After first seeing previews for Nightmare of Druaga, you probably said to yourself, “You know who’d love this?” and then immediately thought of that weird gamer friend we all have. You know the kind: He bought a second Dreamcast just for Seaman, imported Katamari Damacy before it came Stateside, owns three factory-sealed copies of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker for Genesis, still plays his NEC Turbo Express, and even has a Krull arcade machine in his living room. It’s not bad taste in games, just different, and he makes no apology for it – God love ‘im!
Namco and Arika’s Nightmare of Druaga: Fushigino Dungeon is equally unapologetic in its uniqueness. It’s an Action/Adventure title parading around in RPG/Strategy clothing. Some would even call the game Rogue-like, a term of distinction even in this age of genre-busters. But before buying this game for your weird gamer friend as repayment because he loaned the ‘DeLorean’ to you on your last date – be warned – not only will he not thank you for it, he will, in fact, proceed to beat the ever-living tar out of you. But how can that be, you ask? How can a game so unique and inventive be so terrible as to incite the wrath of that weird gamer friend of mine? All suitably pertinent questions. Not only will they be answered in full in the following paragraphs, but you will also find a perfectly reasonable (and notably less painful) alternative to buying Nightmare of Druaga.
The graphics walk a fine line between stylized and dated. Put simply, the game looks like an old Dreamcast RPG. This can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on personal taste and fondness for nostalgia. Textures are beautiful yet simplistic, the lighting effects passable at best, and the character models lack any real detail compared with the opening CG sequences. About the only authentic graphical highlight – outside of the intro movie – is the fact that new weapons and armor actually affect central protagonist Gil’s appearance. Unfortunately, this does more harm than good in the realm of aesthetic purity; Gil (short for Gilgamesh if you don’t already know) starts out with his trademarked golden armor, but in order to face greater foes, this armor must be traded for ugly, non-gold armor. You would perhaps think that stronger armor would make Gil appear cooler, but it really only makes him look like a complete and utter tool.
Sound is almost embarrassingly unremarkable. The music is forgettable, the sound effects put Hanna-Barbera cartoons to shame, and voiceovers are nonexistent. Aurally, there is no excuse for a lack of character voice work in this day and age – regardless of how one-dimensional those characters may be! On the other hand, this may be for the best, though, as the story is so flat and simplistic that voiceovers would probably only highlight this fundamental shortcoming in full rich Dolby Digital. The whole ‘save-the-damsel’ shtick may have worked in the arcade original, but for this console generation, it just isn’t what we play RPGs for.
Gameplay is fun, intuitive, and relatively easy to master. It is a unique hybrid variation of Action/Strategy (neither real time nor turn based) that almost defies apt description. Sadly, though, this simplicity ends up being the gameplay’s downfall. At the end of the day, wandering through the same dungeons, facing the same stupid monsters, looking for the same stupid key, and opening the same stupid door, is just plain boring! Arika does make some noble attempts to instill challenge and even replay value, but they are feeble to say the least. For example: Once you beat a dungeon level, you will have the option of playing through it again on a harder difficulty setting. Of course, this means returning to town and starting the dungeon all over again. This may seem trivial enough, but consider this problem when you’re four or five levels in. Also, when you die (however far in you are), you will not only be returned to town (thus undoing all your progress) but will also lose all your gathered items and half your money. If you value the items you discover in the dungeons, you will probably find yourself returning to town after every few dungeon floors, giving your bounty to your squire for safe keeping, and starting the dungeon all over again. To make matters worse, combat is not nearly rewarding enough to justify the replay, since all you’re essentially doing is playing a sort of rock-paper-scissors guessing game with each enemy you come across; you either attack, use a special item/ability, or run away. Repeat ad nauseum. If it sounds painfully tedious and boring, it is.
On the whole, there is really nothing that makes Nightmare of Druaga repulsive outside the tedium of resetting your system once you save. And even then, you only have to reset if you go against the almighty autosave system, which is actually very intuitive and logical (it saves everywhere you’d probably save in a normal RPG). There is also really nothing that makes the game unplayable save for the relatively weak story and under-whelming presentation. In fact, the only real mistake the game makes is failing to justify its price point. Katamari Damacy is a great and inventive game, but it wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it is were it not for its inviting $20USD price tag. What ever made Namco think Nightmare of Druaga would be received any differently? Was it the familiarity of the Druaga name? Was it the cult status of the Fushigino Dungeon series? No one really seems to know. All that can really be said is that someone made a bad decision somewhere along the way.
Now that you’ve learned what’s wrong, here’s what to do to make it right. Instead of buying Nightmare of Druaga, take the money to your local dollar theater, and bribe the manager into letting you take that Hook pinball machine off his hands. He’ll make a quick buck, your weird gamer friend won’t have to knock your teeth out, his Krull arcade machine won’t be so lonely anymore…and you’ll be a better person for the experience.