[Aralon: Forge and Flame]‘Dragon Fantasy: The Black Tome Of Ice’ Review – Ogden’s Back, Bigger Than Ever

Time:2021-07-14 18:14       Tag:

  TouchArcade Rating:

  The first Dragon Fantasy ($7.99) game had a few things going for it when it released on iOS back in the summer of 2011. It was similar enough to classic JRPGs to feel like comfort food while simultaneously presenting a solidly-constructed, original adventure. It had a great sense of humor, and since the game was originally written in English, there was none of the awkwardness that could be found in many similar games. It received pretty substantial support after its release, getting a few new chapters at no additional cost. The game itself had a pretty heartwarming story behind its development, with the hero patterned after the designer’s late father. It’s also worth pointing out that at that time on the App Store, there were no Dragon Quest games and about 40 fewer Kemco JRPG releases. Thus, even though Dragon Fantasy was a pretty humble game in many ways, it still found an audience among mobile RPG fans.

  That audience has waited very patiently for the release of the sequel, or at least, I hope they have. For various reasons, the sequel released first on Sony’s PlayStation Network almost two years ago, with PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita versions on offer. Hero Ogden was now in the big leagues, rubbing elbows with Cloud, Adol, and all the rest. Unfortunately, the big leagues didn’t seem to agree with Ogden and his plucky gang, with most reviews of the PSN version of the sequel coming down on the game pretty hard. I only mention this because those bad reviews are why mobile players have had to wait so long for our version of Dragon Fantasy: The Black Tome Of Ice ($9.99). The developers took the feedback pretty seriously, and spent the last couple of years of their free time trying to fix the game up for its return to the platform where the series was born.

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  I think the work has paid off, in general. My principle criticisms of the Vita version I played a couple of years ago hung around two aspects. First, the game was incredibly buggy. It would crash seemingly randomly, it was possible to get into game-breaking situations surprisingly frequently, and so on. This was my main problem with the game, and it’s largely been addressed in the iOS version. There are still some bugs, to be sure. I’ve had a couple of hard crashes, for example, prompted by nothing more than exiting the status screen. The crafting system definitely has some weird things going on with it. But it’s vastly improved compared to the PSN version, to the point that you can actually enjoy the game without being nervous that something is going to go wrong.

  My other issue with the game was one that actually carried over from the first Dragon Fantasy. Namely, the encounters were almost completely toothless. It was a little problem in the first game, but its relatively short running time made it a lot easier to swallow. The second game runs almost three times as long, so having numerous battles that require virtually no strategy made for a pretty dull experience. What made this failing tragic was that all the pieces were there for the game to be interesting. It has lots of skills including some that take advantage of positioning, recruitable enemies, an equipment crafting system, and so on. The potential for interesting, strategic battles simply sat there on a shelf, unable to be realized because jamming the circle button would suffice. That, too, has been addressed in the iOS version. The default difficulty is higher, and if it’s not where you want it to be, you can adjust it using a slider in the options.

  Those are pretty big changes for the game, and perhaps why we’ve got a brand new title for the sequel. Previously known as Dragon Fantasy Book 2, the iOS version is dubbed Dragon Fantasy: The Black Tome Of Ice instead. Think of it as a director’s cut, the sequel it was meant to be until budget and deadline realities reared their ugly heads. We catch up with Ogden, Prince Anders, Woodsy the Woodsman, and the stowaway ninja kid Ramona as they’ve left Sandheim City. Ogden has a flashback which serves the dual purpose of teaching you the new gameplay mechanics and helping anyone who missed the first game get up to speed with the story. In spite of a major change to the look of the game, the nuts and bolts haven’t changed a great deal, particularly if you kept up with all of the chapters of the first game. This is still a by-the-numbers homage to JRPGs wrapped up in an endearingly humorous package, it’s just that it’s now paying homage to Chrono Trigger ($9.99) instead of Dragon Quest.

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  It’s a challenge surprisingly few games attempt, if you think about it. I guess it’s not hard to see why, especially given Chrono Trigger‘s lofty place in the RPG canon. Putting together a 16-bit style RPG is also a lot more intensive from an art and design standpoint than an 8-bit RPG. While I’m not going to go as far as saying Dragon Fantasy manages what Square’s 2D artists pulled off at their height, it at least lands well enough in the ballpark to sell what it’s going for. The characters are big and detailed, with a handful of charming animations and expressions that help bring them to life. The backgrounds are vibrant and packed with little flourishes that make them feel like more than a collection of tiles snapped into place. The soundtrack holds up its end of the deal, too, with a variety of tunes that seem just as ripped out of the 16-bit era as the graphics do.

  The biggest mechanical change is that enemies are visible on the maps now. Yes, there are no more random encounters with invisible foes jumping you every few steps. You can actually avoid encounters here a little easier than you can in Chrono Trigger. Enemies will come after you if they spot you, but it’s not hard to keep out of the way of many of them. If you do choose to battle, you’ll find a pretty standard turn-based battle system here. You choose actions for all of your characters, then watch the turn play out. You’ll have to mind positioning in battles now, since it’s not a simple first-person view. Some attacks will hit in a line or a radius of some sort, and it can be harder to heal your whole party at once if someone’s on the far side of the screen. Unfortunately, as in Chrono Trigger, you have very little control over where your characters will stand. They kind of move into a particular position at the start of battle and for the most part, there they stay. The enemies will often shuffle around quite a bit, though, so you’ll want to pick your targets carefully to try to anticipate who will be the best one to focus on.

  The monster-capturing element from the Episode M bonus chapter in the first game makes a return in The Black Tome Of Ice. Using either a special item or a particular move, you can try to recruit enemy characters to your team. This is essential for times when your main team splits up, but it’s never a happy occasion. The monsters are kind of boring to use compared to your regular party members, and they’re simply not different enough from each other in terms of move sets. That said, they can take and deliver hits, so it’s better than just having Ogden go solo the way he did in his chapter of the first game. It doesn’t hurt that the sprites for the enemies look pretty cool, either. They’ll all chill out back at the pub when they’re not in your party, so you can get a pretty funny scene going once you’ve captured some of the game’s more bizarre enemies.

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  The new default difficulty is reasonably tough, so you’ll actually have to make use of a lot of those fancy moves you learn. Of course, this means that your plunges into dungeons last approximately as long as your MP holds out, but the MP restoring item is a lot easier to come by in this game than it was in the first, so I suppose one hand washes the other here. Bosses can be especially dangerous if you’re in a weak state. Fortunately, the dungeons are well-designed, so there’s almost always a place to restore your health and save before you have to fight anything truly nasty. The dungeons are also really big, with secret passages and routes that let you by-pass certain sections entirely. Enemies don’t respawn unless you leave the dungeon, so if you’re persistent, it’s not too much trouble to clear out all the baddies so you can freely explore.

  It’s all very meat-and-potatoes, but there’s a certain joy in it, especially since so few retro-style RPGs opt to tackle this era. The main attraction here, as it was in the first, is the game’s unusual tone. It’s a bit funny, a bit sweet, and sometimes trying a bit too hard, but there’s a certain charm to Dragon Fantasy‘s writing that I rarely see anywhere else. There are times where I want to grab it by the shoulders, give it a firm shake, and tell it that it doesn’t have to try to make me laugh all the time, but even if I could pull off such an abstract thing, the game would only reply with a terrible pun, so I suppose it’s best to just bow to absurdity here and enjoy it. And it is indeed enjoyable, enough to provide plenty of fuel for an otherwise very straightforward adventure.

  The developers have also taken care to tailor the game to the mobile platform in most regards. Dragon Fantasy: The Black Tome Of Ice supports iCloud saving and Game Center achievements, offers multiple control options, and has a well-designed user interface for touch controls. You can play the game in landscape or portrait orientation, with the latter making the game look very much like it’s running on a Nintendo DS. My main gripe with this port is that, as in the other versions, you can’t save anytime you’d like. I know it’s a design choice, and you can always save and quit if you really need to go, but with few exceptions, portable RPGs really ought to have that feature. It’s particularly bad here since the auto-save only does its thing every few screen changes or so. If you run into a crash, get distracted, or get a call, it’s very possible you’ll find yourself having to redo several minutes of the game. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s pretty odd to have to worry about that in a modern iOS release, retro or no.

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  With all of the improvements made for the iOS version of Dragon Fantasy: The Black Tome Of Ice, it’s a much easier game to recommend. Just keep in mind that there are still a few glitches here and there at the moment, and that the game itself is pretty content to color within the lines of the genre and period it’s aping. This isn’t the game to play if you’re looking for the next exciting thing in RPG design, but if you’re looking for a solid, funny fifteen or so hours of classic-style adventuring, Dragon Fantasy will be all too happy to serve your needs.