Dragonsphere (1994)

Dragonsphere (1994), designed and written by Douglas Kaufman, developed by MPS Labs, published by Microprose

The last of the adventure games published and developed by Microprose was Dragonsphere, a more traditionally inclined fantasy adventure, where you guide young king Callash through a quest to defeat an evil sorcerer before he can build up his old strength and avenge himself upon the royal line that defeated him.

This tale of a mixture of high fantasy and King's Quest begins a day after Callash's coronation. After accepting the crown, it is put upon his shoulders to take care of business that began years ago, as the Dragonsphere, that is used to monitor the prison of the evil sorcerer, is showing signs of cracking, which means that the barriers of the prison are about to be broken as well. So donning his best adventurers garb, Callash strides forwards to destroy Sanwe once and for all.

The place is the kingdom of Gran Callahach, consisting of the realms of humans, shapeshifters, fairies and Ecliptus. In the middle is the tower, where Sanwe, your nemesis, resides behind a crackling magical barrier erected there by the royal wizard. In a proper adventure game fashion, you need to roam the lands of Callahach in order to find all the trinkets you need in order to succeed in the task.

What that means is, that you need to pick up stuff from places that can be used on other stuff in other places. You also stumble upon a couple of puzzles, that might just be among the most annoying ever designed.

The worst puzzle of the game, and it just might be among the worst adventure game puzzles designed, is a seemingly simple logic puzzle. Callash is on his way to a fairy kingdom, but there is a maze on his way, guarded by a force field that will kill him if he tries to pass it without permission. The permission is given to him bt a sprite in the same room as the field is. the puzzle is to find a right sprite from a group sprites which keep flying all over. But, it's not only a question of finding the right sprite but a sprite that is incorrect colour. This means you have to keep asking questions from the sprites until you figure who and what colour the sprite is you need to as to lower forcefield.

The puzzle itself is seemingly simple, but the way it is built makes it annoying. As the sprites keep flying all over, it is simple to lose the little bugger you were after, especially when you need to wait for it to cycle through colours. Luckily enough the sprite is always the same, so if you already know the answer, you just need to hunt down the right one among its siblings. That still doesn't remove the fact, that it is technically a poorly constructed puzzle.

Another character forces you to play several rounds of a simple guessing game with him. The game requires you to pick a coloured stone among 5 stones. A pouch contains 12 of each rock and if you guess correctly which coloured stone comes out, you score. And if you win, you'll win important game items. Not only does this whole segment feel like padding, but it also feels like an item dump, where the designers threw all the items they couldn't find a place otherwise.

It is really a shame, that Dragonsphere doesn't succeed in structuring the puzzles to meaningful gameplay, as it has some interesting elements about it, especially what comes to the game world and the story itself. In fact, the game has a pretty interesting plot twist about halfway through, elevating it above what fantasy themed adventure games more commonly are. The twist makes Drgaonsphere far more memorable than it would otherwise be.

Then there's the nightmarish land of the shapeshifters, which is filled with grotesque ideas of how people able of changing their shapes spend their days. There's something intriguing about the people of Ecliptus as well, despite they are more of a retread towards mysterious desert-dwelling nomads.

Dragonsphere is a game that could have been much better than it ended up as, it just was unlucky coming out in a time, when adventure games were still too much about old conventions rather than trying to invent something new that could work better. If I'd be remaking it, I'd place more emphasis on the story and the world, removing some of the more archaic styles of puzzles from the way of narrative structure, as that's what it feels the game should embrace rather than old-school adventuring tropes.

In a way, Dragonshpere is an interesting contrast towards the first adventure Microprose did, Rex Nebular, as that one was almost too easy, wheres Dragonsphere places more trust on Sierra type moon-logic puzzles, which make some aspects of the game feel unfair instead of challenging. And that, in the end, I feel is the final nail to the coffin of Dragonsphere, despite it is somewhat of a memorable game: it has the feeling of unfairness about it.

As a final note, I do have to mention the music and the voice acting. Just like with Rex Nebular, Dragonsphere has an odd, jarring soundtrack, of which I've this time around come to a conclusion, that it just sucks, as the release I got has come with a separate soundtrack, which really doesn't work at all. So it's just isn't the soundcard settings. The voice acting relative jarring as well, which doesn't really come as a surprise considering Dragonsphere is a mid 90's title. As an oddity, the intro and the ending movies don't have voice acting in them, despite the dialogue of the game is otherwise fully voiced. I don't know if the engine itself had some off technical limitations. that prevented the use of voice acting,  or if there's some other technical glitch stopping the voices to play or if they just forgot to record voices for the movies, but if you do play the game and watch the intro, it might not be your systems fault that you don't hear any voice acting during the movies.

Like I said, Drgaonsphere is a game that could have been much better than it is. It's not among the worst in its genre, but it definitely does feel like a game that came out in a wrong time and could have benefitted from some modern innovations on how adventures are built today.

Dragonsphere is available through Steam and GOG, oddly enough being more expensive on Steam.