Overall Score 79%
One day, Mila is outside in the park, looking for her cat that had run away. She finds him curled up asleep on an old oriental styled fountain, and also picks up a mysterious amulet along the way. Not thinking too much about it, and after showing it to her old grandfather, she casts it aside and falls asleep herself, only to awaken in China in a strange parallel world. Startled by an wise man in a traditional old hat, she listens in total disbelief as the stranger welcomes her as the descendant of a line of Dragon Sentinels, and that some dragons need her help after being bound to the Earth. The only known way to break these bonds is by creating Dragon Portals by destroying sets of three or more Dragon Orbs. As the conversation draws on, the awful truth dawns on Mila that she is not in a mystical world of adventure and suspense, but is instead trapped inside the afterthought of a plot that has been tacked onto yet another insidious marble popping puzzle game. Waves of dread and angst flow through her as she realises that in order to return to her own life, she'll have to battle through 80 levels of identical mouse-button mashing gameplay; popping hundreds of thousands of marbles until she sees them even after closing her eyes and wishing it were all a sick, sick dream.
Ok, so perhaps I am being a little harsh on Dragon Portals. In fairness, it is the second best marble popper that I have seen, only slightly behind “StoneLoops! Of Jurassica” in terms of presentation and polish. It's a game that is extremely easy to pick up and play in either short bursts or over the course of an hour or so. The gameplay is very repetitive, but by nature, most marble poppers are. I guess that's what endears them to their fans. For testing, I have played over half the adventure mode levels in 6 stints of around 20 minutes. I personally tend to lose enthusiasm for the game after that and need to take a break before coming back to it later.
The orbs are attached to each of multiple dragons that fly in formation over various landscapes that change according to the level set. By clicking orbs with the mouse button, the player can drop them so that groups of three or more orbs are formed in either the line from which the orb was dropped, or the line into which it was dropped. As orbs are cleared, replacements slide in from the tail end of the dragons towards the head. The dragons need to be kept aloft until such time as a progress meter on each level has been filled (by matching orbs). Each successive match gives the dragons extra loft, and seconds spent fruitlessly searching for that next match will see the dragons in a descent that might ultimately result in them crashing into the Earth and ending the level in defeat for the player. Being able to make combos and chain multiple orb pops gives extra lift according to the complexity of the combo.
There are some great powerups that save the game from mediocrity. Some are very oriental in theme, and others are staples of the genre, but they all seem useful at times. Between the fireworks, meteors, lightning strikes and some clever passive modifiers (such as the option to sacrifice one dragon to save the rest for a short period of time), there are at least a few overall strategic choices for the player. This stems from the fact that only one user selected powerup is available from those that are currently unlocked in each of 3 categories, for a total of 3 active powerups in each level. Working out which ones work well with each other is quite fun. Every 5 stages or so, there is an optional mini-game that requires the player to take snapshots of freed dragons in flight, which is quite simplistic but still a bit of fun and a nice break from the core gameplay.
There are three game modes that play almost identically. The adventure mode is probably the one that will take most of the player's time. In this mode you clear 80 levels, progressing along a path and unlocking all the various world locations on the way. The other two modes are both seem slight variants of the adventure mode, where the player strives to gain 5 stars (this, in effect, simply replaces the progress bar) in a survival round type scenario. There are also a few meta-game achievements that can be unlocked along the way – a nice feature to include in games such as this one.
Dragon Portals looks quite beautiful with its hand drawn backgrounds and characters and some great graphical effects and animations. Sounds are crisp and clear, synchronised perfectly to the actions on-screen, and varied enough that they don't become annoying. The simple options menu allows the player to adjust volume settings of the sound effects and music independently. There is multi-profile support so that each user of the PC can have their own progress tracked and compared.
It's difficult for me to fault Dragon Portals on a number of levels. Especially in terms of presentation value, the game excels. As if the game weren't accessible enough, an integrated tutorial will step new users through all the game concepts as they are introduced. Seriously though, the marble popper is a really tired genre and although Dragon Portals ran virtually bug free for me, and was a treat to both the eyes and ears for a short time, the lasting appeal of this title is dubious. Simplistic gameplay, severe repetition, and longevity issues will unfortunately be reflected in the overall score.
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