We all know the lies they taught us in school, right? Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492? Well, it turns out it wasn’t as simple as all that. In order to clear the path and traverse that big blue ocean safely, there was a greater conspiracy involving pirates, government officials, alchemists and even mermaids. Fleets of ships were sent to their doom and fought off creatures you won’t find in any school textbook. At least that’s what Here Be Dragons from Red Zero Games would have us believe.
Here Be Dragons is a turn based combat game with tabletop-style dice rolls and some very minor RPG mechanics. At the start of each chapter you’ll have a small story segment setting up the context of the chapter, and then head out to see to fight off dangerous monsters or whatever threats are in your way. Most chapters put you in control of a different captain from the pious Captain Preacher to the musically inclined Captain Singer. They're often sent out on a mission from the Chancellor, and in several cases things don't end up working out well for them by the end of the three or four ship battles they go through.
The combat system is fairly dense and interesting and reminds me a lot of a tabletop game. At the start of each round, a cherub will spit out dice blocks equal to the number of total combatants on both sides of the field. Whoever has initiative gets to choose their dice first and apply it to their actions. Actions require a specific number range in order to activate, and some take multiple dice so you may need a few turns to get what you need. For example, some actions will heal your ship a certain amount if you attach a die that ranges from 1-3. Or some will do damage if you attach a 4-6 die, and some will even do bonus damage if it’s specifically a 6.
One bit of strategy that I really like is if you’re unable to assign a die to every fighter on your side, they explode and all your units take one damage per unused die. This resulted in several moments where I could choose a one or a two, but I knew my opponent needed the two, so I’d take that and force them to take the damage. However, a one will always offer you a small heal, so there is a bit of sacrifice versus reward to take into consideration. I did enjoy this.
Enemies in this game can be pretty tough, and their abilities are generally a lot tougher than yours, but an ace up your sleeve is the errata system. By collecting ink bottles that spawn on the map throughout battle, you can activate special effects like raising or lowering the result of a single die, or executing a free action on one of your ships. These are nice, but you've really got to be smart about what you use, as ink bottles aren't very common. However, if you lose enough, the game does offer you the chance to switch to an easy mode that provides more ink bottles. I am always a fan of when games provide a bit of leeway to struggling players, even if you end up not wanting to use it.
The system of Here Be Dragons actually does seem like it would be a pretty fun two player game to play with a friend going head to head, but as a video game it’s pretty boring. Rounds feel like they drag on forever, with total battles feeling even longer and there’s no engaging music or anything to help keep it exciting. I was playing one battle where the only fighters remaining were one ship on my side and a shark on the enemy side, but both of us were able to heal the amount of damage we were doing to each other, so after about six rounds of virtually no progress being made on either side, I just restarted the match. Thankfully the game does have a useful restart option from the pause menu. Another minor complaint I have are the controls used to select stuff. The left joystick primarily lets you cycle through your skills, but to select the die you want to use, or which target you want to aim at, you actually use the shoulder buttons. This isn't gamebreaking or anything, but it's something that never felt quite right to me while I was playing.
The story of Here Be Dragons is a bit of a tricky one. It tries to be a comedy, but I’ll be honest it never really made me laugh. Most of the characters just have one or two bits that they repeat ad nauseam like the captain who talks to his dead parrot or Blackbeard who is totally a real man with a real beard and not at all a woman wearing a fake beard. The game is also overly reliant on reference humor but doesn’t really seem to understand what can make a reference funny. In one of the early chapters, a character just quotes Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You know, the famous line “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!” but there’s no clever context to have the line, nor is the character some homage to the film. They just used the line and it feels wildly out of place, serving no purpose other than to remind players that quote exists. That’s not even the only Holy Grail reference, as there’s a ship later in the game that just has a move called “Ni! Ni! Ni!” but again, there’s no set-up or context for this reference being there. Here Be Dragons is loaded with moments like this, and I personally didn’t enjoy its style of humor, but I know that explaining why comedy doesn’t work isn’t an easy task, and some people out there may enjoy what it brings to the table.
The highlight of the game is definitely in its visuals. I’m a huge fan of the nautical cartography aesthetic, and I think for the most part the game pulls this off really well. The boats and monster designs look really nice. As for the human character portraits you see during cutscenes, I found them to be a bit less enjoyable. I didn’t really think they blended well with the established visual theme, but since most of the game takes place on the battlefield, I can’t say this took away too much.
There’s also a lot of variety in the monsters themselves, and nearly every single one of them feels unique and has their own challenges for overcoming them. There are mermaids that can seduce you to take away your actions, giant snots (yes, that’s where they’re called) that can poison you, and even Hydras with regeneration abilities.
Unfortunately a problem I have with the game is I never really feel like I am in control of the strategy to fight these enemies. Nearly every chapter has you in control of a different captain with their own pair of ships you’ll bring into battle. The skills these ships have are pre-determined so it’s less about putting together your own tactics as it is winning using the strategy that they gave you. I’d have liked it a lot better if I got to choose which two ships I wanted to bring. Maybe for this particular fight I’d be willing to sacrifice healing abilities in favor of much more damage, or take some physically weaker ships with higher defenses.
At the end of the day, I can’t say I was a big fan of Here Be Dragons. It’s a comedy that never really made me laugh, and I found the combat sections to be drawn out, sometimes frustrating, and overall just not very fun. I think there was a lot of potential for a good game here as most of the things in Here Be Dragons are things that I enjoy. I like comedy, nautical aesthetics, turn based combat, and tabletop games. I think the fact that this game has all of those ingredients but I still walked away not enjoying it is what made it especially disappointing for me. At the end of the day, I was pretty happy to get off of this ship before it sank.
John reviewed Here Be Dragons on the Nintendo Switch with a copy provided by the developer. The game is also available on Steam.