I’ve put it off for quite some time but Alisia Dragoon was one of those games I’ve always meant to get back to because I remember liking it as kid.
Then again, I also remembered never playing past stage 2 but hey, that’s just because I was terrible at videogames as a kid right? Maybe the game isn’t actually hard anymore with the insight and experience of being an adult…?
Quick history: Alisia Dragoon was a platformer made by Game Arts (you might know them for creating Lunar and Grandia) with the help of Gainax (you definitely know them for making Evangelion). They’ve poured quite a bit of budget into the game as well, but it never really took off.
After beating the game with the help of countless save states, I can safely say: Yeah, the game has issues.
I think if you asked me to summarize things, it would be that Alisia Dragoon is technically competent but bogged down by questionable game design choices.
First off, Alisia’s Dragoon choice of weapon: Shooting Lightning from her hands.
I’ll give credit where it’s due: It looks really awesome.
But now let’s bring up the issues of why it doesn’t work out well in gameplay
1) Look at all those special effects flying around on the screen. Can you tell what’s going to hurt you and what’s harmless? Yup, neither can I.
2) Alisia has a limited supply of Lightning energy that refills over time but only when she’s not firing.
This leads to a really poorly paced game where you have to stop every 2 seconds to make sure your energy is completely refilled before proceeding, lest you find yourself running out in a critical moment.
Reminds me of the complains people had against the chargeable Mega Buster from Megaman 4 onwards, but at least those games had additional weapons you could use if you don’t want the hassle of that.
3) Alisia’s Lightning auto-targets enemies as long as you’re facing in the right direction, which makes manual dexterity to hit targets a non-factor in the gameplay (compared to other platformers like Mega man and Castlevania)
Now this MIGHT be an okay decision if, for example, the gameplay instead chose to focus on high mobility avoidance gameplay where you simply used your concentration to avoid bullets, something like playing a Chaser weapon user in Gunstar Heroes, maybe…
But Alisia has the unfortunate misfortune for being a relatively huge target while also having no mobility actions at all. She has no rolls, dodges, quicksteps, flying kicks, slides or any other actions you can think of to avoid taking damage from her enemies.
As a personal pet peeve, while most platformer characters tend to curl up in a ball to reduce their size while airborne (like Samus from Metroid), Alisia remains upright during her jump. You’ll find yourself taking a lot of damage and only surviving through the liberal health restoration items scattered throughout the stages… if you find them. Which seems very “Wolfenstein 3D” era of game design.
4) Alisia’s lightning attacks doesn’t stun enemies or otherwise send them into any form of knockback animation. There aren’t any enemy health bars in the game either so feedback on exactly how you’re doing in fights is really lacking. Though some bosses felt like they took decades to bring down so maybe a boss health bar would just demoralize most players.
Well, there’s one more gameplay element to bring up which is probably the main draw of the character, Alisia’s animal companions!
Alisia’s companions can be chosen from a menu (which helpfully pauses the game so you don’t have to do it under fire). They can be leveled up through collecting special items (that… look like Stars of David… hmm) and have their own health bars and power level. They’re all uniquely designed so you’re encouraged to switch through them and use them tactically to fit the situation.
So what’s the problem with them? Well for one thing, they’re not very balanced so you’ll end up using some of them WAY more than others.
A big part of the balance issues stems from the fact that their AI is not very good. Thunder Raven is the best companion, because he simply damages all enemies on-screen with a flash, which even a monkey could do. Dragon Fyre is dumb because he never takes any effort to line up his shots, instead always staying on Alisia’s vertical level and firing shots which usually whiff. Ball O’Fire is ironically the 2nd best companion, but that’s just because he’s practically invincible to enemy attacks. He never actively tries to shield you or attack enemies with his body! He sort of just floats slightly around you so it’s just random luck as to whether he just happens to be in the right position to absorb a stray shot flying your way or hit yet another stupid enemy who teleport on top of your head.
Which I guess leaves Boomerang Lizard as a companion who actually has a decent AI with his auto-targeting homing projectiles that serve as an Early Warning system for you. Ironically his problem is statistics: He just doesn’t deal very good damage to be worth using most of the time.
However, even if all her companions were super useful and balanced, there’s still the problem that being AI-controlled means there is this disconnect and additional layer between picking the right tool for the task and the satisfaction of taking down your enemies. Contrast with Mega Man where you get immediate satisfaction by solving the problem as soon as you switch and use the weapon. Choosing Thunder Raven and waiting 3 seconds for it to clear the screen just lacks that sort of “feel smart” connection.
Oh well, despite the game not really standing up under scrutiny, Alisia’s still a pretty cool character concept and I kind of want to see her return. I don’t expect to see her in an entirely brand new platformer but perhaps she can go the Darkstalkers route and live entirely off being in crossovers. Maybe the companion system would work better in an SRPG or something.
Interestingly enough, there is a “fan-made sequel” created in Warcraft 3 called “Return of Alisia Dragoon”, which can be found here. Might be worth a try just as an exercise “what might have been”.