Dragon Fantasy: Book I [Review]
Dragon Fantasy: Book I is a game for those who are curious about the early years of RPGs, or people who want to look back on them. Expect grinding, a high enemy encounter rate, and a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously along your way. Muteki Corp has made some pleasant concessions to make these old problems a lot more tolerable by modern standards, and in doing so has created a fun little RPG. It’s not without some issues (including some that stem from the old games it’s inspired by), but it is still a great little game to take with you on the road.
Dragon Fantasy: Book I is a port of an IOS game that harkens back to the old days of NES and SNES RPGs. While the storyline and graphical style lean more toward the early SNES, the combat is firmly built in the same vein as Dragon Warrior. When you start off, it’s one-on-one fights against enemies that won’t be dropping a lot of gold. Those same enemies will happily beat you to death, too, doling out what feels like excessive amounts of damage. If you didn’t grow up with these games, you might be surprised at how hard they’ll beat on you and how many hit points they have. I was pretty impressed when I couldn’t run away from an early enemy and actually got killed. That hasn’t happened since the first time I ran into a horse in Final Fantasy (Damn thing hits like 11 times and is about a thirty second walk from the first town. Screw you, early Square devs).
Still, you know what death in an RPG means: grinding. Now, Dragon Fantasy: Book I is kinder than its NES predecessors, but it still asks you to fight a lot of enemies in order to get enough money to buy anything worthwhile. Buying a couple hundred gold item really sucks when enemies are dropping 1-2 gold per fight. Another pleasant surprise was when I finally made enough money to buy out all the best stuff from the shops in town, only to find a town a few minutes away that had even more expensive stuff. I hadn’t even found a dungeon yet and my equipment was already obsolete. It’s funny, because I had a feeling this was going to happen after remarking how the grinding for gold reminded me of the hours I spent playing Dragon Warrior. Most of my time with that game was spent earning enough money to buy the best gear so that I could survive just long enough to go somewhere else and buy even more expensive gear.
The grinding is not even close to as bad as it is in Dragon Warrior, though. You do have to spend ten or twenty minutes outside of the first couple of towns to be able to buy all the best gear, but buying that stuff will make you more than strong enough for the next dungeon. I was reminded of the hours and hours I spent grinding in old RPGs, but I had to spend a lot less time doing it than in those old games. Most RPG fans probably won’t mind it that much, especially ones who grew up with infinitely worse grinds.
It helps that the battle speed is really quick. Text for attacks appear instantly, there’s typically no animations beyond a little shuffle from the enemy, and everything whips by as fast as you can hit the button. Even in the later chapters where you have multiple enemies and multiples characters to use, you can still hammer on the button and be out of most fights within thirty seconds at most. That goes a long way when you’re grinding or wandering the halls of a dungeon, and it made the game’s encounter rate a lot more tolerable.
That’s right, this game is a throwback to the absurd encounter rates from old RPGs. You will be lucky to be able to take five steps without some kind of enemy encounter, and while that means a whole lot of fights, they also fly right by. I got annoyed at how many encounters I was running into at some points when I really just needed a few seconds to figure something out (like where to walk to move on in the ice cave), but for the most part the fast battles made it a non-issue. Also, you tend to level up often because you’re in so many fights over time, so there are lots of quick rewards for all of this fighting.
What the encounter rate was bad for was the music. The game restarts every track that’s playing when you get into a fight with the monsters, so I only really got to hear the first couple of notes for any dungeon and overworld track because I kept getting attacked. That ended up being a big problem because I had to actually stop playing in order to listen to most of the game’s songs. Music is a huge part of most of the RPGs I’ve loved, and not being able to hear most of the tracks because of the encounter rate was a big problem. The music I did stop to listen to was nice, and again very reminiscent of NES and early SNES RPGs, but having to take time to listen to it really bothered me.
Anyway, back to combat. One thing that felt very different from early RPGs was the difficulty level. I’m used to playing games where the new equipment in each town was pretty much mandatory. Having the best stuff in each town gives you a fighting chance at best, but I often found in Dragon Fantasy: Book I that having the best equipment let me steamroll the enemies. Good equipment makes huge differences in damage and defense, so anyone looking for a challenge from this game may want to press on without these items. My issue with that is that a lot of the new enemies in each area do outrageous amounts of damage until you’re wearing a lot of this equipment, so you still have to grind for experience levels if you want to have a shot at beating the dungeons. The game’s relaxing and fun if you’re not worried about the challenge, but it still feels unbalanced if you want some challenge from the game.
It does vary the combat styles up, though, so combat can be interesting even if it isn’t hard. The strange part is that the combat styles depend on what chapter of the game you’re in. In Ogden’s chapter you only have one-on-one fights, but in Anders’s chapter you get multiple party members but still only run into one monster at a time. If that doesn’t seem too intricate, Jerald’s chapter and the bonus chapter have multiple characters able to fight multiple monsters, giving you several different combat styles to play across. They don’t sound that different on paper, but only having one target for the monster’s attacks (like sleep) can create some huge issues, and being able to take hits from several monsters in a single round requires you to create different strategies.
It was interesting to play the game using all of these different play styles, especially given that each chapter showed a different angle of the same story. Still, it made the game feel like it was needlessly fractured to have all these different play styles. I think they would have felt more natural had they been combined together into a single campaign instead of different ones, but they’re still all quite enjoyable as they are. They just feel a little strange this way.
One of the most interesting ideas in the game came from its bizarre fourth chapter; one that was inspired by Minecraft. It was funny and interesting to see the Minecraft monsters, but it was being able to mine for certain ores and build weapons and armor out of them that made it really fun. Since grinding for money wasn’t as useful as running down into the dungeon to look for new ores, it encouraged me to take more risks in combat. On top of that, you could also recruit monsters into your party to help you out, so I can’t help but feel that this short chapter had some of the best stuff in the game. I’d happily play a whole game that was set up like this chapter, and wish it had been a lot longer.
I am hesitant to say that it reminded me of SNES RPGs beyond graphics, as the game mostly reminds me of old NES games. This port was remastered for its release on PS3/VITA, given a graphical and musical upgrade for the system that put it more on par with 16-bit system graphics, but the funny thing is that I don’t feel like those graphics were the best fit for it. You have a slider in the game where you can adjust it back to the original 8-Bit version, and I honestly felt like it looked more appropriate that way. The 16-Bit graphics look good, but they don’t really add that much to it. It looks more like the graphics were just smoothed out and had more pixels thrown in, for the most part. There are some nice effects and everything does look smoother, but the 8-Bit version just seems to fit better. I appreciate the work that Muteki Corp did to upgrade the graphics, but a lot of the time I’d switch over to the 8-Bit version because it felt more appropriate to the gameplay style.
One issue I’d planned to talk about was your miss percentage in the game. I missed the enemies a lot of times I was attacking them during my playthrough, and while they miss hitting the player back just as much, there is nothing as infuriating (or as inexcusable) as missing four or five hits in a row. The great part about Muteki Corp is that they already put out a patch to fix that problem up. It went live just as I was finishing the game so it didn’t help me, but it shows me that these guys are committed to making their game as good as possible. I’ve also seen the developers talking with the players on just about every message board I can find, so if you do have an issue with the game you should talk about it. Someone from the company will somehow hear you.
The game does have a few issues that stem from the old games it’s trying to emulate and a few other small problems, but I still enjoyed playing it and hearing the beginning of the story of Ogden. The game’s humor and charm made it easy to enjoy its somewhat simple story, but as we’ve seen this is still only the first part in a continuing series. The fact that the action comes to a satisfying conclusion in this lighthearted RPG was a definite point in its favor, as most of these multi-part stories fail to tell one coherent, complete tale in the first game. I don’t mind an overarching story, but breaking a game’s plot into obvious chunks just to have several episodes drives me crazy. Dragon Fantasy: Book I tells a concise, fun, and funny story that made it pleasant to play. Certain million dollar RPGs should probably take note of that.
It helps if you’re a fan of classic RPGs or are curious about what they used to be like, but it’s not necessary. The game’s difficulty has been toned down and the combat has been sped up compared to games of that era, so it’s very playable for someone with more modern interests in RPGs. It may be a bit much for some with no love for old RPGs, but if you’ve ever played a turn-based RPG and enjoyed it, you’ll like Dragon Fantasy: Book I.