For many RPG fans born in the 1980s, the Dragon Quest series on the NES was their first true introduction to the genre. Each new game in the franchise built upon the last, adding depth, character, and complexity to each successive adventure. To this day, few games that try to recapture the nostalgia associated with these founding RPG titles have managed to live up to their example.
Enter Dragon Sinker, an unusual entry in KEMCO’s RPG library, which deftly combines the look and feel of a NES Dragon Quest title with modern storytelling, character progression, and quality of life features. KEMCO titles tend to vary wildly in quality, due in no small part to their constant experimentation, cliched plots, and rushed mobile influences. Dragon Sinker rises above these limitations to deliver a focused experience that neither relies too heavily on nostalgia, nor falls into the normal pitfalls of some of the company’s outings.
Dragon Sinker’s story, unsurprisingly, centers around the quest to slay a terrible dragon. For hundreds of years, the races of Humans, Elves, and Dwarves have lived in fear of the dragon Wyrmvang, who demands living sacrifices year after year to prevent him from destroying the world. When a young Human prince rises up to challenge the dragon, he loses – badly. Only once before has the dragon met defeat, at the hands of legendary warriors from all three races, whose combined power kept the dragon at bay. In the wake of his defeat, the prince sets out on a journey with a faithful priest, seeking out the legendary weapons used by those heroes, that he might challenge Wyrmvang again.
This simple premise, reminiscent of an earlier time, sets the stage for a loveable adventure that’s both predictable and charmingly subversive. The human prince is soon joined by elvish and dwarven counterparts, each with their own companions who round out the game’s main cast. Most of the personality of the game comes out in the interactions between these six heroes. Along the way, players will be met with both heartwarming and comedic moments, with the main characters displaying much more personality than one would expect from their NES forebears.
Delightfully, the player is frequently given dialogue choices that show just who they view the prince to be. The most obvious choices have the prince being agreeable to his elvish and dwarven companions, with a few even having him fall in love with the elvish princess. Others allow the player to play the prince as an almost comically bigoted fool, unwilling to go along with the game’s central narrative, even as he is swept along its path regardless of his objections. These dialogue options set up a number of running gags throughout the story, bringing life to what should be a stale and somewhat rote adventure.
In terms of RPG elements, Dragon Sinker strikes a satisfying balance in both its gameplay loop and combat. Players will travel from town to town, completing both main quests and side quests, which are recorded and tracked in the main menu. Main quest objectives generally see the player traveling to a nearby dungeon, either to defeat some monster, retrieve some item, or simply to pass through the dungeon and reach the town on the other side. Along the way, players will learn more about each town, the politics between the various races, and the history of the world. The main characters also grow closer together and gain new insights into each other and themselves.
Side Quests generally see the player returning to a previous dungeon (or off to an unexplored bonus dungeon) seeking a monster to kill or a MacGuffin to find. Others may have the player backtracking to various towns looking for missing persons or delivering an item to a friend or relative. While some may find this pattern tedious, the basic layout added a sense of predictability and familiarity. Each town had at least two quests, one to gain some kind of item, the other that allowed you to add a new member to your party, growing both the number of available units and adding their unique job to your pool of available classes.
In addition to these rather rote sidequests, Dragon Sinker also features a few side stories as well. Some optional towns open up towards the end of the game that offer paths to powerful items and job classes, as well as a series of optional dungeons sprinkled throughout the game that delve deeper into the game’s lore. Throughout my playthrough, I found myself taking every sidequest and tackling every dungeon I could find, and never growing tired or bogged down by the experience. The predictability, mixed with the small amount of variety and the limited number of side quests between main quest objectives, created just the right amount of incentive to keep playing.
Dragon Sinker continues KEMCO’s trend of finding ways to cram more than 3-5 characters into a single party. In Dragon Sinker’s case, the solution was simple. Each of the three main characters – Human, Elf, and Dwarf – lead their own party of 4 characters. You can switch between these parties on the fly in both the overworld and in battle, allowing the player to adapt to different scenarios as needed.
Monsters in the world of Dragon Sinker come with an array of different abilities, which can be categorized in three camps: standard attacks, status effect inducing attacks, and stat reducing attacks. At the same time, the various races that make up your party come with their own unique traits – humans gain increased stats, elves resist stat changing effects, and dwarves resist status effects. This simple setup encourages the player to customize their party to the monsters they are likely to encounter, or keep a well-balanced party ready to meet any challenge.
Player abilities also come with a wide variety of similar effects, with each class focusing on a particular niche or theme. In addition, some attacks will target a row or column of enemies, adding in an extra layer of strategy. The cost of abilities also provides a nice ebb and flow to combat, as magic attacks cost the traditional MP, and physical attacks are cast directly from the player’s HP. This combination creates a unique resource management element that never feels overwrought or complicated.
This design philosophy – complexity from simplicity – carries over to the class system as well. Players can change their party member’s class in any town, swapping the abilities available to their party to suit their needs. Each class comes with a core set of attacks, as well as a passive ability unique to each job. Dancers gain a small amount of HP each turn, mages deal extra magic damage when their life is low, and merchants gain additional gold after battle. Whenever a character masters their given class, learning all the associated attacks, they also learn the passive ability permanently – giving them the ability to carry over and accumulate passives to other classes. This basic design lets players customize their individual characters, building them into powerful magic users, physical brutes, or walking resource batteries.
The three team leaders, meanwhile, are permanently locked into a hero class that has increased stats, a larger bank of abilities to learn, and no passives. To gain passive abilities, the player will gain scrolls each time they master a class for the first time, which can then be used on their party leaders to impart that passive. These one-shot items gives players choices in how their main characters will grow and evolve as well.
Finally, a secret bonus to the party system in Dragon Sinker comes in the combination of classes in your given party. For example, if a player has three characters of the same class in their party, the speed at which those jobs level up will increase. Alternatively, a party with a bard, dancer, and villager will gain both HP and MP at the start of every turn. Players will stumble upon these combinations early in the game, and may experiment as they wish to discover new combinations. Conversely, a late-game town is filled with NPCs who will describe specific combinations and their effects. This extra layer of strategy in determining your party makeup is just another way that Dragon Sinker makes the most of a seemingly simple and tired RPG mechanic.
Dragon Sinker, by any metric, is one of KEMCO’s finest outings. While a few of the usual KEMCO quirks still exist – awkward menus with randomly ordered items, lottery items that can imbalance the early game, and a screen size that looks a little too zoomed in – they are hardly game breaking. The gameplay, visual, and sound design all skillfully weave classic and modern components into one of the most satisfying budget RPGs currently available on the Switch.