Of all the game genres you’d expect to find on Microsoft’s fairly populous XBox Live Arcade, a chibi dungeon crawler probably isn’t something you’d immediately think of. Yet someone asked the question, and Wanako Games’ Arkadian Warriors is the answer. The next question is, obviously, how well does it work? Sadly that reply is, not as well as genre fans would almost certainly prefer.
The basic formula for dungeon crawlers is remarkably simple – in fact it’s a little amazing that such a basic game model could have found the widespread acceptance it has. Put players in an environment where their movement is channeled, people it with enemies, develop a gear/leveling progression, and throw some story in. Where the genre’s biggest home-run hitters have excelled is largely in that last category; look at the original Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, or Champions of Norrath: Realms of Everquest. Both featured sweeping, well-realized storylines and deep NPC characterization, including plenty of well-done voice-over. Not that the games which underlay these stories were subpar – in fact they’re still among the genre’s nonpareils – but the story really kept you interested almost as much as exploring the inventory and feat systems.
Arkadian Warriors does get some of the details right. Players can choose from three character classes. Fighters are the typical melee tank, with best hit-point and strength ratings; Archers have quick long-ranged attacks (and don’t have to count arrows, they’re unlimited); Sorceresses get the most powerful magical attacks, and have slower, stronger ranged attacks in comparison to Archers. AW does attempt to separate itself from the pack by giving each character the ability to briefly transform into a nearly-invulnerable werebeast with powerful area-effect attacks once a gauge is filled. There’s also the obligatory inventory system, with pricey-but-worthwhile items on sale in the town’s local shop and plenty of loot to be found in the dungeons themselves. Each character class does gain several magical abilities as they level up, and those abilities become more powerful as the character continues to advance in rank. Finally, like all good dungeon crawlers, AW can be played with a friend, online as well in this case.
With such a basis, you’d expect at least a good beginning from AW, and indeed there is one. The brief voice-over introducing the game is reasonably done, and the graphics are passable if quite simplistic (reflecting the XBLA memory limitations). However, the game just doesn’t hold up over the long haul. Once you’re into the actual gameplay, there is no voice-over at all, save random grunts from your characters and death-cries from enemies. The story is so bare-bones as to be nearly nonexistent; there’s a big demon coming, and we’ve got to fight him off, and apparently a lot of people have tried this before, so you’re the last hope. Missions are introduced with one to two sentences of text; you go down and beat some enemies, perhaps grab a quest item or two, then return to the home village. It’s fine at first, since the formula for this stuff really is that simple, but AW never manages to evolve. After the first boss-fight, you’re more or less seen all the game will throw at you – only the appearances change. Boss fights themselves are also rather annoyingly easy, even as a solo adventurer. With two players they’re rather laughable. As stated, there’s not remotely enough storyline to get the player emotionally involved, so the basic and repetitive nature of the game really wears thin after a few hours. AW winds up being hard to finish, simply because the player likely won’t much care about doing so and may in fact be bored with the game long before its plotline winds up. There is some fun to be had in the higher-level dungeons, simply because the enemies do get tough and numerous enough to actually take you down; however, each excursion into a dungeon starts the player off with three lives, and these are reset on successful completion, so you have to be really incompetent to be in much danger of actually failing a mission. This lack of challenge, combined with a lack of any sort of compelling story, is really what brings the game down.? There are also some bizarre design choices which limit the fun two players can have with the game, the most salient being that even online, both characters are limited to the same screen.? There’s no real reason for this, and it makes completing each level take longer than it should.
To be fair, AW does manage to do some things remarkably well. Though the player is always adventuring in the same overall style of dungeon, each is randomly generated, so you won’t be seeing exactly the same thing again and again. There’s also enough texture variation to give each area a slightly different look. A fairly large overall inventory of items is available to gather and wield, and your character’s model does show each piece of equipment distinctly. The ability to transform into a giant boss-type monster yourself will lead to a gleeful moment or two as you turn the tables on a scrum of powerful enemies, who moments before had you down to the lower reaches of your health gauge. Yet in the end, AW is thoroughly mired in the negative aspects of the dungeon crawler genre, without ever managing to grasp the excellence which has lifted its more successful examples above those limitations. If you like game design and theory, it’s actually quite possible to respect the effort made by Wanako with Arkadian Warriors; there’s certainly about $10 worth of game development here, if you look for it. Sadly, there really isn’t $10 of actual entertainment value even for genre addicts, so the game winds up difficult to recommend.