What Makes a Game’s Dragon Fights Great?

What makes for the perfect dragon fight in RPGs? Timing! Read how some games manage to get the arrival of dragons so right and others get it so wrong. There is a certain mystique inherent to the dragon and it should never go wasted as just another monster.

What Makes a Game’s Dragon Fights Great?When it comes to iconic fantastical creatures, the dragon reigns supreme. Smaug, Viserion and Orm Embar manage to cross the divide between incredible spectacle and great character. In video games, the dragon fight is a big deal and almost a must for fantasy RPGs.

However, not all dragon fights are handled the same way. When your character is supposed to get stronger throughout the game a dragon can end up weaker than a bandit in some RPG’s. Leaving a dragon as just another monster can really do a disservice to such a storied creature. One thing that really makes a difference in this regard is the timing of when you first slay a dragon.

Let’s take a look at some games that get dragons right and some that do not, to see what works.

Skyrim: hit and miss

The dragon fights of Skyrim might well be the most iconic and immersive in all of gaming, but what about their timing? The fights themselves are long and epic, if not particularly inspired gameplay-wise. The first encounter with Alduin to kick off the game is truly awesome. The escape from Helgen really sets the returning dragons up as a true threat. Later, even the first true dragon fight feels special with everyone making a huge deal of it revealing your status as Dragonborn. 

Almost every fight afterwards, however, feels a little lame. Even the Dragonborn should have a little more difficulty with a dragon fight when a troll causes such difficulty, the timing just seems off. There are high points such as the skeleton dragon and the plot significance of Paarthurnax. Largely, however, the average dragon fight timing just ends up feeling annoying. There are far too many of them and the sense of wonder is therefore completely diluted. When you see an awesome dragon flying down and just think ‘again’ or ‘can’t I just get on with it!?’ you know something is wrong.

Tactics Ogre (and other strategy games): Far too common

I love Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. I truly feel it is the most underrated game ever made. What I dislike about it, however, is that it completely wastes its dragons. The way tactics games can set and break particular rules to evoke wonder from the player when faced with exceptional units is a great strength. But Tactics Ogre‘s dragons don’t even take up multiple squares! Tactics Ogre isn’t even the only strategy game that wastes dragons, but it is one that sticks out as it is so egregious. They are just treated as another unit, as strong as any old warrior. They are almost as common too, relegated to just another monster. I want more respect put on dragons’ names!    

This creature from the game's art just has so much more presence than is displayed in-game

This creature from the game’s art just has so much more presence than is displayed in-game

Baldur’s Gate: No Dragons (and that’s a good thing!)

It might seem strange to make a Dungeons and Dragons game with no dragon fights, but that’s what Baldur’s Gate did. As the self-styled ‘chief good dragon fight timing advocate’, you might be surprised I like this. What makes this special is that you then carry your character over to Baldur’s Gate 2. In the sequel, your character is higher level and a more experienced adventurer. This means (you guessed it) it’s the perfect timing for a dragon fight. The developers even felt the need to ‘zoom out’ the latter game’s isometric view to properly capture the scale of Baldur’s Gate 2’s dragons. 

Build up, scale and the relative difficulty of dragon fights are all big pluses in my rubric. Spreading these things across 2 games scores extra high. Even within Baldur’s Gate 2 dragon fights are very late and come after previous dragon encounters that set up their might.

This is not even to mention the raw grandeur of the dragons on the screen. Baldur’s Gate‘s have a presence that is likely impossible to achieve outside the game’s isometric perspective. The only downside is that the actual fights leave a lot to the imagination, with little in the way of dynamic animation. Of course, this is a necessary result of the game’s age, but it is still evident when compared to modern games.

Nothing better for promo purposes than a dragon

Nothing better for promo purposes than a dragon

Dragon’s Dogma: The mother of all dragon fights

What better timing can a dragon fight have than the climax of the story. It only makes sense that the dragon, the coolest of the creatures, represents the final boss. This is true of a number of games, including on this list. What elevates Dragon’s Dogma, is that the dragon bookends the game and dragons are absent outside these fights. At the very start of the game’s central story, the dragon easily defeats the hero and steals your heart (literally).

As you pursue the dragon and your heart throughout the game you discover the secrets of previous challengers to his might. I won’t spoil these, but they only add to the tension. When all this blows off in one of the best boss fights in gaming, you are left feeling no dragon fight could ever live up to what you just experienced. Across multiple distinct stages, and with ample use of the monster climbing mechanic, the final dragon fight feels completely distinct from any encounter in the game. Maybe it could be bettered in the much-discussed sequel, but we will have to wait and see.

Cutting the prologue off just before the dragon fight is inspired timing for building mystery

Cutting the prologue off just before the dragon fight is inspired timing for building mystery

Skyrim Video by Pertinax

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