Developer: Muteki Corporation / Publisher: Muteki Corporation / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $9.99 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Mild Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Alcohol Reference, Mild Language]
With the slate of recent retro indie releases, I’ve always wondered how much of their appeal comes from solid design or simple nostalgia. Playing Dragon Fantasy: Book I has answered that question. As a game that purely relies on nostalgia, it’s boring, dull, and pointless past the first ten minutes of ‘oh I remember this.’ Even if your childhood is paved with JRPG classics like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, you won’t find enough in Dragon Fantasy to justify your time.
I can at least appreciate the spirit of the game. You play as Ogden, a past-his-prime warrior that already performed his JRPG hero duties some years before the game opens. After an evil-something-or-other attacks the idyllic town of it-doesn’t-really-matter, Ogden — now balding and portly — must yet again take up the hero mantle. I enjoy the premise at least; you’ve done all this before and it’s time to strap the boots back on.
Unfortunately, as a game Dragon Fantasy doesn’t remotely live up to its forebears. It lines up with JRPG tropes perfectly: you walk around in a city filled with single-tile denizens that only say one line of dialogue and then venture through dungeons packed with random encounters. While the dialogue in the game does poke lighthearted fun at genre stereotypes, the combat falls face-first into them.
In battle, you have the iconic set of commands: fight, magic, items, and run. However, every fight in the game is a matter of mashing fight until you run low on health and then healing yourself with magic. Over and over. For hours at a time. I’ll admit older JRPGs have the reputation of playing this way, but most manage to add some depth through interesting spells or challenging enemies. Dragon Fantasy doesn’t even manage that. In Dragon Fantasy, even your most powerful spells are just as damaging as your basic attack as soon as you get them, and the only solution to a challenging fight is grinding for more levels.
The typical JRPG accoutrement is absent in Dragon Fantasy as well, which exacerbates the problem. You only ever fight one enemy at a time and the AI is dirt basic (putting you to sleep multiple times after you’re already asleep, etc). There’s space on the UI for a party of four, but I played for ten hours and still didn’t get a second member. With circa-1988 gameplay features absent, you can forget about modern niceties like auto-wins, auto-battle, or item sort.
Even the music — which is a staple for JRPGs — hits some serious snags. It’s not that great of a soundtrack to begin with, though I can empathize scoring a game that will be compared to the work of Nobuo Uematsu or Koichi Sugiyama. The bigger problem is that the music restarts every time you get into a random encounter, and the encounter rate is so damn high that you’ll never hear more than four seconds of any non-town music. Your experience with this game will be hearing the same four-second music loops over and over while you mash X to get through boring fights as fast as possible.
There is a silver lining here, though. Dragon Fantasy supports crossplay, thus it comes with the PlayStation Vita version of the game in addition to supporting cloud-based cross-saves. Though this is a backwards compliment, I enjoyed playing this game as a sleep aide with my Vita in bed. And, though the feature is ultimately invalidated by boring gameplay, I do appreciate that you can switch the game’s visuals and sound back and forth between 8 and 16-bit mode. Swapping back and forth does lighten the gameplay fatigue, but not by much.
As a longtime JRPG fan, I appreciate the irony. I can’t count the number of times I’ve defended the genre from people claiming it’s a mindless exercise of mash-X-until-you-win, but throwbacks like Dragon Fantasy don’t make the stigma any easier to dispel. Games like Cthulhu Saves the World and Anodyne show us that it’s possible to celebrate classic genres while still employing interesting design. It’s a shame Dragon Fantasy couldn’t do the same.
+ Briefly enjoyable retro throwbacks
— Painfully boring, mindless combat
— Uninteresting game structure
4 / 10