Developer Inti Creates knows how to make fun 2D-styled games that are fast-paced and look visually interesting. Like their previous work for games such as Azure Striker Gunvolt and Blaster Master, their take on cooperative multiplayer for the 2D action genre brings a lot to the table in the form of Dragon Marked for Death. Instead of fighting hordes of enemies alone, Dragon Marked for Death lets you choose from four classes, each with their own abilities and style of combat, and team up with three other friends. The story is mature, fantastical, and can get pretty wild, but a few scars from poor design choices and a few bad ideas prevent Dragon Marked for Death from being an amazing package.
The story of Dragon Marked for Death is focused on revenge but doesn’t have you taking on a specific character’s story arc. Your character, which you “create” at the start of the game, is the sole survivor from a massive genocide of a dragon-born race, as an army led by the Celestial slaughters everyone and kidnaps the princess of your home. An old dragon spirit named Atrim bestows the power of the dragons to aid you in rescuing the princess and getting revenge on everyone who helped with the destruction of your homeland. The setup for the plot is pretty good and has a lot of room to dive into some mature subjects, but the game takes pretty long to move along the narrative.
Most of the time, quests you complete will only yield small tidbits of plot progression, as well as abruptly move on when things finally seem to be getting good. Each of the character classes you can choose from don’t have any varying story-beats, as they follow the same exact narrative. Other than a few characters you meet up with at different points, it’s hard to really connect and care about any one individual character when they, and the world around you, feels so disconnected. A lot of the serious moments lack any emotional weight despite being incredibly dark.
Gameplay is where you’ll find a lot of great things at work, but not everything is as good as they could be. You take on quests given to you at the game’s Bar hub, where you can play either offline alone or local and online multiplayer. Quests often require you to defeat bosses at the end of each stage, but can also have you searching for items or protecting certain characters in the area. Depending on which of the four classes you chose to play with, certain quests may be more difficult than others. The four classes, Empress, Warrior, Shinobi, and Witch; can be effective in their own ways when playing with a team.
If you manage to gather three friends and have everybody play a different class, chances are you’ll be able to work together in finding every secret and important bonus within a stage. The Warrior can knock down certain barriers, the Shinobi can double jump and reach high areas, the Witch can cast magic and illuminate dark places, and the Empress can tackle larger groups of enemies and bosses with great attacks. Having a full group makes Dragon Marked for Death shine its brightest and offer some of the best moments while playing, but it’s when you go alone where the game starts to show its vulnerabilities.
If you are going through each quest solo, it’s much more difficult and borderline unfair in some spots. The difficulty for certain bosses and areas with many tough enemies can spike up drastically as you play around the limits of your character. You’re almost discouraged from playing alone when you hit a brick wall in some quests that appear unbeatable. The damage you receive and damage you inflict on enemies might be significantly different than if you have a few allies, which can get very frustrating in some quests that are long.
Status effects are also very insistent on everybody, even when you’re significantly leveled for a quest. The most annoying is the poison effect, which can kill you if left untreated, while other status effects will stunt your movement and ability to attack. But the game’s discouragement of playing solo also affects elements outside of combat. The Shinobi has the benefit of moving around quickly and using a double jump, but the other classes do not and it makes puzzles a lot more difficult to complete. Many of the game’s stages are built around the idea of having a full group, despite being playable solo.
This is parallel to an issue with Dragon Marked for Death’s leveling. It takes longer to grow your characters’ level and attach better equipment and items you discover. It often feels like the game doesn’t always give you enough experience, even after completing a few quests. If you manage to abuse a few methods to grind for experience, then you can alleviate some of the issues, but it’s a big chore to do so otherwise. And yet, that never full solves the problem when you take on quests with enemies that damage you significantly, despite being over-powered and over-leveled against them. This same thing happens even when you have a full group and battle against bosses that are a lower level than everyone.
When not in any quests, Dragon Marked for Death has a very shallow town hub where you can purchase new items and equipment, interact with townsfolk, and change your class. As you finish quests, you can access an upper area to the town with more stores to purchase new things, but the prices set for everything are very mismanaged. Items you can get as rewards from completing quests easily are often ridiculously overpriced and don’t help in your progression. It makes little sense for a weapon that gives +10 to your attack to cost one amount, only to then jump an extra 200K+ for giving you +12 instead.
This same issue happens with other equipment and some consumable items you can purchase. Because of this, you’ll probably end up avoiding a lot of the stores in the game unless it’s to purchase very cheap items to remove status effects. The one great thing you’ll find in the hub is the ability to speak to the dragon Atrim, which will show you some light cutscenes and allow you to change the main elemental attacks of your characters. Doing so will change up the mobility and strength of attacks, so some classes are better suited one way or the other.
Dragon Marked for Death is good when you can get together with a few friends to fight bosses and complete quests, but is definitely a lot less fun when playing alone. Its 2D visuals are a great nod to classic games with a similar aesthetic and its music is well rendered, making a very nicely presented game. But the various issues with difficulty, poor choices in the shops, and tough grind to level up knock the experience down a few times. The story might have enough mature and fantastical elements to keep some players going, but you’ll be sticking with the game if you can look past some of its less than stellar parts. But if you manage to get a team together, then you’ll have some fun with it.
This review was based on a physical review copy of Dragon Marked for Death for the Nintendo Switch, provided by Inti Creates.