SSI explored their license with TSR and the developers they published for were not shy about experimenting with different kinds of approaches to their properties. With Dragonlance, they not only explored the “hard” side of its world with Gold Box titles such as Champions of Krynn, but also with a tactical strategy game and even a set of action RPGs.
Released in 1989, SSI’s Dragons of Flame (developed by U.S. Gold) was one of those action RPGs set in the Dragonlance universe from TSR pitting players and their reflexes against enemies in real time beat ’em up style outside of the tactical thoroughness of titles like Pool of Radiance or Curse of the Azure Bonds. This was pure action from start to finish with a few NPCs thrown in for a little dialogue and cutscene goodness.
Like Heroes of the Lance in ’88, players will take on the roles of said Heroes such as Tanis Half-Elven, Sturm Brightblade, Raistlin, Goldmoon, and Riverwind as they head to the fortress of Pax Tharkas to free prisoners held by the cruel Verminaard and his dragon, Ember. Fans of Dragonlance will recognize this as taking place during the War of the Lance unlike the Gold Box title, Champions of Krynn, which takes place after it. AD&D fans will also note that it’s named after and roughly follows the Dragonlance module set as the second chapter of the PnP saga.
In addition to the eight Heroes, two more characters can join your party along the way for a total of ten. Though only one was needed to actually fight, players could switch between all of them to keep going such as when someone’s health was getting just a tad too low. Spells, memorized or stored in magical relics, can also be called up from the menu.
This time, the game integrated an overworld for the Wilderness with visibly roaming beasties. Connecting with any of them brought up a side-scrolling action sequence where you hacked and slashed at whatever came at you from wolves and ghosts to the different types of draconians. The two dungeons where most of the adventure takes place is all side-scrolling territory filled with corridors and rooms.
Dragons of Flame took a lot of liberties with Dragonlance’s AD&D roots, much like Heroes of the Lance did, in order to work as an action RPG. Th0ugh the manual listed characters with the traditional AD&D crunch of Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, AC, HP, and equipment, it didn’t noticeably have that much of an impact on the very basic and direct sort of combat that filled the relatively short title’s virtual days. The crunch, though, was more useful as copy-protection when the game asked for whose stat was what, such as Goldmoon’s Wisdom score.
Yet it also did one or two neat things. NPCs have to actually be “approached” by your characters to see if they’re friendly or not, risking attack — they won’t help you if you attack them first which the game made possible. Fortunately, players had a save feature they could turn to before that happens. The game also provided a “quest map” that showed an overview of the region and the advance of the Dragonarmies — take too long, and certain locations with their NPCs and goals might be trapped behind enemy lines and well beyond your grasp.
As bold as this gamble was, traditional RPGers would probably balk at the changes unless they wanted something that wasn’t quite like Capcom’s Magic Sword but also nothing like any of the Gold Box games. It existed in a kind of limbo where players were a party-of-one and killing a huge, red dragon with nothing but magic missiles solo was just another objective. I’m all for trying out new things with established properties, but Dragons of Flame and its predecessor really stretched things.
It would be years until Capcom hit on a fantastic balance between crunch and pure action with their arcade beat ’em ups tackling Dungeons & Dragons in the late 90s, or even with Black Tiger in 1987 which captured the essence of fantasy battles against terrible beasties. But games like Dragons of Flame tried to pave the way forward nearly a decade earlier even if they had trouble trying to decide what they wanted to be.
The game was ported to a sizeable list of platforms like the Amiga, the Commodore 64, DOS, and even the NES which its action-oriented combat system easily made the transition to. But the FM-Towns version in Japan had remixed visuals, animations, and lush music atop the gameplay. Pony Canyon took the presentation to another level as you can see in the video clip below. Alas, it was a Japan-only release along with the Famicon/NES version.