A direct sequel to Dragon Fantasy: Book I, Dragon Fantasy: Book II continues the story of Ogden and his party. It's still full of cheeky humour, silly dialogue, and old school JRPG gameplay – but does it improve enough upon its predecessor?
Developer Muteki Corporation could have easily stuck to what it had already created with the first title, simply improving mechanics and adding even more content. But instead, the follow-up makes multiple changes to the formula, adding in more complex pixel art, a quest log, a reworked battle system, and numerous other, smaller mechanics. What we're left with is a release that certainly looks and feels more ambitious, but we're not entirely convinced that so much alteration was necessary.
As we said in our review, Book I was a solid if unoriginal JRPG that was charmingly self-aware – and Book II is mostly more of the same. You'll still be travelling across the game world on foot and aboard ships, finding loot and vanquishing monsters, all while progressing through a story that slowly snowballs into a catastrophic series of events. Ogden remains a likeable and comedic hero, while characters like Anders and Woodsy make a return as trusty companions.
If you're new to the series, then you'll be lost almost immediately. While it's still possible to force your way through the game without really looking into the plot, it'll be difficult to fathom who most of the returning cast are, greatly damaging the overall experience, as the title doesn't do a very good job of explaining any prior events. It's almost required, therefore, that you play the previous game – if only to learn of Ogden and his past adventures.
But even after grinding through the original release, proceedings can still seem rather vague and confusing. The plot follows a predictable path that attempts to parody the clichéd storylines of countless JRPGs, but in doing so, it falls into all of the disappointing narrative tropes of the genre. It's all well and good trying to poke fun at a party member for being generic, but that doesn't excuse the fact that they are indeed generic, and it's funny to laugh at a villain who's ripped straight from another release, but that doesn't stop them from lacking depth. To be fair, there are a few plot points that do a great job of providing the unexpected, which mostly comes about through humour. Taking these scenarios into account, the game's story is a little bit hit or miss – sometimes it feels like you're being dragged around the world for no good reason other than to mimic the typical padding of a JRPG, while at other times you'll stumble across genuinely well written and memorable moments that arguably equal the greats of the genre.
Things are similarly shaky when it comes to the battle system. The release does away with the first person encounters that the original competently included, and replaces them with on-location brawls that are heavily inspired by the likes of Chrono Trigger. You'll see creatures roaming around the immediate area, and when they close in, everyone draws their weapons as a turn-based fight ensues. The change in perspective makes for a seamless transition from exploration to combat, but it also leads to some visual and technical issues.
For starters, your party's names, HP, and MP totals pop up at the top left of the screen, and although they're partially transparent, the text often obscures enemies or allies as brawls continue and sprites move around the field of battle. On top of that, the action menu that covers the bottom of the screen is finicky and poorly presented: issuing commands can sometimes become a chore as your choice is highlighted in blue on top of a blue background, and clicking on abilities such as magic spells brings up an oversized sub-menu that's incredibly clunky to navigate since only about three techniques are visible at one time, requiring constant scrolling to find what you're looking for.
On the bright side, battles are quickly paced and feature enjoyable attack animations, while the enemy designs retain their charm and personality from the first game. The critters also play a much larger role this time around, as you're able to befriend and level up beasts that you weaken before swinging a capture net at them. It's an obvious nod towards Pokémon, even if it's nowhere near as deep, but it does add some variety when it comes to forming your merry band of warriors. After the first portion of the game, you'll be left with four characters that stick together throughout, but any or all of them can be switched out with monsters that you've tamed. Unfortunately, there isn't much incentive to do this outside of experimentation for the sake of it, as the cast form a solid team that can easily see you through the adventure. Furthermore, since battles are no longer random, grinding for levels with unnecessary party members in tow seems like a waste of your time because you'll have to slog from dungeon to dungeon.
The dungeons themselves are nicely designed – as are most locations in general. Each new area feels different – even if they're not particularly original – and monster infested caves and forests always manage to hit a sweet spot between being too short and overly lengthy. The sprite work is colourful, and exploring these environments without a random fight popping up every five seconds provides a good sense of adventure. With a 16-bit style, the release looks quite magical on the PlayStation Vita, but on a wider television, we recommend scaling the screen ratio down to avoid what can potentially be a blurred mess.
Unfortunately, the game is marred by technical problems. Some are minor, like a bug that prevents you moving for a second after a battle is over, while others are far less forgivable, like frame rate problems during autosaving and, worst of all, crashes that occur at completely random points. While it's not a particularly common occurrence, our console locked up during attack animations and after combat – but thankfully, we didn't lose too much progress due to the reliable autosave. For a title as basic as this, though, it's extremely disappointing that these issues occur, and we can only hope that they're fixed in upcoming patches.
Surprisingly, the title's soundtrack is one of its greatest achievements. The retro melodies that accompany each location are brilliantly well realised, and range from springy, bass-filled tunes that will become lodged in your head for days on end, to quiet keyboard tracks which set the tone brilliantly. And as with any JRPG that's worth its salt, the battle theme is catchy, energetic, and a joy to listen to, while the boss theme will also prove an instant classic.
Like the bald hero himself, Dragon Fantasy: Book II emerges from the dungeon victorious, boasting of pretty graphics, a glorious soundtrack, and solid gameplay. But its celebration of JRPGs is cursed with unnecessary mechanics and cut short by technical shortcomings. Ogden would have been better off fondly reminiscing about his previous, more enjoyable adventures.