I felt a bit of deja vu while playing Dragalia Lost last week, Nintendo's next experiment for mobile devices. It's a mobile RPG developed and published by Nintendo, development in collaboration with Cygames (of Idolmaster Cinderella Girls: Starlight Stage and Granblue Fantasy fame). You can see the identity of both developers in it: the anime gacha-galore of Cygames with the polish and mindfulness of Nintendo.
It's a fairly traditional mobile RPG due to its top down real-time battle system where you trek across small dungeons and battle a boss at the end. Despite its many meters and cooldowns to keep track of, there aren't many rough edges to it, and its menus are even comprehensible after getting the hang of its game-specific lingo. Most importantly its microtransactions, at least from the demo I played last week, also don't seem as prohibitive as they were rumored to be.
Microtransactions have always been a core issue with free-to-play mobile games. Even Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto has spoken up about it. With so much to keep track of and so many currencies, some mobile games can be drowned out by their monetization practices. After Dragalia Lost's big Nintendo Direct weeks ago, I had the same worry. It sounded like it had quite a bit of monetization slapped on top of it. In reality, Dragalia Lost's microtransactions are divided relatively evenly between the players who are fine never spending a dime and grinding things out day by day and the ones who have cash to burn. Its many systems, too, while initially overwhelming, start to make sense after thinking about them in traditional JRPG terms—and getting over the fact that everything has a strange name like "wyrmprints."
The element that will drive players to keep playing is largely its gacha-style "summoning" where you can get accessories (the aforementioned "wyrmprints"), dragons to morph into in battle, and characters. Much like Fire Emblem Heroes, characters have a star rating in terms of rareness and abilities. At launch, there will be "over" 60 characters that will be attainable, but they all have different star-rankings. The more stars, the better the character—meaning the better the drop.
There are two in-game currencies that be can used for summons: the microtransaction fueled Diamantium or the progression-accrued Wyrmite. Completing quests earns you the latter currency. During my demo, I found I was earning Wyrmite regularly by completing miscellaneous bonus tasks and finishing story quests, which are also replayable. (I imagine in the late game, grinding older quests will be essential, like in other mobile RPGs.) There's also a co-op mode, where you can play side by side with another person after creating a lobby. Otherwise, you can just bring a "Helper" along on any solo quest; the Helper can either be a stranger that you select from a pooled list of random players who can help with one bonus ability per quest, or an actual in-game friend (like an IRL pal) whose ability can be used three times. So basically, go into Dragalia Lost hoping you have a lot of friends you can add.
Luckily, the quests are pretty short, with the text build-up before you're let loose in the dungeons taking up most of its running time. The story didn't really appeal to me, so I can see myself skipping over the text sections when I'm playing on my own time. A Nintendo representative tells me that it's keeping the amount of chapters in total at launch hush-hush, but that in the future more chapters (alongside other regular updates such as new characters or events—though a specific time frequency was not elaborated) will be added over time.
In addition to quest running and character customization through equipped items is a mini base building system called The Halidom. In The Halidom, you can build structures which provide buffs and other improvements for your characters. For example, a "wind altar" will give your characters strong with wind a nice boost. You can also decorate your base with little cosmetic touches, like plants. Unfortunately, you can't visit your friends' Halidoms, a Nintendo rep informs me when I ask, which sorta nullifies why anyone would want to decorate their base with the cosmetic items in the first place. Meanwhile, The Halidom also contains your Dragon Roost, where you can bond with the dragon you can turn into in battle; sometimes the presents you give your dragon will reward you with presents in turn too.
Your four party members, though at the start you just begin with a couple, are also very customizable for a mobile RPG. You can swap out characters at your leisure, as well as the dragon they have equipped, an accessory, and their weapon. Weapons are static according to their class—so an axe wielder can only use axes, and so on. Each character also has a mana circle where they can be leveled up, and the mana circle system is tiered. Consequently, characters can learn a lot of abilities.
There are also a few other unexpected perks to it too, like how good its music is. Daoko, the Japanese musician perhaps best known in the west for her collaboration with producer Teddyloid in a NSFW animated music video, does most of its music, including the menu melody and battle tune. It's the sort of music that will definitely get stuck in your head even after you lock your phone screen.
Like most free-to-play games, Dragalia Lost also has a stamina meter. At the start, where I played the majority of my demo, I didn't even notice the stamina meter and had to ask if it even had one, only for it to be pointed out to me on the screen. I'd say that's a positive, as greatly limited stamina can be a major deterrent to breaking into free-to-play games. (Perhaps the biggest recent example of this trend was in the launch of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, which thwarts you mere minutes into it, right as your character is getting strangled by Devil's Snare too.) In a follow up email, a Nintendo rep confirmed that as you level up in Dragalia Lost, your stamina meter max goes up too.
Overall, there's nothing particularly awe-worthy about Dragalia Lost. Still, as I played it, I immediately saw its appeal. My personal favorite free-to-play mobile game is Love Nikki: Dress Up Queen, a game that's part-dress up game, part-RPG, part-craftathon. What I like about it is how generous it is despite waving microtransactions in your face. I got a similar feeling from the opening hour of Dragalia Lost that I played (in addition to the short quest I hopped into in a late-game save).
Of course, the true test on if Dragalia Lost is actually a generous free-to-play game that merely nudges microtransactions your way will be put to the test when it officially launches later this week on Thursday for iOS and Android.