Dragalia Lost: First Impressions

I’d never heard the name “DAOKO” prior to today. After a few hours exploring Nintendo and Cygames’ new mobile offering, I can’t get her damn music out of my head.

Dragalia Lost, a much-awaited new RPG from two of the biggest names in both Japanese and mobile gaming — and featuring an extensive soundtrack mostly comprised of DAOKO tracks — launched its live service this week. While I haven’t really stuck with any mobile games for longer than a few weeks, I’ve had fun with several over the last couple of years — most notably Granblue Fantasy, Fate/Grand Order and Girls’ Frontline — so I thought it would be interesting to check this new one out.

While Dragalia Lost doesn’t do anything especially new and exciting for the genre, the whole thing is executed with such beautiful panache that it’s hard not to like it. So I’ll check it out for the next few weeks at the very least. Read on for some more detailed first impressions.

In Dragalia Lost, you take on the role of a young prince who is seventh in line to the throne of his kingdom. His family, it seems, are “Dragonbloods”, which allows them to make pacts with dragons, and part of his family’s rite of succession involves making one of these pacts. Our hero has, to date, refused to do this because he doesn’t want to find himself at loggerheads with his siblings — and, more importantly, because he didn’t want power just for the sake of power.

As we join the story, the protagonist has left the safety of his home castle to finally go and form a pact with a dragon, because trouble is seemingly a-brewin’ and all of his siblings already have their own tracts of land that they’re busy governing. As a (relatively) free agent, our hero is the only one with a suitable means of moving around the kingdom without 1) attracting too much attention and 2) leaving any areas undefended, so off he goes.

It’s not long before really bad things happen. A long-dead evil empire appears to have risen from the ashes, fiends are on the rampage, and our hero’s siblings seem to be leading the dark charge. Fortunately, despite being branded a traitor and forced onto the run by these events, our hero finds himself in possession of a shiny new castle as part of his bonding pact. A castle that most likely once belonged to his distant ancestor, a legendary hero and founder of his kingdom, and said castle would, of course, make an ideal base of operations for sorting out the world’s many and varied problems — perhaps with a bit of help.

Dragalia Lost’s game structure will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played Cygames’ previous title Granblue Fantasy, or indeed most mobile RPGs of this type. There’s a linear main storyline, during the early episodes of which you are introduced to basic combat, character upgrading and the ability to summon new allies and equipment through the gacha, and as you progress you gain access to a series of weekly quests designed for grinding various resources, which can be played either solo or in live online co-operative multiplayer with up to three other people.

Advancing through the main storyline rather generously rewards you with a premium currency primarily intended for spending on the gacha, and also automatically provides you with access to a number of playable story-critical characters. The further you go, the more powerful your enemies become, so you’ll need to enhance and upgrade your characters — as well as start giving some thought to the elemental affinities of your party as a whole — in order to keep up with the challenges ahead of you.

Progression in Dragalia Lost is rather interesting and multifaceted. While it shares much in common with its stablemate Granblue Fantasy, the game has a number of refinements that make it more accessible and less confusing — there’s no “weapon grid”, for example, so no need to ponder the logistics of how your hero might be wielding nine weapons simultaneously.

Here, characters simply have an experience level that can be increased either by participating in combat or by feeding them metal crystals between battles. They also have three pieces of equipment: a weapon, which primarily adds to the character’s strength; a Wyrmprint, which primarily adds to the character’s HP and often has some sort of passive skill attached; and a dragon, which allows the character to transform when enough energy is built up in combat, as well as also adding to the character’s base stats. The character’s overall effectiveness is measured in “Might”, and each playable battle provides a recommended total Might score that the party should equal or exceed in order to stand a chance at victory.

As well as progressing the character, the weapon, Wyrmprint and dragon can all be levelled up in various ways, and like many games of this type, fusing together identical items increases the level cap as well as, in many cases, providing access to fancier artwork and deeper background lore. On top of all this, there’s a system called “Mana Circles”, where each character can expend accumulated mana to unlock bonuses to their base stats, new abilities and new story episodes. There are lots of ways to enhance a character’s effectiveness, in other words, allowing you plenty of ways to feel like you’re making progress in the game.

And what of the actual “game” part? Well, instead of the more commonly seen turn-based battles of titles like we’ve already mentioned above, Dragalia Lost opts for an action RPG feel. While it’s still structured in the same way as something like Granblue Fantasy — one “battle” involves fighting your way through several groups of trash before taking on a more powerful boss — the added interactivity of being able to freely move around and attack at will gives the experience a very different feel.

Touchscreen controls aren’t always ideal for more action-oriented games, but Dragalia Lost provides a serviceable implementation. Dragging in any direction from a start point causes your character to move in that direction, while a quick swipe causes them to do a quick dodge-roll in the direction of your swipe. Tapping the screen performs an attack — auto-targeting the nearest enemy while doing so — and, once unlocked, tapping and holding on the screen allows a character to perform a Focus Strike attack, which has various effects according to the specific skill, but which is generally used for breaking tough enemies’ guards.

The foes make use of a Final Fantasy XIV-style system of visible floor telegraphs for their attacks, allowing you to quickly get out of the way of an attack before it hits, though your AI-controlled allies are masters of standing in the AoEs exactly when you don’t want them to. Boss enemies also make use of a Granblue Fantasy-style “Overdrive” bar, where dealing damage fills up a meter that causes the enemy to become more powerful when it reaches its maximum — but knocking it back down to its minimum after this happens causes the enemy to enter a vulnerable “Break” status where you can inflict massive damage.

The combat mechanics are pleasingly varied. Different weapon types feel noticeably different to one another in terms of their range, arc and maximum attack speed, and characters’ active skills and dragon transformations mix things up nicely. This is by no means a game where you simply tap your way to victory, in other words; there is an auto-battle mode if you want to leave the game running to grind for you, but activating this causes your party to take the most direct route to the finish line, missing any possible treasure chests and hidden caches along the way.

In between combat, besides upgrading your characters and pulling from the gacha, there’s a lightweight basebuilding element in which you can construct various facilities around your castle to produce resources for you and provide passive buffs to your characters. It’s the usual “tap and wait” stuff we’ve seen since the dawn of free-to-play mobile gaming, but since its complemented by plenty of other more interesting mechanics, it’s inoffensive enough, doesn’t get in the way and allows you to passively build up various resources while doing other things.

In terms of presentation, the game looks great, running at a slick 60 frames per second during 3D sequences — though like many games of this type, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the dumpy chibi 3D models used in combat and in-engine cutscenes, and the beautiful 2D art used in the more lengthy visual novel-style story sequences. The characters remain recognisable even in their super-deformed incarnations, however, and the art style fits the overall tone of the game extremely well — much like Granblue Fantasy, while there are dark elements, this is a thoroughly light-hearted adventure at its core.

The sound reflects that, too, with DAOKO’s music providing an unconventional but extremely striking accompaniment to much of the action. Consisting of a combination of bouncy pop numbers and some almost Ar Tonelico-esque ethereal-sounding vocal pieces, the music is most certainly a high point of the experience as a whole; be sure to play this with headphones or through a decent speaker if you can.

The whole thing is really nicely polished, too. While Granblue Fantasy’s somewhat sluggish interface and ever-present loading screens meant that it maintained the somewhat “Web-based” feel of Cygames’ earlier titles such as Rage of BahamutDragalia Lost feels a lot more like something that has been natively designed for the capabilities of mobile devices rather than to be as platform-agnostic as possible. You’ll still see a lot of loading breaks, for sure — this is still an always-online mobile game, after all — but the interface is designed in such a way that it feels less like a Web page and more like an actual game, which is emphatically both a good thing for the overall play experience, and a significant step forward for Cygames’ work.

It remains to be seen if the game has “legs” — some players are already criticising the draw rates on the gacha, which are less generous than some other games on the market at present — but for now, Dragalia Lost seems to be off to a strong start. Will it be able to dethrone the might Granblue Fantasy and Fate/Grand Order? It’s too early to say right now… but if anyone can pull that off, it’s surely the immensely powerful combination of Nintendo and Cygames.

More about Dragalia Lost

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