DragonRiders: Chronicles of Pern

Developer:  Ubi Studios UK
Publisher:  Ubi Soft
Year Released:  2001

Review by Rosemary Young (September, 2001)
If you are an avid reader of Fantasy novels then this game is bound to grab your attention. It's based on Anne McCaffrey's DragonRiders of Pern books that are set in a distant world where dragons and humans live together peacefully. They are united in their endeavours to protect Pern from the deadly Thread that rains down from the Red Planet when it passes close every 200 years. The Dragons and their Riders fly out to eradicate the Thread before it devours all organic matter in its path, and Pern society has evolved to support these protectors so they are there when needed. The dragons are nurtured by the people and bonded with a human partner at their hatching. So close is the bonding that when either Dragon or Rider lose their life the other is likely to choose to follow them forever.

DragonRiders: Chronicles of Pern opens with the recent death of Nalaya, The Weyrwoman of Fort Weyr, who is bonded to the Gold Dragon, Morath. Nalaya must be replaced quickly because her Dragon may follow on and desert the eggs. A new Weyrwoman must be found for the precious gold egg. As D'Kor, Rider of Zenth, this is your task when the game opens. After you have gathered together the DragonRiders of Fort Weyr and attended a meeting, you are bid to travel the land and find ten candidates to be presented to the Gold Dragon as it hatches. As you take care of this chore you'll soon become embroiled in a wider plot involving jealousy and deception as you learn about some vanishing ore and a mysterious sickness that threatens the land ... who can you trust?

Smooth, tasty mixture
DragonRiders is very much a mixture of genres, perhaps with the emphasis on adventure although it is so story and conversation driven (rather than puzzle driven) it slips beyond adventuring and moves into the realms of an interactive story book. It works extremely well with some easy adventuring problems that shouldn't be too harrowing for action fans and some easy combat that shouldn't defeat adventurers. Still, the gameplay mostly involves connecting with and following the story so you know what to do and when. There are many characters to talk to and many errands to run, though it isn't that simple as you are not told precisely what to do, there is some challenge in finding crucial items. This is where some of the mild adventuring problems come into play.

Though the combat is fairly easy much of it can be avoided if you hone your sneaking skills and find ways to become invisible, although there are some essential confrontations. The mechanics of the combat aren't too demanding, however, as all you have to do is select a weapon (a choice of four including fists) and press the arrow keys to slash away or circle around your opponent. When you get the crossbow it makes combat a piece of cake and there are plenty of 'restoratives' to restore your health if need be.

DragonRiders also has a dash of roleplaying in the form of some simple statistics. They include Health, Strength, Reputation and Knowledge and gradually increase as you complete quests. Combat will increase your Strength, as will climbing rocks or jumping chasms. Fortunately the latter doesn't call for manipulative skills, a graphic will tell you when an action is available and a key press takes care of all these heroics. Knowledge and Reputation increase as you do good deeds and converse with people. The statistics are very nicely incorporated into the gameplay so that when attempting to complete a task you are given information about the skill level required to succeed. A lever, for instance, may call for 'Formidable' Strength while moving a rock might only demand 'Tough'. Similarly, some characters will only trust you if your Reputation is 'Trustworthy' or, perhaps, 'Respectable', and simply being 'Clever' won't get you anywhere with the Dolphin, the only way to communicate is to reach 'Genius' level.

The inclusion of statistics certainly adds another dimension to the gameplay. Geared with the information about the level of expertise required to perform various tasks it's fun striving to improve yourself.

Controls and options
DragonRiders is a third person, Keyboard controlled game. Similar to other such games you must manoeuvre your character near an item to pick it up or view it, and moving close to a person will bring up a dialogue alert so you can press the action key (spacebar) to talk. The arrow keys take care of movement (combined with shift to run) and a handful of other keys handle using items, completing an action and opening map, journal, and inventory. Once inside your inventory the arrow keys again allow you to select items, just press 'enter' to use them. All items are labelled and it is all very easy to organise the basics. From this screen you can view your statistics and it has alternative access to journal, maps, etc.

The manual lists many keyboard shortcuts but it leaves out some crucial information. It doesn't, for instance, note how to skip though different action choices (press '0' on the numerical keypad) if they occur in the same location such as a choice of people to converse with. Neither does it discuss how you can control camera angles by pressing '5' on the keypad! This information is crucial as camera angles change quite often in the game and it is possible to get caught with your character out of view. Pressing '5' can remedy this and other number pad keys further manipulate the camera. I must admit I only used this manual control function when D'Kor needed rescuing ... 9 or 10 keystrokes is enough for me to remember ... more than that and I'm history!

Other game features include a journal to keep track of the story and quests. I used it extensively and enthusiastically at first but it got too much when I had to flick through dozens of pages to find things, and when the automatic notations faltered so that completed quests were not acknowledged, or not easy to follow through to ascertain if they were completed. A keyword search would have been useful and separating quests from story information would have helped immensely.

The game options allow control of sound levels for music, speech and sound effects and you can also juggle the graphics and choose between performance and detail. Subtitles are available in English, German and French. I recommend that you enable them because occasionally the voices are missing so you have to rely on text. Also the introduction is not subtitled but you can read the narration word for word in the manual in all three languages.

Graphics, etc.
Though a bit foggy at times the graphics, I thought, painted a great picture of Pern. Fort Weyr Bowl, in particular, and Mastersmith Hall had loads of atmosphere. Of course judgements regarding graphics are very personal, but I had no complaints, even a glitch where the characters took growth hormones and grew into giants was quite entertaining. The music was very good, quite stirring at times, the characters and the voice acting were equally good. The main thing that bothered me with the graphics was that there was no way to skip through cut scenes when you take flight to change locations. These did get tedious after a few viewings. Also, I must confess the Dragons didn't capture my imagination. They are too clunky, almost elephantine, and definitely aerodynamically challenged ... still there's always the bumblebee. On a more serious note I thought the young women (potential Weyrwoman) were oh so demure and ineffectual. Personally, I didn't see any ''Weyrwoman material" amongst the young hopefuls who couldn't remember words to songs, couldn't catch their own bugs, or were just plain indisposed. What a good idea it would be to have a female on the design team to get more positive female characters for the next game.

Yes, DragonRiders: Chronicles of Pern promises a sequel. I'm definitely in line to play. Despite having a few glitches I really did enjoy playing this game. It's a very good mixture of gaming styles and a most enjoyable journey. Just be aware that it isn't all about fighting heroic battles against the Thread (you never control your Dragon in flight) ... it's an absorbing adventure-cum-interactive story with a lot of people to converse with, a lot of good deeds to do and an arch baddie to expose. rating:  

Copyright © Rosemary Young 2001. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
PII 300 (PII 450 recommended), 64 Mb RAM (128 recommended), 3d Card 16 Mb  DirectX compatible (32 Mb recommended), Direct X compatible Soundcard, 600 Mb hard disk space, 12 speed CD ROM, Keyboard. DirectX 8 provided on CD.