Dragon Fantasy Book II Review: Channeling classic JRPGs, for better and for worse
At a Glance
So how do you feel about 16-bit JRPGs? Think Super Nintendo era: wandering about world maps as a colorful sprite, taking turn-based swipes at fantastical monsters, and tapping through dialogue trees on a quest to save the world. They compensated for the technological limitations of the mid-'90s with rich, sweeping narratives, and occasionally devolved into nigh endless grind-fests, trudging through repetitive battle sequences to grow strong enough to overcome increasingly tougher challenges.
The genre has always been a bit polarizing, and its popularity has waned in the face of modern action-RPGs and MMOs. But those of us who love them rest assured knowing that the Chrono Triggers and EarthBounds never die—they just get re-released, or re-imagined by plucky indie developers with a penchant for spritework and MIDI tunes. Available on the PlayStation 3 and Vita, Dragon Fantasy Book II is one such tribute: a $15 love letter to the good old days that’s unapologetically old-school, yet manages to iron out many of the genre’s more annoying wrinkles. But it’s a game at odds with itself, skirting many of the JRPG genre’s flaws but plagued by a desire to revamp time-honored (and timeworn) mechanics and inject personality and humor, often at the expense of narrative and compelling gameplay.
Learning the tropes
If you don’t like JRPGs, you’re gonna have a bad time. Dragon Fantasy Book II (hereafter DFB2) makes no effort to deny the source of its inspiration, from the sweeping introduction replete with narrative “cutscenes” involving maiden-munching dragons, to an epic musical score, menu-driven turn-based battles, and the requisite hunt for better loot. You’ll tap through dialogue boxes to learn that the hero, Ogden, has allied with pirates on a quest to save the world—a magic crystal, betrayals, and plot twists are involved.
Much of the story is presumably laid out in the first game in the series (which I haven’t played), but the game does an amicable job of getting you up to speed, tossing you into combat relatively quickly to give you a feel for the mechanics, while doling out bits of narrative along the way. DFB2 goes out of its way to avoid being taken seriously, which is at once a blessing and an annoying curse. Chock full of knowing winks to pop culture and in-jokes, you’ll tackle an Earthbound-esque cast of nonsensical foes—including Land Sharks and Rock Men equipped with blue helmets—and encounter a whimsical cast of characters, including a seemingly omnipresent pirate ally who admits his only raison d’être is to push the action along.
And you’ll fight. A lot. Fortunately, combat feels refreshing. There are no random battles here: the enemy is always visible, wander the dungeons you’re exploring. Get close enough and they’ll give chase—if they catch you, combat menus will slide into place to allow you to assign commands. As you fight, you’ll need to take enemy positions into account, as baddies will occasionally change position, weaseling their way out of the effective range of some of your abilities. You’ll also want to keep an eye on the foes you aren’t fighting—they’ll continue to scamper about while you’re mid-battle, and if a pack gets close to your characters, they’ll join in the fight. It doesn’t happen too often, but this randomized element of danger is actually kind of exciting, and left me thinking about positioning myself while luring enemies towards me, lest the baddies I couldn’t see show up and overwhelm my party.
It’s rather nice that fighting feels fresh, because you’ll be doing a lot of it: the game suffers from that JRPG need to all but overwhelm you with foes to fight, padding the time between narrative chunks with wave after wave of repetitive fisticuffs. A Pokémon-inspired capture system allows you to trap just about any foe and recruit them to your team, which assuages the monotony a bit by given you a seemingly endless array of team members with unique abilities to wade through. The game also takes another note from Earthbound and will let you beat enemies who are much weaker than you automatically—refreshing, if you do a bit of backtracking and tire of fighting the same old foes.
If it ain’t broke
DFB2 gets a lot of things right, but it ultimately still plays like fan fiction. All the clever little jokes start to feel like so much fluff rather quickly, and after the hundredth quip about Mr. and Mrs. Rock’s marital issues during their attacks, you begin to realize you’ve been fighting the same foes (or variations on a theme) for hours.
The game prides itself on offering plenty of sidequests, but these amount to little more than tapping through a bit of NPC dialogue, and remembering to kill or capture a particular baddie you were probably going to encounter anyway. The art and animation is often gorgeous, with neat little effects for spells and combat abilities. And then you’ll notice how static much of the rest of the world is, overland streams or indoor fireplaces seemingly frozen in time.
But the greatest offender—besides a poorly designed ship-combat minigame—is the menu system, which is simply awful on the PlayStation 3. It’s clearly scaled for displays with much lower resolutions, which means scrolling through endless, poorly organized lists of equipment, items and abilities every time you head to a shop or choose a spell in combat, with much of your HDTV's screen real estate wasted.
It makes a bit of sense—buying the game gives you access to both versions, and Sony’s excellent Cross Save feature lets you store your save game in the cloud, then pick up the adventure on whichever device you’d like. The experience fits much better on a Vita, and you can use touch controls to zip about the menus with ease. A tiny development team necessarily needs to optimize, and working within the Vita’s constraints and scaling up makes sense. But JRPGs have been handling item-wrangling for decades—you’ve taken inspiration from most everything else, just add a few sorting options, direct visual cues when thumbing through weapon upgrades, and at the very least the ability to buy more than one item at a time.
A nice place to visit
There’s a lot to like here—love, even. My inner curmudgeon can get annoyed with a comedic take on a Serious Business sort of genre, but it all feels like a light-hearted conversation between fans of a bygone era.
But is it worth $15? If you’re a JRPG fan itching to try something new, it’s a fun cross-platform romp, best experienced on a PlayStation Vita—PlayStation Plus subscribers can get it for $12 for the next few days. If you’re not a JRPG fan, you should probably just steer clear. New to the genre and on the fence? Well… they’re both almost two decades old, but Chrono Trigger is on the PlayStation Network and Earthbound is on the Nintendo Wii U’s eShop, and both will only set you back $10—start there, and circle back when you’re done or Dragon Fantasy Book II goes on sale.