Dragon's Wake

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Brainbox Software for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2015.
Dragon’s Wake stars a newly-hatched dragon on a grand – and occasionally tragic – adventure. New to the world, the dragon spends some time exploring the cave surrounding his nest and tests out his wings… eventually leading to the discovery of his mother who lies dead near the cave entrance. Despite the game’s overall cutesy style, the large blue dragon is lying in a pool of her own blood with arrows sticking out of her back.

Soon, the knight who killed the mother dragon enters the cave, but the hatchling has no offensive abilities and must instead flee as the knight fires arrows in his direction. Leaving the cave, the dragon encounters a lizard man wearing a red scarf. The man drops food in front of the dragon, and eating it restores some of his health. Eventually the lizard man coaxes the dragon back to his village.

There is no text in the game, but there is plenty of story, which is relayed in many ways, much of which is understood by observing the actions of the lizard men and their enemies, the goblins. The player also discovers a number of cave paintings, the earliest of which show brown humanoid figures (goblins) hunting rabbits with spears and then roasting them on a spit… but later paintings show them hunting green figures (lizard men) and roasting them instead.

In addition, there are a handful of large paintings hanging in the background, most of which depict the dragons as fearsome beasts that kill people and burn their cities. However, the lizard men have a number of dragon statues in their village, suggesting a kinship between the people and the dragons which are feared by others. Finally, there are a number of interstitial illustrations – which appear to be children’s drawings – depicting the major events of the game.

The game is divided fairly evenly between navigation, combat, and furthering the narrative. In the opening areas, the player is tasked with learning the controls, which are quite unusual compared to other action-platforming games. The dragon moves very slowly, but jumping while moving causes him to fly at a high speed. These quick changes in speed make precision platforming difficult, as it’s hard to make small adjustments, but this does allow for some long range glides.

At the start of the game, the dragon can flap its wings a single time, which is done by pressing the JUMP button while aloft. The timing of this button press is very important, but it’s also quite different than the genre-standard double jump. Rather than pressing JUMP at the apex of the leap, the player must allow the dragon to glide for a second and then press JUMP, which bumps the dragon upward significantly and greatly increases its range. Rows of bioluminescent mushrooms appear on cave walls to indicate the proper timing, and getting the timing right is indicated by a small burst of light beneath the dragon.

Once the dragon flaps its wings, it must land before it can flap again, as indicated by a pair of wings on the HUD at the bottom of the screen. By killing small flying lizards, the dragon gains additional wings, adding another flap with each pickup, and allowing for some extremely long flights and the ability to mount high platforms. In all, the dragon can get up to five flaps, but only the first three are required in order to complete the game. Again, the proper timing is needed in order to get enough lift, but a small bump in height is granted even if the player fails to get the timing right.

Other animals alter the dragon’s stats as well, including a flaming deer and some kind of red six-armed primate. Killing and eating a fire deer grants the dragon the ability to breathe fire, and the more of these deer that are killed, the longer the dragon can sustain its flames before needing to recharge (which occurs somewhat slowly). The player can double-tap the FLAME button to shoot a fireball across the screen, which uses up one unit on the fire meter, or he can hold down the button for a constant barrage of flames with a sizeable range. In addition, the player can press UP or DOWN to alter the path of the flames, swinging them around as if he were wielding a flamethrower.

Lastly, killing and eating red primates grants the dragon additional health. The dragon begins the game with five units but this can eventually be upgraded to a maximum of 19. Sometimes, increasing the dragon’s health meter will cause it to fall asleep for a moment, after which it increases in size slightly. All health upgrades are optional, but the red primates are generally easy to find, with only a couple to be found off the beaten path, meaning that the player can upgrade the health meter very quickly.

Killing and consuming other woodland creatures allows the dragon to regain a single unit of health. These creatures come in the form of rats, bats, lizards, bunnies, snakes, giant spiders, some kind of flying jellyfish thing, and even a jackalope. Some of these creatures can cause harm to the dragon, while others may be eaten freely. In the early going, before earning the ability to shoot flames, killing other animals is more difficult, as the dragon must bite them instead of killing them with fire.

Later levels pit the player against undead creatures and spirits, which may be killed but offer no sustenance to the dragon. As such, it’s harder for the dragon to regain health, and he must resort to scouring lower areas to feed on rats in order to sustain himself. However, the player has infinite continues, and getting killed returns him to the most recent screen transition with a full health meter, making the penalty for failure quite low.

Once you reach the village of the lizard men, you are guided toward another cave, this one containing the body of a dead green dragon – which appears to have been killed by the same knight – along with a green dragon egg. The villagers wait behind as you navigate the environment, eventually reaching the egg, which the lizard men carry back to the village. However, things go south quickly, as the village comes under attack by a band of goblins.

You help the villagers fight back the assault, and then charge off into the forest yourself to kill more of them. You trace them back to their home village where you have the option of burning their homes with your flaming breath, and you also take on the goblin chief in a simple boss encounter. But when you return to the village of the lizard men, you find it in flames as well, and the people are abandoning the town, carrying the egg with them.

Again, there is no written story, but there is a great deal going on in terms of the narrative. The dragon seems to be the last hope for the lizard men, who have been hunted and killed, and when they leave the safety of their village behind, the dragon goes along to protect them. From here, there are some actions the player can take to alter the outcome of certain events, leading to an alternate ending… and the path to the bad ending is surprisingly tragic.

There are even some moral decisions that the player can make that don’t affect the outcome of the game but simply let the player decide what kind of dragon he wants to be, such as the decision to burn the goblin village, and a later scene where the dragon encounters a trio of frightened goblins who have no means of escape. The player may continue on and leave them be, or charge after them, killing them and eating their bodies.

A few things aren’t explained to the player, including the fact that the dragon can unleash a long-range fireball when the player double-taps the button. There are also certain blocks that the dragon can cause to fall by smashing down on them (the same move destroys breakable walls), but this is not explained and the player must be precisely positioned in order for it to work, potentially leading players into thinking that they have become stuck. Additionally, it’s possible to get the lizard men to ride on the dragon’s back by walking up to one of them and pressing DOWN. At no point is this ability or its advantages/disadvantages explained to the player, although the dragon’s jump height is greatly reduced when carrying a rider.

Aesthetically, the game is very simple, with plain block-based environments and the occasional set piece, such as a hanging painting or large mushrooms. Level designs are also quite simple, with only a few short areas leading off the main path, making it easy for most players to discover all of the optional pickups on their first attempt. The game has a low difficulty and can be completed in one or two sittings.

Dragon’s Wake was developed by Stephen Ashby under his Brainbox Software label, based in Canberra, Australia, with music and sound by Kieran Roberts, and interstitial illustrations by Christa and Glenn Rorlach. The studio is also responsible for a browser-based online arena shooter entitled Abstraction. Stephen previously worked at 2K Australia on the development of Bioshock 2 and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified.