It’s surprisingly easy to forget that large-scale game development exists outside of Japan and the United States. But the truth is that it’s been going on for years now; keep your eye out for the Ubisoft Shanghai section when the next Far Cry’s credits scroll by. And where talent exists, so do home-grown studios. Take, for example, Chinese developer MegaFun Games, whose breakout title, Hidden Dragon Legend, is fresh on the PlayStation Store, waiting to take up a mercifully small 3.5 GB on the rapidly-clogging HDDs of PS4 owners everywhere. But now that you’ve gotten your fix of mass-market fun facts, let’s get to the real question: is this hack-n-slash platformer any good? Well, I mean… it isn’t bad…
Hidden Dragon Legend takes place in Imperial China and follows Lu, a young prison escapee and massacre survivor who manages to absorb some nifty demon powers that allow him to perform flashy maneuvers when fighting. He’ll need them, too, because, after the mysterious Organization attacks and murders the kind folks who nursed him back to health, he feels obligated to find out what’s going on at the core of all this. These circumstances are perfect for an action-platformer where you hop and slice your way through rooftops and catacombs, but they serve as the setup for a throw-away story delivered by unintentionally hilarious cutscenes.
It sounds like we’re off to a bad start, but this game is actually rather enjoyable in some areas. The combat, which as you might expect composes the majority of the experience, actually had me keenly focused on every movement I made. There is no blocking here. Instead, dodges and strikes must be carefully timed and allocated during each encounter – to avoid wasting your health during the easy ones, and to avoid dying outright in the hard ones. This necessitates more trial and error than could have been needed, but as with most games I’ve played recently, checkpoints abound in Hidden Dragon Legend. Gratifying as it may be to slay your foes, a single visit to the training room reveals that combos demand overly specific timing, and as a result, are tragically difficult to pull off. I never felt handicapped by not using such combos, though, especially since you’re granted access to a handful of one-button special moves.
So yeah, even with its wasted combos, the combat in this game stands above that of your average hack-n-slash title. It’s what comes between these encounters that severely drags the whole thing down. Early on, you’ll notice that Lu’s jump is kind of stiff. Okay, well at least the levels are designed around this shortcoming… for the first hour or so. Then you pick up the grappling hook, the harbinger of Wu’s greatest woes going forward. In stark contrast to the intelligently measured combat encounters, the platforming sections between them are – take it from a platforming fan – absolutely broken. It’s tough to put into words exactly what is so frustrating about a grappling hook mechanic as stiff as the one featured here. You use the control stick to aim it, but the system often just decides your shot didn’t connect, even when it clearly did. Meanwhile, the level design demands precision that you are simply not given the tools to deliver on a consistent basis. Every shot is a slot machine, every fall removes health, and every platform segment becomes a tribulation. As the game continues on, these sections do reach a plateau in frequency where you’re spending more time locked in satisfying battle, a caveat which keeps this enormous detriment from outright ruining the whole experience.
Wow, that was ugly. However, at least at a distance, the game itself isn’t. Hidden Dragon Legend uses the lighting prowess of Unreal Engine 4 to deliver some gorgeous moonlit vistas, shining down on wet bamboo forests and the mucky puddles synonymous with the civilizations of yesteryear. When you sit down and take control of Lu, you can almost feel the cool breeze of the outdoors, and smell the dank caves inhabited by the nefarious Organization. Things get considerably more problematic when the camera zooms in for cutscenes, with clipping issues and wooden animations complemented by equally wooden voice acting. This is forgivable for an indie title, but what’s less acceptable is the quality lapses you’ll experience during gameplay. The framerate, for instance, has this strange habit of stuttering whenever you dodge for the first time in a given enemy encounter. And while the environments provide a nice sense of immersion, the swords and shields clang with compression so bad you’ll swear they’re coming from a Game Boy speaker.
Hidden Dragon Legend’s cover art should appear in any search engine’s results for “mixed bag.” The combat it offers is challenging and genuinely fun, but the traversal that comes between it is far too often broken and unfair. As you run through Imperial China, you’ll be enchanted by the mood, only to be brought right back out by stiff cutscenes and terribly compressed weapon sounds. Upon reflection, I truly believe that MegaFun Games put real passion into this project, though; even the elements that don't work are laid out in a way where they'd be very enjoyable if they did. It's just a shame that the finished project is so deeply flawed.