If any Xbox One launch title seemed destined for guaranteed success, it would have been Crimson Dragon. Despite its turbulent development cycle, Crimson Dragon's pedigree should have seen it through. Yet somehow, of all the games available at the console's debut, Crimson Dragon is only saved from being the objective worst by the disastrous Fighter Within. It's certainly the most disappointing launch title.
Crimson Dragon hails from no less than Yukio Futatsugi, one of the creators of the legendary Panzer Dragoon. As such, the game has decades of Sega design power behind it, tangentially touched not only by the Panzer series but by the likes of Space Harrier and Rez as well. Yet nothing about the game equals the appeal of its forebears; Crimson Dragon found itself badly outclassed just days after its release by M2's remake of Space Harrier for 3DS. When a 25-year-old game on a handheld system chugging on hardware a generation out of date handily shames a marquee release for a brand-new console, something has gone horribly wrong.
The most offensive flaw in Crimson Dragon comes in the form of its tacky emphasis on microtransactions. The game bombards you with free-to-play-style monetization hooks and prompts from the moment you boot it up (you're immediately greeted with a "daily" play bonus, even the second or third time you play in the space of a day). The game runs on multiple currencies, one of which -- gems, used to revive -- can be purchased with real money. It's basically Candy Crush's pay-to-win mindset dressed up to look less rapacious, but that genteel appearance is an illusion; Crimson Dragon wants desperately to be a F2P game, albeit one you pay $20 for before you can download it.
This appears to be symptomatic of a larger problem afflicting the Xbox One at large, as practically every exclusive launch title for the system buckles under design compromises made to implant transaction hooks into retail-priced content. Gamers howled in derision at Oblivion's horse armor and regard season passes with dismay, but those feel like pure gold-plated value next to Crimson Dragon and its ilk, where you buy the game and then are practically expected to pay more just to play.
Oh, you don't have to pay, as defenders will quickly point out. But the game is carefully balanced to make normal progress just difficult enough, and just annoying enough, that you'll constantly be tempted to shell out for a continue in order to finish off a mission you came so agonizingly close to finishing before meeting an untimely demise. But you're not forced to do it. You can grind for levels and cash through constant repetition. Because that's fun.
Well, actually, it's not, because playing Crimson Dragon isn't much fun. As a shooter, it feels slight. There's no weight to your movements. The shooting mechanics lack the satisfying snap of Panzer Dragoon's targeting. Worst of all, you feel no connection between yourself and anything that happens on screen; gliding through a rail-driven world shooting generic enemies that spew indistinct glowing power-ups and indistinct glowing projectiles in equal numbers feels like a return to the worst days of derivative arcade games that lacked both substance and imagination. I don't know if I'd be willing to drop $20 on an HD remake of Panzer Dragoon Orta, but I'd enjoy it a lot more than I have Crimson Dragon.
The secret to successful adventuring in Crimson Dragon is dull, rote memorization. Sure, that's always the case for on-rails shooters to some degree, but the design flaws you have to overcome here really lay bare a fundamental lack of freedom to improvise. This makes the illusion of choice particularly irritating; you can pan the camera left or right much of the time, but enemies will creep up into your resulting blind spot and plaster you with damage with no warning besides a tiny dot on the radar mini-map. To successfully navigate anything beyond the softball opening stages, you need to commit the timing and appearance of enemies to memory and tilt the camera to "predict" their patterns.
On the plus side, I suppose the game's design negates some of the free-to-play-style shenanigans by its very nature: Since you need to play missions multiple times in order to learn the proper sequence of commands you're supposed to input robotically, you'll inevitably grind up some experience through repetition. Maybe the thinking was that two wrongs can make a right.
Of course, the root of Crimson Dragon's problems is that it spent most of its life as a Kinect game before having traditional controls wedged in. You can still play it with Kinect, though, and without a doubt it feels like a Kinect game no matter how you play. It suffers from the same sense of detachment as most Kinect titles, and the swooping camera pans that make figuring out what you're supposed to be aiming at so frequently annoying are borne of your standard attempt to tart up a bare-bones motion-controlled shooter to feel like an epic tour through a fantasy realm.
It all rings hollow, though, in large part because of the awful story. Crimson Dragon's narrative consists of dull voiceovers atop barely-animated images or else your mission commander screaming about shocking surprises during the course of a stage. These interjections invariably consist of, "Look, a creature. How unexpected -- it's hostile! Shoot it!" Every single time. Crimson Dragon doesn't have much in the way of varied objectives -- which is fine, right? It's a shooter. You shoot things. There's no need to try so hard to make it seem like anything grander than that.
But that's the root of Crimson Dragon's failings. It constantly strives to be something more than what it is. It's a simplistic shooter with delusions of grandeur. It's a Kinect game that wants to sit at the kids' table. It's Xbox 360-caliber that wants to be worthy of Xbox One but can't even give you a menu screen without pausing to load for several seconds. It's a game you pay for up front but secretly aspires to adopt a free-to-play model. All together, that adds up to the most heartbreaking pretension of all: It aims to be a worthy success to Sega's classic Panzer Dragoon series... but it's not.
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