Dragon Audit review
Have you ever wondered how the dragon guarding the tower must feel? Knights coming by all the time to do battle. No friends. Only an ungrateful human princess for company. Young Ayraw, half-human, half-dragon, doesn’t have to wonder – she lives it in a faraway castle out in the wilderness. Elsewhere, an auditor named George may be privileged to live with his fellow fully human beings inside the safety of the city of Squelch, but circumstances have made his life just as isolated as hers. Such are their lots to begin Archive Entertainment’s Dragon Audit, a short, sweet and funny tale of two strangers coming together to form an entirely unlikely connection. While it’s a touch rough around the edges, it more than makes up for it by having a lot of heart.
Proceedings open with Ayraw fantasizing about being a princess in her own right and looking forward to the day that a gallant knight might come to rescue her in romantic fashion. Her daydreams are interrupted by Metra, an actual princess who was sent to the castle long ago by her father to be guarded by Ayraw from undisclosed dangers. Unfortunately for the young dragon, Metra is vain and self-entitled. “I’m the beautiful princess and you’re the dumb monster,” she says to Ayraw. Right from the off, Ayraw is set up as a character whose plight you’ll surely sympathize with.
Meanwhile, in the walled city of Squelch, George wakes up preparing for another day in the office. Once a hotshot up-and-coming auditor, after a serious incident involving a totally different dragon, George was kicked out of his guild and now leads a life of quiet desperation. Guilds are everything in Squelch, conferring social status and acting as surrogate families. Those who are guildless are discriminated against in various ways. But all of that seems about to change for George when he receives an assignment – and a tank – to go beyond the safety of the city walls to conduct an audit on Ayraw, who has been remiss in paying her taxes. If George succeeds, his past sins will be forgiven and he will be welcomed back to his guild with open arms. If he fails, he’s likely to be turned to a smoking stack of ash by the fearsome dragon awaiting him.
The world of Dragon Audit is a fascinating one, providing commentary – though never in too heavy-handed a way – on conformity, peer pressure, and fear of “the other.” As much as the people of Squelch consider Ayraw (and anyone imbued with magical abilities) a monster, they are nevertheless reliant on such people. Ayraw serves as the guardian of Squelch, warding off other threats from the wilderness. Despite being their protector, however, she is ostracized by human city folk, a prejudice that George shares when he first reaches her castle to conduct his audit. He even has to take time to psych himself up for the task, because everyone knows that dragons would rather fight to the death than part with any of their treasure.
For her part, when Ayraw sees George arrive, she realizes this might be her chance to pass herself off as a princess, at least if she can temporarily get Metra out of the way. Ayraw and George ultimately meet and, in a classic sitcom misunderstanding, the former thinks her K.N.I.G.H.T. (Knowledgeable accountant: Interrogative Guy who is Hyper Tactical) is there to have “a, uh, date” with her, when George really says “audit.” Nothing is simple as the pair first have to get into Ayraw’s locked records room in the basement before venturing high in the castle to retrieve the taxes she owes. Through the course of their time together, they open up to one another and a sweet friendship is formed, even if Ayraw initially hopes for something more, as she keeps alluding to with her PG-13 naughty comments.
Ayraw’s remarks are one example of the game’s sense of humour. There’s also a certain self-awareness in the comments made by an unseen narrator. For example, walking George off the edge of the magical floating island on which Ayraw’s castle is built seemingly kills him, with the game stating “Bad Ending” before proclaiming it’s just a joke and placing George back on solid ground again. (As a side note: it’s not possible to die but you can manually save anyway, on top of the game’s autosave feature.) As well, much of the amusement revolves around subverting what’s expected of characters in a fairy tale, such as Ayraw’s comically lame attempts to pass herself off as a princess when she first meets George, even though he can plainly see her wings and tail. The banter between George and Ayraw does double duty throughout, communicating a lot about the characters along with being frequently funny (and sometimes poignant) in its own right. The script isn’t trying for big belly laughs here, but I freely admit to a frequent smirk and chuckle on my part at the various things the characters had to say.
Dragon Audit may somewhat resemble a Japanese roleplaying game (JRPG), what with its anime-styled characters and all, but it is 100% an adventure game. With either a game controller or mouse/keyboard combination – both of which work equally well – players directly navigate Ayraw and George together through the 3D environments from an over-the-shoulder perspective. When drawing close to an interactive point of interest, like a door or a pile of meat, the object in question will glow red to show that it is a hotspot. A simple button press initiates interaction, which may have Ayraw or George try to use the object in question or else just have them comment on it. The game also allows for the collection of items, and once the inventory is opened, an item can be selected for use on another or on the active hotspot in the environment.
Moving around and interacting with things works well for the most part. However, Dragon Audit does suffer from a poorly implemented camera. The view can be rotated horizontally around George or Ayraw, but it can’t be tilted up or down, not that there’s ever really any need to look in those directions. The camera also has a tendency to clip through walls, objects, and other characters, or get shoved into weird spots when the protagonists are too close to a wall. It’s all reminiscent of the roughly implemented 3D games from the 90s. Keep the camera away from anything it might bump into and it works well enough.
Initially, the game switches between Ayraw and George by themselves to introduce their disparate stories, but once they come together, you are free to toggle between the two playable characters. It doesn’t matter which one is active when performing an interaction, as the two always travel together once they meet and the game will always choose the appropriate character to do the job.
Obstacles are predominantly inventory-based and involve pretty standard adventure fare to achieve objectives like fixing a broken elevator and getting a firmly wedged axe out of a tree. Events are varied more by a number of specialty tasks such as an increasingly difficult logic puzzle involving the correct placement of symbols in a grid, and dexterity challenges requiring an electrical cable to be moved past bad contacts without touching them. Nothing particularly stands out, but neither are any of the challenges poorly realized.
Visually Dragon Audit is a bit of a mixed bag. Some aspects, such as George’s tank and the rooftop garden where Ayraw grows cheeses like they were plants (this is a mystical fantasy setting, after all), are quite distinctive. Most locations, however, feel very much like a series of sparsely decorated diorama boxes strung together. Whether it’s George’s office or the many chambers of Ayraw’s castle, they all feel very much the same and very empty. The graphical highlight is the characters themselves, who have a simple, clean anime look that works really well when they need to emote. Ayraw appears human for the most part, but with the obvious addition of wings, horns, a tail, and mismatched eyes; one green, one gold. George is a bit more generic with his dark hair, long brown coat, and rust-coloured pants, but he still stands out well enough from the other residents of Squelch, who are more uniform and less colourful in appearance.
When the characters talk, unaccompanied by voices, their dialog is shown at the bottom of the screen and no attempt is made to give them lip movements. However, a lot of attention has been paid to their emotions, as their faces change to show an impressive array of emotional states from the obvious happy, sad, and shocked faces to the more nuanced glances of sheepish embarrassment, disappointment, or Ayraw’s rather cocky smile when she makes a salacious comment.
The protagonists also have a variety of body stances and animations. Whether it’s George pulling out his giant accounting slide rule, JRPG mega-sword style, or Ayraw planting a fist on her hips when she’s frustrated or smug, their body language is every bit as emotive as their facial expressions. They may look cartoony, but they feel like real people.
On the audio front, the game sports a number of simple JRPG-esque fantasy synth tunes that play on repeating loops. They’re all rather jaunty – a word I do not use lightly – and are something of a mind worm, as they stick in your head for some time after playing. (I’ve got the main castle-wandering theme running around in my brain as I type this!) Sound effects are sparse but used well, from the crunch of a giant turbine knocked down by George’s tank, to the crackling roar of Ayraw breathing fire.
Easily the biggest drawback to the experience for me was the way it ended. After finishing the last interaction, some two and a half hours from the start of the game, Dragon Audit continues on for another thirteen minutes before the credits finally roll. During this time, there’s a cutscene of reasonable length that wraps things up for this game, which then gives way to an extended montage of Ayraw and George heading off for their next adventure. It takes interactivity away from players for a really long time, and I would have liked at least a moment or two to have some agency during that period. That said, the montage does provide some really nice, little intimate moments shown between George and Ayraw.
Dragon Audit is not a grand, sprawling epic. Instead it takes on the much more personal task of creating a genuine bond between its leads, George and Ayraw. Thanks to a fun dose of humour and an impressive depiction of a range of emotions, the characters are definitely the standouts in this fairy tale. This more than makes up for the empty locations, poor camera work, and the lack of interactivity in the game’s drawn-out conclusion. The protagonists are people you really get to know in a way that most longer games never come near, and I look forward to joining them on their next outing.
A few technical issues can’t mar Dragon Audit’s heartwarming fantasy tale of two people from different species and different worlds coming together in humourous and unexpected ways.