We should be talking a lot more about The Dragoness: Command Of The Flame, because it taps into something that we don’t see nearly enough of anymore. It’s releasing in September, and from what I’ve been playing of it, it’s excellent. The lack of chatter about it leaves me worried that the game’s going to draw less attention than it deserves.
One of the great pities about Ubisoft (it’s a very long list) is that it owns the Heroes of Might & Magic license. If that name doesn’t really ring a bell for you, don’t worry, as you’ve got to go back a very long time to arrive at the last entry in this series that was worth a damn. However, most of us oldies have fond memories of booting up DOS for a session of the original Heroes of Might & Magic, or losing months at a time to Heroes of Might & Magic III.
What made these things so great was that they were an excellent blend of basic empire-building, and turn-based RPG combat. The empire-building side of things was simple but effective. You couldn’t engage in diplomacy or trade, but you did need to build up cities and ensure that you had ownership of enough mines and resources to buy the higher-end buildings (as that was how you scored yourself the best and most powerful units).
Then you’d build an army from the units that were available to you, and wander around a large map, collecting treasure, fighting mobs of fantasy monsters, and collecting experience and artefacts. Eventually, you’d also run into other empires, and need to do battle with their generals and capture their castles.
This was a simple formula – so simple it was possible to cram the first two games into Game Boy Color ports – but they were absolutely impossible to put down. Alongside Civilization II, it was Heroes of Might & Magic that could see you glaring into a CRT monitor so late into the night that the sun was rising before you realise that you’d forgotten to go to bed. Or, at least, that’s how it worked for my group of friends back in my school days.
For whatever reason, as exceptional and robust as this formula was, there have been few attempts to do much with it in the years since. Spiritual successors, such as King’s Bounty II, moved on to embrace open-world RPG structures rather than offer a turn-based strategy experience, and more focused, niche stuff like Immortal Realms: Vampire Wars, while decent enough, has never quite managed to capture the broad appeal of Heroes of Might & Magic. I still regularly find myself going back to either the Game Boy titles or HD remaster of the third on iPad, simply for lack of other options with this very specific genre.
This is why The Dragoness is so exciting. While there’s room for refinement, this is one of the best attempts we’ve seen to do a true Heroes of Might & Magic in some years. Just about everything to do with the basic structure of this game is vintage Heroes of Might & Magic. The overworld map is immediately familiar, filled with the exact same kind of icons and events that will make HoMM veterans squeal in glee. Combat, meanwhile, is likewise vintage. Across a chess board-shaped battlefield, you’ll have your units arrayed against your opponent’s and then take turns to either blast them with magic and arrows, or try and close for some melee action. It’s uncomplicated, vintage, and as far as scratching the nostalgia itch, spot-on.
Even the music and visuals are spot on. Certainly, The Dragoness looks like a modern game, but the top-down isometric perspective, combined with the specific art direction that they have aimed for, is exactly what you would expect from a modern Heroes of Might & Magic. The units that you’ll be taking into battle are all drawn from the same design, too. The music and sound effects, meanwhile, actually sound deliberately lo-fi in places (particularly the various fanfares for major events and battles being joined), but that’s also aesthetically spot on and exactly what I was looking for in a game like this.
The one difference is that The Dragoness is also a roguelike. At first, I wasn’t sure how I’d get along with that. Traditionally Heroes of Might & Magic is about conquering single maps for high scores and leaderboards, whereas the roguelike format shifts the experience to become less about individual maps and more a case of grindy process where you’ll attempt a map, fail, but gain some resources that carry over to make the next attempt that little bit easier. With The Dragoness, the permanent progression is in a hub town in which you build structures and upgrade units using the resources you gain from previous quests. Over time this allows you to build up your army, making more difficult quests possible.
However, while I had my initial concerns, once I got into the roguelike rhythm, I really enjoyed this structure. It meant that there was a steady sense of progress (rather than having to start from scratch each time I began a new game), and it allowed the developers to stitch together a narrative that is more cohesive and coherent than what the Heroes of Might & Magic series was generally able to do. That plot is generic, at least so far, but nonetheless enjoyable enough as pulp fantasy.
With that being said, a “skirmish” mode or something similar, that would allow you to play a traditional Heroes of Might & Magic game on traditionally-designed battle maps would have been appreciated. At the moment the only real option is the campaign, split across many maps, and consequently, it loses a little of the “single session pick up and play” appeal of Heroes. Yes, those single sessions from that series may have ended up chewing up a weekend anyway, but it’s nice to have something that isn’t aiming to be a months-long campaign sometimes.
The biggest problem that The Dragoness: Command Of The Flame might face is that it lacks an identity of its own. From screenshots, you’d be forgiven for thinking that someone has simply revived the Heroes of Might & Magic property. Then again, given that we don’t get anywhere near enough of these kinds of games, a roguelike “clone” of something dear to the childhoods of many of us may well be very welcome indeed. I look forward to seeing what tricks the developers have up their sleeves in the lead-up to and following the release in a few week’s time.