Crimson Dragon’s story is classic childhood wish fulfilment. Boy discovers the disease that wiped out his family has left him able to communicate with dragons. Boy gets recruited for genocidal missions to eradicate the fauna of the planet his people colonised. Of course, there’s more nuance than that, but to saddle a beautiful game with such a token storyline feels needless, especially when it would have been enough to say, “Welcome to the Fantasy Zone! Get ready!”
You begin Crimson Dragon with a choice of fire or chaos dragon, and a shop selling a handful of others. Attacks vary across the types, but the multiple lock-on of Panzer Dragoon and Rez is present, along with a steady pulsing stream of slow homing attacks. As you unlock more dragons, and earn moves from in-level drops, you’ll expand your range of attacks, including a huge reticle that fills a ninth of the screen, picking off enemies and letting you focus on avoiding attacks.
That’s a relief, because the incoming missiles are so numerous, and your dragon so large, that avoiding damage often feels fortunate rather than elegant. While the game’s mostly on rails, the left stick moves you around the screen, and bullets tend to track you on the harder levels. Committing to a bumper button barrel roll is one option, but you’ll find yourself using the left stick to constantly circle the screen. Meanwhile, the reticle aim is generous, but it needs to be given how preoccupied you are with circling the screen.
Crimson Dragon’s appeal lies in replayability rather than variety. You’ll miss a group of rare creatures the first time around, and endangered creatures yield better rewards. Learning the patterns also makes the missions more entertaining as cheap-feeling surprises give way to prepared determination. While the game’s economy seems aggressively geared towards microtransactions, Gems, one of the game’s two currencies, become easier to win when you return to a level with a more evolved beast. The other, Credits, are more generously doled out through normal play, and you’ll need plenty to unlock the later, harder stages.
Crimson Dragon is at its most absorbing when it’s not hard. There’s a sense of satisfying caretaking to easier levels, and the constant stream of instant rewards for playing well is more gratifying than it should be. It’s during its harder moments that Crimson Dragon pushes you away. A combination of heavy handling and poor communication make you feel hoodwinked rather than outmatched, and the ability to buy continues with Gems you’ve purchased with real money sullies the challenge. It’s a good job that the Zen gardens of those easier levels are always there to return to.