Dragon Prana Review (Switch)
As a child of the NES era, I often find comfort in simple high fantasy RPGs that hearken back to the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest (Warrior) games. On the Nintendo Switch, KEMCO’s own Dragon Sinker wonderfully scratched this itch back in 2018 by combining those same retro vibes with some modern gaming sensibilities. This was followed shortly by Alvastia Chronicles, which provided a little something different while retaining the same quality of its predecessor. Then came Dragon Lapis, and that unfortunately was a bit underwhelming compared to the other two, which made me unsure of what to expect from 2022’s Dragon Prana. Now that I’ve experienced it, I can say that it does squash some gripes I had with Dragon Lapis, but it doesn’t do enough to propel it to the upper echelon of the KEMCO catalog.
120 years ago, the dwarves, elves, and humans joined forces to vanquish and seal the evil daemon king from their world. A time of peace would follow, though the three races would soon begin to squabble over racial indifferences which would somewhat drive a wedge between the confidence of their bond. While a base level of trust was established between the three kingdoms, the humans would ultimately wield suzerainty for their greater efforts in the sealing of the daemon king, but this would soon be called into question by the other races, and for good reason.
Turns out that the legends passed down through time may not be wholly legitimate, as the daemon king would soon be released from what was said to be an impenetrable seal. This would cause widespread speculation as to what exactly happened all those years ago, and whether the heroic story – at least part of it – had been based on lies all along. Regardless, descendants of the heroes of various races have, with much reluctance, decided to come together once again in hopes of uncovering the mystery behind the broken seal, but also to seal the evil daemon king for good.
Racial tension is the name of the tune in Dragon Prana. The general census suggests that elves are arrogant, dwarves are loud and smelly, and humans are short-lived and dumb. As the narrative progresses, you see the racial leaders navigate this sensitive path as their tolerances for one another ebb and flow, before they ultimately grow fond of each other in the face of a nasty adversary.
While it’s nice to see them eventually set their petty differences aside, the narrative ultimately suffers from the races simply being too stereotypical. There aren’t really any unique traits that make these people stand out from what we’ve come to expect from high fantasy races. The literal mute protagonist and beauty pageant-worthy female ogre in Alvastia Chronicles – an interesting play on the “silent protagonist” and a far cry from the “ditzy princess” trope, respectively – immediately come to mind as examples of adding just a bit of nuance to what we’ve seen many times over in this scenario.
The way the human hero is selected for this journey is also pretty groan worthy. It is supposed to be the human prince, but instead is a commoner who gets blackmailed to do the prince’s bidding. This faux prince then dons a legendary mask that conveniently hides his face, and his appointed attendant (the fourth party member) speaks on his behalf because his wounds from a recent duel (also a scam) are too grievous for him to speak. While this does provide the opportunity for some dialogue choices before his voice is ultimately revealed, it would have been better if he just stayed silent the whole time.
One of the best things about the previous games in this vein has been the silent protagonist and witty dialogue choices, but the main hero here ends up speaking again only a few hours into the journey. The only good thing that comes out of this whole debacle is some growth from the real prince after he’s caught in this lie, but the payoff isn’t really substantial. Through a few interesting reveals later on, however, Dragon Prana does still manage to tell a decent tale.
Dragon Prana is a retro-inspired, turn-based JRPG that follows the descendants of the legendary heroes as they deal with the resurgence of the daemon king. The flagship gameplay features are the class and formation systems, both of which can be swapped between at any time, even in combat. The idea here is to level up each class to unlock new skills and abilities, which will in turn expand each character’s repertoire. New formations are learned as the story progresses (and through certain side quests) and they do provide a lot of options and things to consider depending on your party’s makeup.
Although the class and formation systems do give a lot of variety, the whole “hotswapping” aspect of them is not so great in practice, since either change will expend a character’s turn, class changes only last for three rounds, and the vast majority of fights where hotswapping would be useful leave little to no room for mistakes. Depending on your settings and how ham you go on the premium crafting roulette, boss fights can be pretty challenging and wasting even a single turn can spell disaster for your party.
Despite these setbacks, the flexibility provided by the systems is still nice. Many of the classes have very strong, but situational passives that may very well be just what you need to gain an edge over certain foes. Not only that, but many side quests require specific classes to fulfill, and this is arguably where the in-combat swapping is most beneficial since you can swap between classes while still technically fulfilling the conditions of the side quest. Speaking of, side quests are integral to unlocking the true potential of many classes and they’re generally very simple to complete.
Each character has access to two categories of abilities and passives in combat, one set being specific to that character, and the other being dependent on your current class. Eventually, link attacks are obtained that are essentially group-wide limit breaks that can easily turn the tide of most battles. Each class has three ranks that each bring additional abilities and passives along with it. Upon reaching max rank and level, you can choose to re-level the class from the beginning to improve their powers even more.
Dragon Prana continues the KEMCO trend of allowing weapons and armor to be combined to enhance their power. Some weapons and armor have modifiers that can be carried over, or even strengthened with other gear, though the frequency of items dropped with useful modifiers is pretty low. In fact, the vast majority of these are only obtainable through either the gem or ticket crafting roulettes, both of which are either completely useless or way too overpowered with their rewards. While it’s nice to be able to do something with older gear besides just selling it all outright, upgrading does quickly outdate most new weapons and armor you’ll find in shops, making the overall gearing process less exciting (and frequent) than it could be.
Each character also has a board that they can upgrade for additional stat bonuses and passives, like the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X. This is where Dragon Prana really shines compared to Dragon Lapis, since every character only has a single board to worry about rather than the multiple growth plates the latter used instead. Their purpose and function is identical, but the design is no longer cumbersome on the player. Despite the improvements, the board system can deceive you into thinking that you can fine tune each character to your own liking, but the reality is they all tend to simply continue focusing on each character’s base affinities, such as the human and dwarf heroes getting a lot of strength and vitality, while the elf hero and human attendant emphasize intellect and magic points. There is some overlap of course, but you just can’t shake the feeling that each character is designed to either be a physical or magic user.
Dragon Prana features all of the trappings you’ve come to expect from a KEMCO RPG: auto battle, speedup options, generous fast travel points, an arena system, options to turn up and down the encounter rate in dungeons, the ability to fight three sets of enemies in succession for easy grinding, and more. There is also an awards and bestiary feature that will reward you with various items and perks upon reaching certain milestones, though these have been seen in some form or another in other KEMCO RPGs. The biggest problem is that Dragon Prana just doesn’t do all that much differently from other KEMCO experiences, and its shiniest features (hot-swappable classes and formations) fall a bit short in terms of practical use.
The board system is a noticeable improvement over the growth plates in Dragon Lapis, but its actual customization and depth is deceptive. This iteration of weapon and armor upgrading also takes some of the fun out of discovering actual upgrades naturally, since so few unique weapons and armor are found organically. And just like any KEMCO RPG, you have to be weary of dabbling in the premium shop. While there are no egregious microtransactions, and no ways to acquire additional gems or tickets for crafting outside of grinding mobs, you can technically get access to some game breaking items very early on which could easily dilute your experience.
In the same spirit as Dragon Sinker, Alvastia Chronicles, and Dragon Lapis, Dragon Prana sheds the traditional KEMCO aesthetic for one akin to NES RPGs in structure, but SNES RPGs in terms of color palette. There are some animations thrown in here and there to spice things up a bit as well. The game maintains a fairly consistent 60FPS framerate – new for this style of KEMCO RPG on the Switch – though it will occasionally have some mild stuttering issues. Dragon Prana also features a chiptune soundtrack just like the classics of yore. KEMCO RPGs feel at their best aesthetically when they embrace this older style over their typical anime design with sharp, defined edges, as those have often come across as stock RPG Maker assets.
While Dragon Prana may not hold a candle to some of the more revered entries in the KEMCO lineup, it’s still a decent budget-friendly journey that can scratch that nostalgic itch. It is fun discovering and powering up your party to suit your playstyle, and having the option to swap between classes and formations inside AND outside of combat is appreciated, even though their actual usage this way is limited at best. Many battles can be challenging, and it’s nice to not be able to simply auto-battle your way to victory all the time. The story is serviceable, but it’s ultimately let down by tired stereotyping that any high fantasy fan will see from a mile away. Regardless, if you’re in the market for a 10-20-hour adventure that won’t break the bank, Dragon Prana may be for you.