Mike Russo's Spring Thing 2024 Reviews

Dragon of Steelthorne, by Vance Chance

I had some trepidation going into Dragon of Steelthorne, born of my previous experience with a fantasy-themed ChoiceScript game – in 2023 IFComp entry One Knight Stand (colon part one colon the beginning of the end), the character-creation process takes the better part of an hour, and requires you to set such minutiae as the color of your favorite mug – so I was pleasantly surprised to see that here it was just a matter of picking a gender, picking a name (entertainingly, “Maurice” was one of the default options; I couldn’t resist), and choosing your class among fighter, cleric, and… engineer?

What distinguishes this mostly-generic fantasy realm, you see, is that it’s a little bit steampunk – the protagonist is a military commander in an empire that’s mastered construction of armored landships, and is using them as the backbone of a campaign of expansion. With a city-management minigame that kicks off once you establish a new base, a combat system where you leverage your previously-generated resources and manpower to win battles, and the usual Choice of Games coterie of friends and advisors with whom to curry favor, Dragon of Steelthorne would risk feeling overstuffed but for its pacing, which whisks you to the next bit of the plot whenever things start to drag. It’s all well enough executed, but bland prose and an even blander story, which doesn’t execute well-worn tropes so much as it just gestures at them, mean that the game didn’t leave much of an impression on me.

The deadly flaw of Dragon of Steelthorne is that it rarely gets specific. Here, for example, is the description of your character’s travel to the abandoned city they’re tasked with recolonizing for the empire:

Time seems to fly as you pass a seemingly endless stretch of flora and fauna, with day rapidly turning to night, night to day, and day to night again.

A bit later on, you get a choice of spending time building your relationship with one of your advisors. I picked Chang, a mercenary from the awkwardly-Asian-themed empire next door – they’re obsessed with honor, have a Great Wall, and their emperor has as one of his titles “Mandate of Heaven”, it’d risk coming across slightly offensive but for the fact that the “western” empire is a similar deracinated hodge-podge of signifiers. Anyway unlike some of the other characters, who include other officers you’ve been serving with for a long time as well as your sister, Chang is a stranger, and from an alien culture, so surely this would be an opportunity for an interesting exchange of views and getting to know each other better? Nah:

Chang initially seems surprised when you strike up a conversation with him. Nevertheless, he spends the afternoon talking about his adventures, while pointing out interesting bits of scenery every now and then. As evening finally approaches, he thanks you earnestly for your company before heading down.

In fairness, Chang does at least have a tragic backstory, which he parcels out over further meetings; most of the rest of the crew lack that, coming across as mildly-flavored bowls of oatmeal, ranging from a plucky servant to a reckless commander. The only one of your group who struck me as an actual character is your sister, who’s lazy, violent, and treacherous (this is of course the personality type that feudal aristocracies actually produce, of course, so kudos for accuracy there).

I also found myself not very engaged by the two minigames. In both city management and combat, you’re given incomplete information about your capabilities – you know the cost of new buildings and which stats they’ll increase, but not by how much, and you’re likewise given numbers of the different troop types, but their relative strength is only rendered in qualitative terms, and it’s not clear whether there’s any rock/paper/scissors effects impacting their effectiveness. This means that they’re not very satisfying as abstract games – I felt like I was making decisions based on insufficient mechanical information. That could have been an intentional choice, forcing the player to read carefully and base their decisions on narrative factors rather than openly-disclosed statistics, but if that’s meant to be the case I found the game’s loose allegiance to realism undermined the effect. Like, in the tutorial combat, I was faced with a horde of cavalry, so I sensibly decided to counter with my pikemen; to my horror, I read that rather than setting themselves against the charge, instead they decided to try to chase down the horsemen, and then to my greater horror I read that this actually wound up working okay.

Fortunately, then, these strategy elements wind up being so-much opt-in busywork – all of the fights are easily avoidable, and in fact in all but one case it was obvious that peace was the far better option, so the only reason to engage with the combat is if you’re role-playing as a short-sighted hothead. And since as far as I can tell the only narrative impact of the city-builder stuff is how many troops you get, the stakes are low there too (admittedly, I was playing on the Easy difficulty; things might get trickier at the harder level, but new players are strongly pushed to avoid that one).

Also on the plus side, while I found the gameplay and the characters somewhat soporific, the core narrative, while likewise feeling quite generic, has some moments of excitement and twists and turns that, while tropey, land reasonably well. To its credit, it avoids the post-Game of Thrones thing of having war crimes be edgy and cool; at one point, a character violates the laws of war and it’s clearly a mistake, generating disquiet and a loss of trust from previously-allied characters. That sets up the finale, where I found the momentum faltered at last; the narrative suggested that I’d have a bunch of options, including allying with various factions or attempting different stratagems, but in the event I could only kowtow to the bad guy or flee ignominiously. I suspect this might have been because my approach to relationship-building was to spread out my attention and shore up weakness – I tried to spend more time with people I was afraid would backstab me – so I never triggered “high relationship” with anyone, which I think cut me off from those previewed options. As a result, I missed out on the possibility of a stirring conclusion that tied things together; my playthrough of Dragon of Steelthorne mostly just petered out, which I guess is of a piece with the rest of it.

For all that, I should say that for someone who likes generic fantasy more than I do, or who’s better versed in the CoG house style, this review might be better seen as praising with faint damnation than damning with faint praise; the lack of specificity and straightforward gameplay do make the game go down easy, and it isn’t afraid to get to the point, with most decisions feeling like they have clear, quick impact (again, it’s much better on this front than One Knight Stand!) But even by those standards I think Dragon of Steelthorne would have improved by a more distinctive prose style, more memorable characters, more robust gameplay, and a little more creativity and willingness to get weird or difficult.