker foes go down easily but continue to come back for more, giving Alisia reason to keep moving. Larger guys tend to take quite a bit more abuse but they also count towards a "shot down rate" which is the only way the game keeps track of score. As mentioned earlier all of the enemies are designed to work within their environment and are placed at the right spots to keep Alisia from simply blazing through every stage. The bosses play out as expected and can only be defeated by the player's skill in putting Alisia's ability to work. There's no puzzles to solve or gimmicks to figure out. There's patterns and a variety of attacks to dodge and they work out quite well.

While there is an over-abundance of stuff that wants Alisia dead this game is still fairly easy to complete on normal difficulty. Health-restoration items are everywhere and Alisia can screw up quite a few times before she becomes a corpse. It is very possible to beat this game without taking a hit but it would involve the player memorizing every square inch of the levels and boss-fights. Alisia is constantly under attack from all sides yet at times it's probably best to avoid fighting back. Sometimes it's better to just keep moving and ignore the petty creatures. 

Aside from the previously mentioned over-reliance on the burst attack I can't find much in the way of flaws with this game. I'm just surprised and disappointed that we never saw a sequel or even further games by the team behind Alisia Dragoon. It's probably not the best action game but it's certainly creative and develops an interesting concept that is not only well-designed but also shows great mechanics. Too many games come up with some good ideas but just fall apart when taken to task but Alisia Dragoon remains a great game throughout, making it one of the better action-platformers on the Genesis. On the other hand maybe the game isn't for everyone and the weapon system as well as usage of dragons could give it a stilted feel that relies too much on memorization over actual skill. However I haven't really put enough time into the game to consider the finer points so until then I see nothing wrong with giving this game a very high recommendation.

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