Story & World
I always appreciate big, fat, vast, open worlds to wander and having to plan and navigate around the various terrain types added another layer to exploring that has not been present in most games thus far. There are no impassable terrains, other than the endless chasm that makes up the world border. The capital of Hoverpool serves as the central hub for the majority of the game, which I like rather more than in a linear game where, once a town has been mined of its quests and items, is left behind, ne'er to be seen again. NPCs are capable of doing more than just spewing off a couple of lines. In addition to any NPC being attackable, certain ones will actually initiate combat if particular dialogue choices are chosen. The sketchy lower town of Hoverpool felt all the more dangerous knowing that I could be assaulted at any time by any one of the shysters dwelling there.
The story had not only an interesting premise, but enough twists and turns along the way to keep things fresh. Losing Amai at one point and then having to hunt her down again was both thrilling and annoying at the same time. Completing minor quests really felt like I was building up my Dragoon's reputation and the NPCs did a good job of acknowledging my burgeoning fame. The cut scenes expanding on the dragoon/dragon relationship were nicely done, though I built off that and transformed it into more of a father/daughter kinship. There were a few quests during the story that felt too much like filler (most notably the set of Rakshasa quests), especially when I was at the point where I just wanted to get on with it, man! 17/20
It's all about the dragon in Sansara Naga. The main character never gains levels or even more HP but is solely reliant on equipment to facilitate increases to STR and DEF. Unfortunately, as pumped as I was to raise Amai, my input mattered little concerning her attribute increases. Most of her gains came at specific plot points (when her profile pic got updated) but even feeding her creatures is a crapshoot since the game doesn't display the changes. The only way to track any changes would be to either to stay at an inn immediately after a fight or use a "mobile inn" item (tents in this case). Far too expensive to do early in the game and by the time the dragon evolves to its adult stage in the late game, any attribute changes are going to be too piddly to matter much. For me, the only enjoyable aspect of raising Amai was when she was a baby and stuck in the nursery, with me deciding which corpses to feed her and which to sell in order to buy her toys.
To make up for the lack of a normal experience system for the main character, the game allows for six equipment slots (one weapon, five armour). This is a welcome feature but stumbles a bit as there weren't many pieces to go into each armour slot; most slots were upgraded only once. A feature that is now prevalent in modern RPGs but rare in this era is the ability to forge pieces of equipment. It's very basic here as it just consists of the blacksmith using parts that are sometimes dropped by particular creatures (and there's no combining of different parts), but it's still a nice touch. I also must mention the inventory system, as it had the balls to do what so many of its kin were afraid to do — having a reasonable amount of space! I never reached the inventory maximum and easily had over forty items all up ins there. 5/20
Combat & Monsters
Battles are quite bland, even with Amai riding shotgun. There are no spells or items that can be used in combat; items are generally reserved to cure status ailments inflicted by monsters. Amai seems versatile with four attack options but the first three are plain old melee attacks and I didn't notice any difference between them. There's an option to attempt to bribe creatures with an item, but I never got this to work (and didn't really try it all that often). The monotonous combat is further aggravated by the high encounter rate.
As boring as the combat is, the monsters themselves are wonderfully designed and have an Earthbound-esque feel to them. There's a good mix of creatures; some taken from Hindu folklore and others just straight up goofy. They only are able to inflict a few status ailments (poison and sleep) but that's still two more than either Amai or I could do. 8/20
Graphics & Sound
Graphics are on par with most of the other Dragon Quest clones with a couple of differences. First, talking with an NPC always displays a nice little pic of their face, although these in general are poorly done (but better than nothing). Second, the visual approach to some of the bigger bosses was a great addition; it really helped get their size in perspective before starting the actual combat. Third, dem cutscenes.
Music and sound effects worked well enough. My favourite sound effect was the little high-pitched squeak Amai would make when I would try to talk to her as a baby. Dawwww, so cute. 13/20
The high encounter rate absolutely kills this game during the middle glut of quests. There's a lot of going back and forth between Hoverpool and the outlier towns; the warps at the Haratama Huts help a lot after they become affordable (though sometimes I had problems just finding them). Thankfully, the high rate is countered by a flee option which has a decent chance of success. Still, a high rate with a large world is going to slow down the pace quite a bit and most times I would be exhausted after completing a single quest and have to pack it in for the day.
The economy is fairly robust with the exception of that one loophole that I totally exploited (it happened later in the game so I don't feel so bad). Selling off corpses for cash is such a great way to run an economy. Contrary to the dragon raising system which hides data from the player, one will learn what monsters fetch the highest prices, with the cheaper ones going straight to the dragon's gaping maw.
If there was more control and variety in the way that a player could raise the dragon, a replay certainly would be plausible. As it stands, however, I can't see a reason why this would ever happen. One caveat to this statement: post-game I found that the manual had been translated whilst I had been playing and apparently there are four different colours of dragons that one can initially get. The manual states that they have their differences but who knows how much that affects actual gameplay (btw, Amai was a green dragon which is "friendly and easy to handle... but, well, it's a bit on the timid side"). One other tidbit gleaned from the manual — SYM does indeed stand for sympathy (now I can finally sleep at night). 7/20
Final Ranking: 50/100