Posted by Joseph Lindell.
First posted on 25 February 2014. Last updated on 25 February 2014.
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What secrets does the Cave of Shifting Dreams hold?
The Soptus Ecliptus are desert nomads, but they prefer to camp near an oasis.
In the land of shape-shifters, even the rocks and trees are not what they seem.
The Butterfly King rules the Fae.
The castle courtyard is largely deserted.

The game is available at GOG.

MicroProse made only a few adventure games. Yet apparently, the developer was quite pleased with its 1994 release of Dragonsphere. In the manual for the game, the development team proudly proclaimed that, "With Dragonsphere, we tried to create a fantasy AGA (Animated Graphic Adventure) with a plot and puzzles more intricate and involved than that of any AGA ever written."

For a game associated with such a bold claim, Dragonsphere begins unremarkably. The player controls Callash, the newly crowned king of Gran Callahach. Years ago, the former king of Gran Callahach and the wizard Ner-Tom imprisoned the dread sorcerer Sanwe in a magical dome in order to ward off his evil attacks upon the kingdom. Ner-Tom created the Dragonsphere, a crystal globe that showed the strength remaining in the spell holding Sanwe. As long as the Dragonsphere remained whole, Sanwe would remain trapped. When the game begins, the old king is dead, and Ner-Tom has mysteriously disappeared. The Dragonsphere has begun to crack, and Callash must journey to seek help from the other races in his kingdom—the faeries, the shape-shifters, and the mysterious Soptus Ecliptus—if he is to successfully confront Sanwe at his tower.

The backstory for Dragonsphere is clichéd and not well presented in the game's confusing introduction. However, the game slowly improves, drawing the player into an increasingly more complex narrative. From its start as a simple chronicle of a good king versus an evil sorcerer, the game soon morphs into a tale of political intrigue and racial prejudice. A surprising plot twist toward the middle of the game unveils a central moral dilemma and further takes the story in a much more compelling direction. Unlike other adventure games with promising and inventive premises that disappointingly fizzle out, Dragonsphere remains strong to the end, improving as it progresses. It is the story in Dragonsphere that redeems the game and makes it enjoyable to play.

Other elements of Dragonsphere are a mixed bag. Although the plot is clever, the characters are fairly shallow. While solid enough to move the plot along, they simply lack depth. For example, the fairies are stereotypical devilish pixies of immense magical abilities. The nomadic Soptus Ecliptus are an archetype of isolated desert dwellers. Their king, a decadent dice-rolling monarch, is hard to take seriously. Overall, some of the game world looks and feels derivative. Moreover, the voice acting (available in the CD-ROM version and not the Floppy Disk version of the game) is close to awful—hollow and wooden—but somehow it remains serviceable. The dialog is passably written but never spectacular.

The interface in Dragonsphere retains some vestigial ties to a text based parser. In the "easy" interface mode, the player builds a command by selecting from a verb list that appears near the bottom of the screen and then clicking on hotspots on the screen or on inventory items. Right-clicking on an item examines it. The cursor changes to a "go" icon when it is possible to move to a different location. In the "standard" interface mode, the controls are the same, but there are no hotspots. The player simply clicks on whatever appears relevant to reveal whether or not it can be interacted with. The game also has 2 difficulty levels—"novice" and "challenging". When playing at the higher difficulty level, it is much simpler to miss vital clues that emerge from conversations with other characters. As a throwback to classic interactive fiction or adventure games, the player can collect treasures scattered throughout the kingdom. In fact, the player's final score depends partly on the number of treasures collected. However, the treasures and the score are not integral to the primary story.

The graphics in Dragonsphere are disappointing, even for a game of its vintage. The backgrounds are colorful but blurry. The characters are heavily pixelated, which leaves their faces entirely indistinct. Nevertheless, the characters' actions are quite well animated. The game's graphical shortcomings are compounded by the limited textual descriptions that accompany many of the game's locations. The MIDI music is more repetitive than epic, though the main theme is fairly strong.

The puzzles in Dragonsphere, on the other hand, are intuitive and inventive. Among the best puzzles in the game is a clever sequence in which the player must piece together parts of the Soptus Ecliptus language from conversations with various characters. This puzzle integrates seamlessly into the story and is very enjoyable to solve. Yet, many of the puzzles in the game are quite difficult and require serious thought. Additionally, the game tries to steer clear of the repetitive puzzles that are prevalent in other adventures—those that involve finding keys for locked doors and quests in which the player must fetch some item for a character before that character will agree to help. Although there is no traditional maze puzzle, there is a maze substitute that ends up being worse. It is a logic puzzle near the very beginning of the game, which requires the player to choose a particular fairy sprite from a large number of fast-moving sprites, and to choose that sprite only when it has cycled to a particular color. Further, the player can only determine the correct sprite based on the advice of the other sprites, advice which is incomplete and may not be truthful. Unlike the other puzzles in the game, this puzzle is frustratingly difficult to solve, as it is too dependent on manual dexterity and extreme patience.

The player can die in the game. However, death is not permanent. Rather, the game automatically rewinds the player to the moment just before death occurs, which is never very far back.

The game was notable for being created by MicroProse using the proprietary MicroProse Adventure Development System (MADS). It was also the last game to be developed with this engine, before it was abandoned by MicroProse and subsequently sold to Sanctuary Woods.

Dragonsphere is weighed down by some derivative fantasy elements and subpar production design. Yet, it remarkably rises above its shortcomings with a solid, well written plot and creative puzzles. In all, the game lives up to the promise of its developer of delivering an engaging fantasy adventure, even if it is not the most intricate or involved ever written.

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