This CRPG is something of an underappreciated classic that was basically as close to a Bard’s Tale IV as fans might get. What I didn’t know until much later was that it actually started out that way.
Dragon Wars came from Interplay in ’89 and has its roots in the ideas that the team had come up with after the work on the Bard’s Tale III. After Interplay and EA parted ways, EA still held the rights to the name.
However, because Interplay had settled on calling it Dragon Wars, one of the designers (Rebecca Heineman) now found themselves having to actually add dragons into the game. The dragons didn’t actually look like traditional dragons (as the ad above confusingly demonstrated), but that’s what they were in a world that was a mix of Sumerian mythology and a little European medieval. This was a long way from the city of Skara Brae.
Dragon Wars was essentially like many of the CRPGs at the time — a turn-based dungeon crawler with tons of enemies to plow through with your party of heroes, much like in the Bard’s Tale to which this was a spiritual successor.
The story elements, however, were much more integrated into the gameplay and centered around major fights, something that Bard’s Tale III was also testing the waters with. It also used a skill system similar to that in Wasteland (which came out in the year before) though not quite as extensive. Only a small handful of skills were available to the party. Another thing it borrowed from Wasteland was the paragraph system (which SSI’s Gold Box series were also busy with at the same time) in describing specific events when prompted by the game to look them up (no Mars entries this time around, though). It also served as a limited form of copy protection.
One of the neat things about the dragons was in how they were treated. In this world, dragons were considered WMDs – like nukes – and the major cities had a dragon of their own to unleash against their neighbors should they be attacked. It was a clever fantasy variant of mutually assured destruction with a deep plot weaving its way through it all.
The final boss, Namtar, was also memorable in how you had to ultimately defeat him. Killing him once wasn’t enough especially when he came to life while you were trying to dispose of his corpse as part of another quest.
Players started out as prisoners exiled to the walled fortress of Purgatory and had to escape. They had several options to explore which was a nice touch and you could even import your Bard’s Tale I, II or III characters for a small statistical bonus to get a head start on the tough combat. The game could be unforgiving, combat encounters in this game were quite a bit more brutal in its learning curve than they had been in the Bard’s Tale, but that was all a part of its appeal.
Instead of lists of hit and spell points, the game used colored lines to gauge how many each character had left. But much of the interface resembled that of the Bard’s Tale series, only with more polished graphics. The game was also played from first-person using grid movement and utilized a much more detailed automapping feature than what came out in Bard’s Tale III. Small touches like these aided in polishing the system down for veterans already familiar with the Bard’s Tale series.
Magic was also not as straightforward. Spells had to be discovered, often in hidden places, because it was declared illegal in the land leaving your party with little recourse at the start. Mages began at a significant disadvantage at the start though once they had a number of decent spells under their belt, were invaluable. Secret police walked the streets of Phoebus, the capital, and an air of oppression wafted around corners and right behind the footsteps of your intrepid party of would-be heroes.
Dragon Wars also came with a poster of the box cover art done by none other than prolific fantasy artist, Boris Vallejo, and which also features in the ad above. An understated classic in the genre, Dragon Wars stands out as one of Interplay’s best in my book thanks to a tighter integration with story elements and a number of mechanical and cosmetic improvements evolving their particular CRPG recipe.
The Bard may not have been around for this adventure, but there was enough storytelling spun within this epic quest for fellow dungeon crawlers eager to wade knee-deep through another helping of death and drek.