A fresh start in a new era… well, maybe

There’s something about Langrisser Millennium, Masaya’s 1999 entry in the long running SRPG series, that we need to make very clear very quickly: It’s not like its older and infinitely better known tactical forebears by design, even going so far as to have the back of the box spell out this game’s desire to be a new kind of Langrisser for the next millennium.

Not following in the footsteps of the previous games doesn’t mean it won’t feel very familiar to a certain group of strategy game fans though: the sort who in the past may have booted up a disc-based Sega console before picking a fantasy empire to stomp across a continent-spanning map, victory achieved by sending generals and their armies along predefined lines to enemy bases further afield…

Yep, you guessed it: Langrisser Millennium’s Dragon Force: Dreamcast Edition.

And much like the Saturn’s beloved strategy game miniseries the first thing you do is select one of the playable factions, each with their own named heroes and reasons for fighting, and then attempt to lead them to victory against every other nation, spirit, and godlike being Langrisser Millennium can throw your way.

This naturally means you spend a lot of time looking at the world map; the various castles, towns, and outposts within it fixed locations with predetermined paths linking them together. The tactical troubles that arise from this sort of setup are always fun – you can really feel the danger of the front lines if your freshly-caught fortress happens to directly connect to two strong enemy cities, especially as an invading force on either side only needs one victory to win the entire location. This all or nothing approach helps to keep territorial clashes exciting, an entire army potentially turfed out of a key base by a plucky band of warriors. It’s possible (if you’re quick) to intercept incoming enemies on the road and try to turn them back before they reach their target – you might not win with a hastily cobbled together “Oh no they’re coming and we’re not ready” team, but even the worst bunch still has a chance to soften up whoever’s headed your way.

These locations can also be investigated, potentially unearthing anything from special new recruits to helpful items or extra money to spend in the local shops. The goods you can buy from these generic vendors varies by location, although it’s all very straightforward stuff – it needs to be, as each character only has a single equipment slot. So rather than the usual array of RPG-themed relics and raiments the accessories here are more the “+20% attack”, “+10% HP” variety, with no distinction made for any of Langrisser Millennium’s numerous classes or races. One the one hand this means you’re never in a situation where your party of claw-wielding beastwomen have to walk away empty-handed from a shop that only sells bows and arrows, but on the other it does rob your characters – heck, even whole classes – of some much needed individuality.

Once your teams are as organised and ready as you can make them there’s only one thing left to do: Conquer everyone who’s not you. Your parties may be just four characters strong at the most, but the good news is that can be any four characters of your choosing, whether that’s an all-star team of heroes so important they have spoken battle taunts or a team headed by Mann Fighter, Fighting Man. Whoever’s in your team you only ever have direct control over your party’s leader, with the others following a combination of your opening battle formation (which can range from charging straight ahead to more complex pincer movements, depending on your team) and simple battle commands – attack [anything nearby], defend [stand still and block], or take evasive maneuvers.

These clashes take place in real time, and are in fact so real time your blows are able to interrupt an enemy’s attack or spellcasting animation (and vice versa). Your range is whatever the length of your blade is (or however far your arrows travel), and you have to manually move your leader into position before you can attack – a simple feat made difficult by the game’s strict collision detection and the AI’s tendency to clump together, often blocking off access to the one character you really need to whack.

It’s one of many issues that turn what could have been a wonderful fusion of grand-scale tactics and smaller arcade-like action into frustrating tedium as slow, stupid, characters blindly hack away at slow, stupid, enemies. For all it could have been the truth is combat always boils down to mashing the attack button, and as taking down your opponents leader always instantly wins the battle your best tactic – if we are feeling generous enough to call it that –  is almost always to go straight for them and hack away (it’s possible to also win by time over too, although if you’re strong enough to survive that long then you’re almost certainly strong enough to win outright). Even with armoured armadillos under your command and twin ninjas sisters taunting you from the opposite end of the battlefield you still spend far too much time hitting people who are busy trying to hit other people, and if you’re outnumbered trying to coax the AI into getting stuck on another unit or static piece of scenery.

Theoretically it’s possible for most units to cast a spell or party-wide status buff, although as these moves take so long to cast, are easily interrupted by any attack from the opposing side, and consume all of a shared gauge that fills up at a snail’s pace you may only get one off in battle if you’re lucky – and to make matters worse the effects and damage they produce do not reflect how much effort goes into casting them. That’s all assuming your mage isn’t busy trying to bash an enormous dragon-person’s head with their magic stick because the AI wasn’t smart enough to do anything else and you couldn’t step in directly to help too.

The one bit of good news here is that even defeat awards team-wide experience points, and as neither side instantly recovers from a fight it’s possible to send in a team or two to weaken a tougher opponent before finally delivering the decisive blow.

Trying to hold all of this together is a rather lightweight story told in too short cutscenes that don’t come up often enough to make anything said feel relevant, and so you end up spending a lot of time conquering other countries just because there really isn’t any other way to interact with the world. Langrisser Millennium needed more fluid and unpredictable moments to breathe some life into the game, like an opposing force formally declaring war on you specifically for a few months, a sudden outbreak of dragons, or even using the already existing passage of months and years to make combat in winter a bad idea – anything to stop the game being little icons sliding from one node to the next followed by stodgy, simplistic, combat.

There isn’t a lot to it – organising a pile-on to overwhelm nearby enemy forces is about as in-depth as the game ever gets, and in the latter half there’s a lot of back-and-forth without necessarily making progress, you and your enemies taking and retaking the same cities on the edge of your respective territories you’ve already fought over a dozen times already with little you or the game can do to make it more interesting or strategic. But as underwhelming as that may sound the only impression I got was of a game trying – not necessarily succeeding, but definitely trying – to work out how to break away from the long shadow of the past, do something different, and create a new identity for itself in the process.

It must be said that Langrisser Millennium isn’t as good as the Langrissers you already know and love or the Saturn duology its drawing inspiration from, but then again not many games are. It is however an unusual and honest attempt to try and merge territorial conquest with hack and slash action, and although the end result isn’t great the game’s definitely not half as bad as its widely parroted yet rarely examined in-the-gutter reputation implies.

[I couldn’t have written this without the help of my Ko-fi supporters! Thank you so much!]

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