Well Sony’s Spring Fever promotion continues on, first was Guacamelee and now we have Dragon Fantasy Book I, an indie made JRPG styled in the classic mold of games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest (hence the name). Put together by the big-hearted team over at the Muteki Corporation this is a game with a lot of charm but also a number of issues. Designed originally for the iOS/Android platforms it’s done well for itself over on the mobile marketplace but now it’s debuting on the Sony dynamic duo that is the PS3 and PSVITA and it’s time to see how well it fares in the console space.
So the thing with this game that really typifies it is its slavish devotion to the old school, in ways both good and bad. For as much as I love the classic pixel art style and good old-fashioned monster portrait battle screen, this game’s lack of a run button and absolutely excessive encounter rate are a bit much for even a veteran of genre like me to deal with. It’s that same traditional slog that once existed purely to pad a game your parents paid like $70 for, here though that padding serves only to slow things down with no real gain presented. You see all that padding was made worth while in the old days because those games were hard as fuck and required you to grind for hours on end to get enough power to deal with the problems ahead, in this game though that’s not really the case. As long as you do things in order in Dragon Fantasy you’ll generally be able to get through it all without much trouble. In fact I found myself completely over-leveled by the time I got to most of the story events because the excessive encounter rate had inadvertently made me over grind. This is in turn lead to me basically just repeatedly using the attack command in battle, healing up any wounds real quick after the fight, and then rinsing and repeating until I was in front of a boss without spending a single MP (or at least not on anything but healing spells). Rarely did I have to use any strategy which is disappointing to say the least. It’s not that the battle system is bad or anything like that, I mean it’s basically the same classic turn-based Final Fantasy thing we all love, but you end up becoming mad strong so quickly that any complexity that might be there feels entirely optional.
That slog and lack of motivation to be strategic though wouldn’t be such an issue if the pacing was better. The game is split up into three main chapters and an additional intermission chapter, each chapter focuses on a different hero and all the stories run concurrent to one another. While this is not a bad idea and it’s been done well before, the balance between these chapters is really quite off with the first and longest chapter having the least interesting elements involved compared to the other three. In that first chapter you never gain access to other party members or unique mechanics like stealing or being able to capture monsters, it’s just attack and magic for a good five or so hours. The next few chapters start bringing in those other mechanics but are considerably shorter. Overall the game has a great length for an indie JRPG but by splitting it up into these smaller loosely connected chapters, it brings the game to a grinding halt pretty regularly by changing mechanics around and forcing new low-level characters on you, as you can imagine that isn’t great for the game’s flow.
I haven’t really talked about the story much but that’s mainly because it isn’t really needed as it’s a very standard JRPG story. The prince of a kingdom comes of age, an evil dude comes to take him away, and then a brave knight goes after him; it’s simple but that seems to be the point. The other chapters concern the prince’s brother going off to save him as well after the knight leaves, a random thief finding a magic artifact that is somehow related to larger plot, and then the intermission chapter is a big MineCraft parody (I’m personally not a fan of MineCraft so I didn’t play that chapter). The structure of the story here is all very simple but it does contain some very well done writing with a strong focus on parody. Most importantly it’s genuinely funny parody, maybe not “split your sides laughing” funny but “chuckle and crack a smile” funny at the very least. It’s never in the broad strokes though which is good because overt parody RPGs are always terrible, it’s all spread throughout in the little touches like the names of monsters and the attacks they use. It gives the game a lot of its charm and makes the slog that much more bearable.
The humor isn’t the only thing this game does well though, it does make some effort to streamline things. For example, when you’re suffering from a status effect or are just about to be knocked out, the whole UI changes colour. This may seem minor but if you’re quickly blowing through menus and just attacking over and over again, this provides a nice overt signal that you should stop for a sec and start paying attention. Another thing they do well is the respawn system; when you die you’ll pop out at whatever the last place you saved was with all your items, EXP, and story progress intact though you do lose half your gold. While this rather generous system does definitely contribute to the “easily over-leveled” thing I mentioned earlier, I’ll certainly take the game being a little boring because of forced over-grinding if it means not having to redo hours of progress thanks to the occasional dumb mistake. And again, the combat isn’t bad, it’s just simple and far too easy to get over-leveled, but if you can deal with that then there is a charming and well priced JRPG waiting for you.
While this definitely won’t be the deep JRPG experience some are hoping for, it’s still fun and while it does feel a bit like those mock JRPGs that are dime a dozen on the mobile markets these days, there’s enough charm here to help it rise above the rabble. The humor is fun and the 16-bit style (which you can actually change to 8-bit if you so desire) is dead on even if the gameplay isn’t exactly a revelation. Basically if you can stand a slog and don’t mind some simplicity in your JRPGs then this doesn’t seem like the worst way to spend $10, even if there are a lot of other alternatives already available on the PSN. So for an RPG that’s funnier than it is fun but not to a necessarily detrimental degree, Dragon Fantasy: Book I gets a 3 out of 5 stars.