Sega Ages 2500 Series Vol.18: Dragon Force

You might notice something special about Sega Ages 2500 Vol.18: Dragon Force before you’ve even popped the disc into your PlayStation 2: this game has been pressed to DVD, and not only that—it’s the first and only game in the entire 33-part series to have been given the Digital Versatile Disc treatment.

This spacious shiny platter contains a full remaster of Sega’s fantastic Saturn grand-scale strategy/RPG/action-battle experience, a game that on its debut seemed to manifest out of thin air and then vanish from our collective gaming consciousness in the light of the morning sun, like a magical faerie gift chanced upon by the unworthy. The PlayStation 2 team could’ve saved themselves some time and money, cut all the corners we expected them to, and given us the straightforward port nobody would have been surprised or even all that disappointed to receive (after all, Saturn ports are still a rare sight)… but why would they do that when they could knuckle down and create the definitive version of Dragon Force instead?

The game’s memorable soundtrack has been arranged by its original composer, Tatsuyuki Maeda (you might be interested to learn they ended up working on a little RPG called Skies of Arcadia a few years later). Some artists use these rare revisits as a chance to put right some perceived issue, fulfil a desire to see what would have happened if a half-finished composition had been polished up and inserted into the game, or change a few things simply because they can, but here the work’s far more subtle, cleaner samples used to give familiar tunes a little sparkle and lift rather than a whole new sound. This carefully considered take on the tunes was used as a happy opportunity to release a vastly improved soundtrack featuring 46 tracks split across two CDs—a considerable improvement over the original’s single disc of 24 (and one of those was a sound effect track).

In contrast, the visual side of the package chooses a more obvious approach: every single character portrait—and there’s a triple-digit quantity in here—has been completely redrawn, and every event boasts brand new full screen art, all of it displayed at a resolution the Saturn’s letterboxed images could ever hope to match. Like the music, this remaster brought Dragon Force’s original character and visual designers back to fulfil their old roles, ensuring this reimagined work—a different angle, a new detail that wasn’t there before—captured not just the style but also the spirit of the original scenes. It’s definitely different, but never anything less than a celebration of the source material.

This is in many ways the best sort of retro remaster, because at a glance it seems to be utterly unremarkable: it’s “just” Dragon Force, but now on a different format and with a few new extras dotted around the place, all of these tweaks and additions so seamlessly integrated it’s easy to think they didn’t really do anything at all.

And if you’re still not convinced, or simply prefer the old look, I’ve got some good news for you: the familiar Saturn artwork’s only one option menu toggle away, although you do have to either change the setting before you load your game, or save and quit back to the title screen to reach it. This is however the only thing you can revert back to its familiar 32-bit ways; the music (and speech) will always remain in the new style, and all other graphics keep their PlayStation 2 treatment, meaning the battle sprites are now smoothed a little when standing (or running, or galloping, or, er, fireballing) close to the camera. Thankfully this isn’t the dreaded “HD” smudge effect that sometimes rears its head from time to time in modern titles, but a less intrusive fuzz applied to the original pixel art.

Whatever style you decide to use, Dragon Force will always be a wonderful game, its combination of kingdom-wide tactics and almost arcade-like battle scenes still an exciting and unusual mix—its no wonder Langrisser Millennium tried to do something similar on the Dreamcast a few years later. Your path to land-saving glory is a long and malleable one, starting from the moment you choose one of an impressive number of kingdoms, each with their own storylines and lead characters, and a plethora of surprises waiting to be sprung along the way.

Whatever happens will involve a lot of fighting: spine-tingling roars rising from your troops when you give the order to attack, magical sonic booms carving a path across a battlefield filled with animated sprites, a one on one duel perhaps finally turning the tables in your favour.  But for all the enjoyable spectacle found on the surface, Dragon Force will always be a deep strategy game at heart. Every general is different from the last, and all troop types have distinct strengths and weaknesses—and for once they’re balanced in a way that means sending a priest-type out with a bunch of archers under their command to fight a muscular guy with a big sword and his armoured soldiers doesn’t feel like you’re uselessly throwing bodies into a meat grinder. Certain generals may not remain loyal to your noble banner, and there’s a chance a defeated leader will be captured—and maybe defect—if they’re not killed in battle. Many clashes involve multi-unit forces, so you have to carefully judge whether to go all-out now, a quick win less damaging to your health than a drawn-out engagement, or play cautiously in case you’re forced into a rematch. Retreating foes can be picked off on the road to safety if you can quickly mobilise a fresh team—but don’t forget to leave a few soldiers in the castle, just in case…

There’s a lot going on all the time and all at once, and there never seems to be any chance to catch your breath. It’s a brilliant sensation, like you’re right in the thick of this living and constantly changing situation, the entire world marching onwards whether you’re ready for it or not. The other kingdoms are never as far away as you either hope or (depending on your circumstances) fear they’ll be, and once you’ve allied with everyone the game upends your expectations and introduces new goals and threats, so you never reach a point where you’re “tidying up” the map just for the sake of giving yourself something to do before you mindlessly steamroll your way to the ending.

It’s one of those games you just feel better for having had the chance to play it, and thanks to the extremely well handled additions and alterations packed onto this disc, that’s as true on the PlayStation 2 as it ever was on Sega’s wonderful Saturn.

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