We all know that playing a good game feels, well, good. We also know that, sometimes, playing a really bad game can feel, if not good, then hilariously cathartic. The issue I’m having with Hidden Dragon Legend is that it’s not good, nor is it terribly bad. It’s just annoyingly mediocre.
The premise for this 3D, side-scrolling action platformer is that you’re an amnesiac prisoner who develops demonic powers because of some artefact or something… and there are several warring factions who want to get their hands on you for nefarious reasons. Other people seem to have demon powers, too, but it’s unclear if that’s because they’re demons or just… because.
It’s a mediocre plot and it’s delivered by mediocre voice actors in a variety of mediocre cutscenes. The fact that the game is set in another fantastic variation on ancient China lifts it, somewhat, but it’s almost a moot point when you’ve heard parts of this same story delivered by so many different characters in so many different settings and genres.
At the outset, Hidden Dragon Legend seems like a typical side-scrolling platformer. You run, you fight, you defy the laws of physics with the good old double-jump, you consciously steal from every chest and statue that you come across without remorse or prejudice, and you have the occasional boss-battle.
However, when the enemies appear on screen, the focus is constricted to a small arena containing just you and your foes and won’t let you progress until you’ve bested them. It’s a cool change to the norm that focuses you on the battle and doesn’t let you escape combat, requiring you to face up to the challenge as opposed to avoiding it.
The platforming sections in Hidden Dragon Legend are sparse and, due to the separation of the fighting from platforming, are largely incredibly boring. There’s barely any challenge involved, other than the fact that your character’s motion is incredibly slippery so it’s quite easy to dart off small ledges if you’re exploring for loot – something that you’ll want to do to ensure that you’ve got plenty of health potions for those fights.
Hidden Dragon Legend uses the classic light, heavy and ranged attack scheme and allows for some interesting combos so that you can string together a succession of hits. The game being set in China, it uses some pretty cool attack animations to get the point across and the visual feedback from shots landed is quite fun. You can also do a dash/dodge, direct hits up and down and have a couple of special skills that don’t really help much at all.
The enemy design is actually rather good – allowing for a wide range of enemies that are all visually distinct and present their own set of challenges. Whenever you meet a new type of opponent, there’s a funky splash screen that tells you their name and rank — though that means very little given that all of the enemies you encounter will get pretty much exactly the same sort of treatment: line them up and knock them down.
Okay, that’s not exactly true; there are some enemies that require a little more thought and care when you’re trying to take them down. Arrow flinging kites, for example, can be a real pain and you’ll have to attack them first in midair, then on the ground to finish them off.
Some of you may be thinking I’ve made the combat sound pretty good and, for the first couple of fights, it sort of is. But limited and easy-to-access progression means that you’ll have unlocked all of the combos by half way through the first real level. You can then upgrade them further, but you’ll have pretty much maxed them all out by the end of the third level, and honestly, I could barely tell the difference anyway.
You see, combat in Hidden Dragon Legend is actually pretty hard. But not the sort of rewardingly hard combat of most fighting games or (please don’t hurt me) Dark Souls. It’s the frustrating sort of hard that comes about because of poor mechanics rather than elegant design. Despite your demon powers, the rules of this particular fight club start off by declaring that they’re going to be totally different for you and your enemies.
Most normal foes can be staggered and held at bay with a succession of successful hits and, if you consistently land one of the longer ones, you might be able to take a weaker enemy out with a single combo. But there are tougher enemies that can only be staggered at certain times and, even then, the duration is short enough that they’re probably going to be able to hit you before the attack animation ends and you regain control. And you almost always get staggered. There’s no avoiding it and, when it happens, getting hit again is the most likely outcome.
I may not be the most accomplished or best gamer, but I’ve tried and tried to work out the best way to tackle the combat and, at one point, I’d died to the same group (and it is always a group) of enemies so many times I was convinced that I’d never best them. Your attacks have an inevitable forward momentum so there’s no hanging back and keeping enemies at bay – not even the ranged attack can help there, either, being too weedy to really count in rougher encounters. Jumping attacks are almost useless because you can easily mess up the swing that will bring enemies into the air with you, leaving you swiping at nothing for a while as the bad guys congregate beneath, what will soon be, your corpse. I never found a reliable counter to enemies with shields, for that matter, and contented myself with spamming them until their shields broke.
Most games actually count a lot on repetition, on patterns and loops that the player can acclimate to and learn so that they get better at working with or against them, but Hidden Dragon Legend’s combat seems to lack even this. It’s inconsistent, unpolished and, after just a short while, unfulfilling and desperately dull.
But there is an unexpected bright side to Hidden Dragon Legend. It’s obvious just from looking at the game that its developers really cared for it. Someone loved it and tried to elevate it from the cloying mediocrity of its bland and tepid gameplay with some really rather good art, menus and UI. The conceptual design of the game, it’s art and the supplemental features that never usually get talked about are, in this case, the stars of the show. The same can’t be said for the graphics, though, which are – you guessed it – mediocre at best.
There are way worse games out there, though, and while I’d never personally recommend Hidden Dragon Legend to anyone, if you like the setting, style and the sound of it and you’ve got money to burn, you might as well give it a go, I guess.