While I typically prefer games with a focus on single player, it is undeniable that some games just don't benefit from that, and Dragons of Elanthia is one of those cases. Instead of a generic fantasy storyline with plot devices you've seen a hundred times, Elanthia focuses squarely on the multiplayer. With plans to offer everything from intimate 4v4 matches up to chaotic 16v16 mayhem, Elanthia will pit you and your team, armed with only your dragons and riders, and their respective abilities, against a host of enemies in a handful of familiar gameplay formats.
What Elanthia is trying to do is incorporate your favorite arena-esque elements of PVP combat with everyone's favorite fantasy creature, giving you total control over your very own mounted dragon. It's not entirely novel, but it's rare enough that it still warrants a close look.
Starting out with Dragons of Elanthia, you'll select your dragon and rider combination. At PAX, there were six riders and five dragons, offering a plethora of options which you can mix and match to suit your taste. Riders range from the Pirate, with a short-range shotgun ability, to the Mage with a longer range, target-seeking magic missiles. Dragons on offer included a fire-breathing dragon, the Faerie Dragon, with its hover ability, and the Skeletal Dragon, which seems like the perfect match for the Lich rider class. By customizing your combination, you can offer long-range support, short-range assault capabilities, or a jack of all trades approach, with some short range and some long range abilities. There are healers available in the rider selection, and some particularly compelling AOE abilities from the dragons themselves, like an aerial burst, which scatters nearby enemies.
Once I got into the game, the first thing that struck me was that the flight controls were a bit of a challenge to get the hang of. Pitching up and down, banking left and right, and flapping your wings for throttle all made navigating quite a challenge to start. There are plans for a flight tutorial, which should help ease players into handling their dragons more gracefully, but even without that luxury, it only took about 10 minutes to get a feel for how to operate my Fire Dragon mount. It got even easier when I switched to the Faerie Dragon, which can hover in place, allowing you the necessary moment to orient yourself and get back into the action.
One of the more interesting aspects of Dragons of Elanthia is the free-to-play nature of the game. They aren't planning to monetize the riders or dragons, rather they'll sell single artifacts and artifact booster packs, which have minor effects like experience bonuses, as well as aesthetic options like dragon skins and rider outfits. Most of the artifacts can be collected simply by playing the game, but there are some exclusive to microtransactions, like the experience boost artifact. The most intriguing aspect of artifacts, however, is that they can change hands. When you down an enemy drake, you might collect whatever artifact they're carrying. Artifacts are very much still a work in progress, and I didn't really get to see them in action, but from the discussion I had with the folks behind the game, it seems like a great way to allow for microtransactions, without turning the game into a play to win situation.
In addition to the generally amazing dragon-based aerial combat, there's an experience-based progression system to help you power up your dragon and rider, which impacts each independently. As you play, you'll gain experience for damage dealt, healing done, and objectives accomplished, which will count towards both dragon and rider. Each character levels up independently, though, so if you're not an alt person, you will probably want to find one combination that really works for you, and ride that all the way to the top. These won't be game-changing benefits, however, as they want to keep the playing field relatively even. One example given was that an ability that hits three targets might hit four targets once you've leveled up to a certain point. Effective, but not game breaking.
While Dragons of Elanthia is a particularly cool concept, at the end of the day, this is not necessarily a game you'd want to pay $60 for. Fortunately for everybody that's ever had dreams of riding a dragon into a large-scale battle, Elanthia is free to play, with largely aesthetics-oriented microtransactions. Sound like your cup of tea? Read more about it at the official site.
Dragons of Elanthia is slated for a late 2013 release on PC and Mac.