Out of a virtually limitless number of videogames to choose from, only three have been inducted into the world-renowned Smithsonian museum. This elite gathering includes the unquestionably historic titles Pong, Pac-Man, and the inspiration behind the subject of this review, Dragon's Lair. Released in 1983 by professional film animator and Disney alum Don Bluth (The Secret Of NIMH, All Dogs Go To Heaven), it rocked the videogame world. By using feature-film quality animation on a laserdisc player instead of the usual pixelated-blob graphics common at the time, anyone walking by was guaranteed to stop dead in their tracks. The gameplay itself was somewhat lacking (mostly reflexive directional taps), but the idea itself was visionary.
Converting most of the first game's content to 3D and reworking practically everything, Dragon's Lair 3D: Return To The Lair stars Dirk the Daring, a knight who's equal parts hero and bumbler. The premise is that lovely princess Daphne has been abducted by an evil dragon and hidden away in the center of a menacing castle guarded by all sorts of fantastic medieval nasties. Dirk must penetrate the deadly keep, dodge traps and defeat all enemies that stand in his way. It's not the most creative story ever told, but the original's charm and radical design are what cemented its success. Sadly, the latest incarnation of that landmark effort doesn't have the personality, lush animation or blisteringly fast pace that made the original such a hit. What it does have is...not much.
Dragonstone has attempted to retain the flavor of Bluth's unique visuals by using an underdetailed celshading technique, but much has been lost in the translation. Even with current technology, games have not reached the level of sophistication that traditional hand-drawn animation contains, especially in 3D. The color palette in use is nice, but the models are too simple and flat. Trying to emulate the standard set by Bluth is an impossible task, and leaves Dragon's Lair 3D looking incredibly lifeless by comparison. If it sounds unfair to compare the game to the work of a master animator, let me also say that it doesn't even match up to its contemporaries. Titles like Klonoa: Lunatea's Veil, The Mark Of Kri and Jet Set Radio Future all look far more vibrant and compelling.
The controls feel as underdeveloped as the graphics look, fully accentuating the game's weaknesses. Instead of using a fast, reflexive interface, Dirk comes equipped with a molasses-coated set of action/platform controls. Everything you'd expect is here, including jumping, grabbing ledges, and so forth. There are no surprises and nothing noteworthy besides how poorly the game handles. In three dimensions, Dirk is stiff, lethargic and feels as though he's perpetually in slow motion. To get anywhere, you'll need to constantly hold down the "run" button to bring things up to a reasonably normal speed. But by doing so, you'll incur framerate slowdown in larger environments.
The game's combat system is terrible. Things are needlessly complicated from the start with the cumbersome requirement of manually sheathing and unsheathing his sword. If you try to attack when it's sheathed, he'll stand there like a brainless slab of meat. If you try to grab a ladder mid-leap with the sword drawn, you fall like a stone. In the heat of battle, it's no better. Dirk wields his blade the way a newborn infant would handle a baseball bat. It's unsatisfying, and leads to many unnecessary hits before the game is over.
Adding to the litany of woes plaguing the disc, the camera also has issues. If given the choice, I prefer artificial intelligence to manage the viewpoint, with an occasional manual tweak here and there. The less I need to do, the better. I like playing games more than I like pretending to be a cameraman. Dragons' Lair 3D takes a more hands-on approach, with a system that requires constant babysitting. It's not my preference, but I can deal with manual cameras. However, if the camera is put into my hands, it shouldn't move or wander once I adjust it! The result is a hyperactive, restless mess that's less advanced than some 32-bit PlayStation games.
With vanilla graphics, sluggish controls and a camera that seems to have a grudge against the player, Dragon's Lair 3D possesses none of the elegance and workmanship evident in the current competition. Furthermore, by leaving behind its distinctive laserdisc-style essence, it abandons its core identity and resigns itself to being an unimpressive, sub-par platformer. I question the merit of this strategy, since keeping nothing but the license and characters doesn't seem wise. The number of gamers who can actually wax nostalgic over them must be ridiculously small by this point.
As an interesting side note, some people may recall that Sega's Shenmue series initially received a lot of flak for their "QTEs" (Quick-Time Events). These segments are fast, highly cinematic and action-packed in a way that would be impossible by giving the player full control of the character. Many sources directly compared the QTEs to the original Dragon's Lair, and negatively dismissed them. However, once the true nature of the sequences was revealed, they were rapidly accepted and praised. By excising its own philosophy so wonderfully reincarnated in Shenmue, Dragon's Lair 3D castrates itself with below-average, sleep-inducing gameplay. It would have been quite interesting to see how the game might have turned out if it retained its own heritage instead of settling for something so formulaic and derivative.
Taking all this into account, there's really nothing else to say about Dragon's Lair 3D except that it was a real disappointment. I still count myself as one of Dirk's fans despite the long string of failed attempts to update the series, and this game won't change that. However, with technical weaknesses, lackluster production, and a failure to find or establish its own identity, the disc is several steps below the expected level of action/platform games. With such an anemic showing it's not likely we'll be seeing Dirk again for quite some time. Rest well, hero...you sure need it.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.