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Here Be Dragons

Here Be Dragons

Written by Rob Larkin on 9/21/2020 for SWI  
More On: Here Be Dragons

And now for something completely different. Here Be Dragons is the game Monty Python would have created if the British comedy troupe would have arrived five decades too late. Unfortunately for much of Python's prime years, the tech of Pong surely wouldn't have brought their vision to life. Even had they tried, kids were different in them days. They didn't have their heads filled with all this Cartesian Dualism. Well here we are, all these years on, with a game that not only channels Python, it opens the campaign by taking the opportunity to actually quote them:

"In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue 

And discovered America

And there was much rejoicing."

Unfortunately it slightly missed the mark by not following up with a "Yay!" But the spirit of Python is strong (there's even a dead parrot) and the comedy is on point. The characters are full of quirks, jokes mostly land with over-the-top flair, and the plot is crazy enough to set the tone properly. After all, in this telling of the "real" story behind Columbus's voyage to America, we have an ocean full of monsters and creatures that must be exterminated to pave the path for ol' Chris to ever make the voyage in one piece. 

The entire game takes place on the "living map," as the devs describe it. While more fluid than the cutout animations that Terry Gilliam had so often utilized, both are done to great effect. While certain finer graphical details, like the floating bottles that can be collected to execute power-ups, can be lost in the rather monotone palette of the living map, for the most part the map works well. There are two maps really, one that drives the strict narrative interludes that introduces the motley assortment of sea captains that take the helm of your ships, and another representing the battlefield where those ships take on the foes. 

Combat is straightforward, but allows for quite bit of strategy due to two major factors, both centered around sacrifice of immediate gain for more long-term reward. There are two phases to each round. One is a straight up salvo of cannons and attacks where your or the monsters' attack values are calculated against the targets defense values and damage is doled out by whatever number that attack exceeds the defense. Then there is the actions phase, where special attacks can be levied. Here is where the roll of the dice determines which specials can see play in a given turn. Even before the salvos dice are rolled, the number of which corresponding to the total number of enemy and ally units on the board.

So the first bit of gameplay that really elevates the strategy is what's called Initiative. Initiative determines not only which side gets to assign the dice first, but also who gets to complete their salvos and actions first as well. You always start out with it, but on the next turn it falls to whoever assigned the least total value of dice in the previous round. For example, say you're fighting 2v3 and the roll is 3,3,3,5,6. Now if you go and grab the 5 and the 6, that might lead to a better choice of actions this turn, but that total of 11 is surely going to lose you the Initiative for the next turn. It might be better to sacrifice a better action (typically the best actions are mapped to higher dice rolls required to play them) this turn in order to keep that initiative into the next. 

The other bit of strategy tends to float on about not assigning dice at all, or forcing the other side to do the same. Some characters, enemy and ally alike, will no have the full range 1-6 of available rolls to place actions. Usually it's the 1 or the 6 missing. So it may be the case where sticking a couple of 6's or 1's to your opponent will cause them not to be able to play any dice at all, even if that again foregoes a better action on your part. By not being able to play an action, every member on that side also takes a 1 damage penalty per unplayed die.

Then there are the times that you want to eat that penalty yourself, again just to make sure you keep initiative. Maybe one of your units is on low health points, but so is one of theirs. You're thinking I've got no arms left, I know it's just a flesh wound. Maybe by sacrificing a die, and taking the 1 point penalty, you save yourself the 2 or more point salvo, and instead get to volley your salvo first, killing the foe and leaving the remainder of the field unable to finish the weakened unit off this turn. 

While strange women lying in ponds and distributing swords is no basis for a system of government, neither is indebting gameplay to random number generators (RNG) the basis for game design. Thankfully, with Here Be Dragons, while here is some RNG to it all as you are at the mercy of dice rolls, I never really felt the RNG outweighed the strategy built around it. Although admittedly, there were some of the tougher battles where if I wasn't able to begin with a good roll I would restart the match straightaway. While there is nothing wrong with me using an expensive operation you can't prolong, I'm not a masochist.

The other factor that minimizes the RNG element is that as you deal damage and take enemies off the board, you are rewarded with these little collectible bottles that you can pluck from the sea. They are basically power up points that let you do a number of overpowered things, mostly centered around rerolling dice or even incrementing or decrementing it by one to turn unfavorable rolls into favorable ones. Your ability to utilize this is, of course, limited by the number of bottle pickups you can manage each round. But they absolutely turn the tide of a battle and, without exaggeration, are often the difference between victory and defeat.

The variety in the game keeps everything moving. The campaign is broken into chapters and each focuses on one or maybe two captains or another. The cast rotates throughout the chapters and every captain has their own unique skills and actions to call on. Some are a bit overpowered and the chapters are a breeze. Some a bit underpowered really making you work the rolls and power ups. Other chapters focus on some unique board penalties to determine the pace. Monsters mostly rotate in and out, and each comes across as unique with respects to its strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities.

The game does a very good job walking you through the tutorial of the first battles, introducing concepts at a consumable rate, and highlighting the specials of every new creature that comes into the lexicon. There is a pop-up overlay that highlights whatever unique ability the cursor is centered on at any one point in time to allow you to review each action in detail. It does a great job of presenting all necessary info in a readable format, even when played on the native Switch LCD.

At times, however, once a battle was humming and I wasn't in need of review, the pop-up did seem to get a bit in the way of the action and I would have liked a way to make the pop-up, well, pop-down. But really that's only a minor quibble in a presentation that I think is otherwise top notch. It plays and reads well both on the big screen when docked and on the small screen when in handheld mode—a key selling point for me, personally, when I review Switch games. Well done there. 

In my entire play through I encountered one lone technical issue: a particular dialogue section froze forcing me to exit the content entirely. Having missed a bit of plot (which, like the rest of the plot, is largely inconsequential), but more importantly having potentially missed another joke, I wanted to catch up on what I skipped. Thankfully, the option to jump back into the chapter introduction is always there and I was able to re-watch the dialogue with no freeze on the second attempt. It's like they thought of everything. 

Honestly, I'm not sure there is anything about the actual game I didn't like. There was nothing included in the package I can do much more than nitpick. It's a fun little strategy game with great humor and good presentation. But if I had to interrupt this program to annoy you and make things generally more irritating, there is this one trick missing entirely that would push the whole experience over the edge. My major criticism isn't anything about what's actually in the game, but rather what is missing from it.

All the ingredients are there, it's just not baked into the final product. This is a game that, for me, screams to have some sort of roguelike campaign mode, but doesn't. It's a linear game. You run through the campaign chapters and one-liners. When it's all said and done, all you have left to do is run through it again, with the same campaign chapters and one-liners. I'm not expecting branching dialogue and new punchlines, but all the elements are there for a fantastic branching sea adventure. Think Faster Than Light, but on the high seas. We've got a wide array of captains with unique abilities, a decent enough leveling system, a number of creatures to mix up the encounters with, good in-battle variety with the basic RNG of the dice roll coupled with a great way to mitigate it with power ups, and the whole salvo/action combat mechanics that could be tweaked and leveled to an even greater degree by allowing captains to actually upgrade and swap out the actions themselves which opens the door to really introduce some overwhelming odds in the endgame.

Essentially, what the game lacks is replayability. Yet every element is already there to introduce a game mode that would solve every bit of that. Let me take the helm as Columbus aboard the Nina in a new endgame, choose two other captains to crew the Pinta and Santa Maira, throw us against the odds to cross the Atlantic, upgrade our ships along the way, then fight a final boss that, unless we had fully optimized our voyage, we would be struck back to Europe to start anew. This is a recipe that many similar games have employed to great effect, and having enjoyed so much of what Here Be Dragons did provide, I can see how a similar play option would just push this one to the next level. 

Here Be Dragons is an excellent little game. If my only gripe is that I can only really play it to its fullest on the first run, it's a gripe rooted in a sense that I wish I could have played it more. Its got style, is playful with its humor, and has enough strategy to deliver on the gameplay aspect as well. There is a variety in both your allies you play with as well as enemies you play against to keep the rotation from getting stale on that run, and is filled with all sorts of quality of life touches that make the execution smooth and seamless. It's quick to pick up, teaches you how to play, and even with clear stopping points still drags you into wanting to play just one more round. It's a class leading game that lends itself very well to the Switch and deserves praise. Something the developers should not only be proud about, but smug about it. Blessed are the cheesemakers. 

Apart from the humor, the well done mechanics, the unique presentation, the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have Here Be Dragons or the Romans ever done for us? My only real criticism is that while there is little to fault on that first go, the game does struggle to offer real replayability. It's an excellent strategy game. So play it once through for that good trip and let that be enough.

Rating: 8.8 Class Leading

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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 First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.  
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...

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