As much as The Binding of Issac‘s phenomenal gameplay brought twin-stick shooters back into mainstream popularity, I could never appreciate that title’s filth-ridden aesthetic. Firing projectiles of every bodily fluid imaginable at shuffling flesh monsters was never my idea of a good time, even though the game’s tight shooting mechanics were enjoyable enough to put my disgust aside. Dragon Heart aims to create a similar experience in a more pleasing world, creating a colorful pixel dungeon full of lovable dragons and speedy shoot ’em up action. Created as part of Major Jam 2: Love, where developer StarDragon had one week to complete the game with a limited tile set, this tight twin-stick shooter is a short but satisfying experience.
Dragon Heart plays as a traditional dungeon crawler, with the player fighting increasingly difficult waves of enemies as they descend, floor by floor, into the depths. It is dangerous to go alone, so a pair of baby dragons accompany the protagonist on their journey, powerful little beasts that can shoot projectiles from their mouths and shield the player from damage.
With each new floor, new opportunities and dangers await. Further dragons can be hatched from randomly scattered eggs for a price, but the limited resources might be better spent on increasing the player’s health and ammunition. Only players who learn the enemy patterns, spend resources wisely, and master each dragon type will make their way to the bottom of the dungeon.
The main appeal of Dragon Heart is the many baby dragons, each of which has a different bullet pattern. Yellow dragons shoot a long, straight projectile, while blue produce bouncing bubbles and red have a short burst attack. Using each dragon’s skills well is vital to success, as the protagonist (a slightly larger dragon) only has three hit points, which can vanish all too quickly in a burst of fire. Each dragon added to the pack also increases the overall ammunition of the group, allowing the creatures to expel bullets for a longer time.
I played through the game three times, and the experience felt distinctly different depending on the dragons in the party. The most successful run involved a group of mostly fire dragons, shooting bursts of fire in every direction as I dodged back and forth. The lack of precision in this party makeup made certain enemies trickier, however, as certain monsters like to nestle in hard-to-reach corners, so a more balanced party is more likely to succeed.
When a monster is defeated, they burst into a shower of hearts. The hearts are the currency of the game, spent on hatching eggs, increasing maximum health or ammo, or replenishing lost hit points. The first instinct is to put all hearts into gaining more dragons, but since the reptiles max out at a group of seven, some early eggs are perhaps better skipped for other upgrades. Each hatch-able egg has two possible colors for which dragon will emerge, so those looking for a specific dragon can choose carefully.
I would have liked an indicator other than color for what dragon is in each egg, as color-blind players would be at a disadvantage. Since the challenge for the game jam was limited sprites, changing the appearance of the eggs was probably not an option, but the various dragon types could be given descriptive names, labeling a “yellow/green” egg as a “wind/grass” egg instead, for instance.
Dragon Heart falls on the easier side of the twin-stick genre, with a small cast of baddies that telegraph their moves clearly, but the game’s tough final boss was a perfect finale to test everything the player has learned. A bullet hell encounter where the screen is filled with deadly orbs, the player must duck and weave through the screen, using the baby dragons to shield them from damage. Should the player manage to defeat the boss, the player can run through the game again whilst keeping all their upgrades, a nice little victory lap of vastly overpowered shenanigans.
While Dragon Heart is enjoyable as it is, the game could add some special rule sets to give it further replay value. Concepts like beating the game in under 10 minutes, which would require skipping a lot of upgrades and finding each exit quickly, or perhaps completing the game with only the two starting dragons would be challenging. The wide roster of characters in games like The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon is part of why they have such lasting appeal, as using different rule sets makes the experience feel new again.
The world of Dragon Heart is bright and colorful, a lost game from the 8-bit era. The screen is highly readable, with the purpose of every creature and object obvious at a glance. Floors change texture and color every couple of levels, giving a good sense of progression. Shifting chiptunes likewise keep the pace, creating a cheery but ominous world.
I really enjoyed my time with Dragon Heart. With tight controls, fun gameplay, and adorable dragons, the game is the perfect choice for some quick dungeon-crawling fun.
Next week we will be playing Friendly Fire, a 2D platformer where rival creatures must be talked to rather than jumped on. The game can be downloaded from Steam. If you would like to share your thoughts, discussions will be happening in the Discord server.