Crimson Dragon has all the intense, alien nonsense of a Space Harrier level, coupled with a story that seeks, somewhat unnecessarily, to make sense of a man riding a dragon, killing things. The story is hard to read as one of heroism: humans have colonised (invaded) a planet, and when a disease lets some of them communicate with dragons, they use that power to bond with (enslave) them, and get them to cure (murder) other diseased creatures. I'm as much up for a power fantasy as the next enfeebled man, but this doesn't feel particularly kind.
The missions through which you'll be tracing your genocidal on-rails path take place in some stunning, alien locations. Despite the rails, you do have some control - moving your dragon around the confines of the screen with the left stick, and nudging the camera around with your aiming reticule on the right. Like Panzer Dragoon, it's your job to keep your eye on the radar, as there's little more annoying than a barrage of shots hitting you from an neglected area of the map.
Each mission is a collection of mini-mission chapters, each ranked individually. You'll notice it's hard to get the top ranks early on, but from the limited number of levels, and the number of dragons you've got to level up and evolve, it's clear that Crimson Dragon was designed to be replayed. Dragons have one set skill, and a second that can be taught and equipped, giving you a chance to find favourite beasts and skills. The process of levelling your dragons with XP, and evolving a fully-levelled dragon with rare drops is a pleasant touch, but it's a relatively shallow process - there are no skill trees, and your only input is that secondary skill, and equipping a stat-boosting ampoule that lasts for the duration of the level.
You can hire a wingman, in a system that's reminiscent of Dragon's Dogma's pawns, only with much less finesse. A hired wingman offers extra firepower to the front or rear, and can be moved into position with the D-Pad. Apart from that position, they're completely autonomous, apart from a super-attack that can be used twice per level. You'll want the wingman for this super-attack alone - it can get you a quick and dirty S rank on a boss battle.
Your own attacks range from a massive auto-firing reticule that takes up a quarter of the screen, and almost takes care of itself with a constant squeeze of the right trigger. Other reticules have to be dragged over the enemies to create multiple lock-ons, familiar from previous Dragoon games, and Child of Eden. Others fire out a constant glob of lazy elemental balls, or a rapid hail of lasers.
Delivering damage is more engaging than avoiding it - the size of your beast on the screen makes dodging damage feel like a lottery. Hovering squid bullets can be sidestepped, and horizontal slashed from manta rays require a vertical dodge to avoid, but generally, you'll find yourself falling back on a dull, hypnotised circling of the screen. Trying to aim with your reticule at the same time begins to feel like rubbing your stomach and patting your head simultaneously. Entirely possible, but disorientating, and not particularly pleasant.
In an unexpected, and entirely unwelcome move, Crimson Dragon seems to have taken a lot of design leads from free-to-play games. You pay credits to perform tougher missions, a counter-intuitive form of employment that's crying out for a Dragon Riders Union strike ballot. It's also a little too reminiscent of F2P "energy" mechanics for our liking.