Dragon Marked For Death is a curious Nintendo Switch exclusive, a multiplayer action-platforming RPG replete with grinding content and beautiful visuals. Featuring an unusual buy-in for a digital game and a required monthly Nintendo Switch Online subscription for its online features, it’s certainly asking for a not-insignificant upfront payment. While its range of activities may wear thin on all but the most grind-focused of gamers, it’s a premium experience that plays very well within its niche.
The actual method to purchasing this game might need some proper articulation, first and foremost. Two discreet download options are available: The Frontline Fighters and Advanced Attackers packs have tantalizing titles, but they break down thusly: the former grants players a warrior and tank class, and the latter includes a rogue and spell-caster. Either one can be purchased to grant players the full span of the game, and while it’s reasonable to build up any of the available classes to a viable standard, all four — who go by the monikers Empress, Warrior, Shinobi, and Witch, respectfully — are not created equal. The Witch in particular makes a challenging choice for first-time players, with her delayed and complicated magic attacks, low health, and spell inputs which must be memorized.
The narrative in Dragon Marked For Death and the art style used to deliver it are both quite strong. Each of the four characters enter a pact with an ancient dragon, which then manifests into each of their power-sets and visual designs in different ways. The Witch, for example, has an elaborate pink headpiece and extra set of arms made from the dragon which incorporates into her spell-casting, the Warrior’s armor is made up of a blue dragon, with its face as his chest plate, etc. It’s a unique design aesthetic which plays well with the overall pixelated anime style, and the various enemies in the game all seem more interesting and thoughtful than your standard fantasy hack-and-slash affair; there are centaurs, ogres, goblins, and dragons aplenty, but nearly all of them are presented with a uniquely overblown style that avoids feeling dull, and even the townsfolk have a sharp and characterful look to them.
Dragon Marked For Death looks something like Mega Man Zero, or even possibly like a Metroidvania but, in reality, it’s closer to an instanced quest-based multiplayer action RPG. While the game could technically be played in single-player mode, it’s not designed for it at all, and characters like the Warrior and Witch would be especially untenable in that capacity. The name of the game is grind, and after a fairly interesting tutorial level, each character is able to join other parties of four (or make their own), look for similarly-leveled players, and go off on quests together. There are a range of maps and biomes, all of which usually have one specific goal: kill a boss or enemy type, collect an item, perform a simple task, or combinations of all of these. Each quest has a strict time limit, which means that, depending on party level and strength, you may have to hustle past enemies to ensure that you have the time to defeat a boss, and if all quest goals are not completed quickly enough, you lose any items and gear that were found, although you still gain XP.
If that sounds rather harsh, it most definitely is. Some quests can be 20 or 25 minutes long, and a failure-to-complete or a full team wipe near the 25 minute mark can be crushing. That’s a lot of time to waste for minimal payoff, though it should be noted that each quest has a difficulty level, and most of them aren’t exceedingly tough with a competent party. However, this further drives the point home that people who prefer questing alone will have a much harder time, and certain tasks are all but impossible solo, and made doubly hard for Warrior and Witch players.
The good news is that as a new Nintendo Switch game, Dragon Marked For Death servers have been fairly well-populated among different ranks. You can confirm party composition before agreeing to join a group, and lobbies take just a handful of seconds to load up from the bespoke tavern screen. The bad news is that this is most certainly a situation where a Nintendo Switch Online account is required by players, a detail which should be more insistently apparent in the game. If someone received this game as a gift, that fact may be a sobering realization, especially since the aforementioned single-player mode results in an entirely different and absolutely compromised experience. Sadly, when the day comes that the game's servers become ghost towns, Dragon Marked For Death may be end up arguably unplayable.
When all cylinders are firing, Dragon Marked For Death can feel magically entertaining. Four players (ideally occupying all four classes, though nothing prevents players from grouping up as the same character) taking on a boss with all their different ability fireworks exploding on the screen is an impressive sight, with all of this occurring without nary a noticeable slowdown. Characters can also protect each other with shields, heal each other during battle, and aggro stronger enemies safely away from weaker players. A simple messaging shorthand is the main method of communication, but the game’s mechanics are simplified enough that chat coordination is never a strong requirement.
It amounts to a type of game that will be ambrosia for the right person, the player who enjoys the grind of incrementally better weapons (which, in a nice touch, adds a visual change to each character), incrementally better stats, and a nicely fluid feel to combat and movement. Each of the four characters is so mechanically different from each other that swapping between them every now and then keeps things from growing stale as well, so there’s considerable variety available if you purchase all four.
Dragon Marked For Death is a good use of Nintendo Switch Online beyond the more obvious releases, and there are dozens of hours of content. Levels are large and full of loot, and enemies and bosses are fun to eviscerate as a full-party “death-ball,” but it’s a hard pass for players who like to go it alone. Upcoming season content, additional characters, and other hopeful surprises on the horizon for this online-focused game may even increase its value further but, as it stands now, Dragon Marked For Death is a beautiful action-RPG that ably fills a niche on Nintendo’s system.
Dragon Marked For Death is out now on the Nintendo Switch eShop, both in a Frontline Fighters and Advanced Attackers digital package, and releases as a boxed physical release on March 26, 2019. Screen Rant was provided a Nintendo Switch digital code (with all four characters) for the purposes of this review.