DragonFangZ - The Rose & Dungeon Of Time from Japanese studio Toydea, is an intriguing and charming mix of genres, utilising both the resource management systems and turn-based combat from traditional JRPG's along with elements such as randomly generated levels and permadeath from roguelikes.
You assume the role of Rose, a half-dragon, half-human girl who stumbles across a mysterious world called the 'Tree Of Time'. Resembling a cross between a 2D Zelda dungeon and a more traditional Fire Emblem-style grid system, Rose navigates an ever descending series of floors to defeat enemies, gather items, weapons and help others in need. Along the way, NPC's offer hints but not there's not much involvement from a story perspective, for reasons that will become clear...
Although the game is in English with sparse Japanese voiceover, for a story and dialogue that's told through text, the localisation goes from laughable to incomprehensible on occasion. The actual explanation of the mechanics and different items is kept to a minimum, so there's a lot of research to be done if you want to make the most of its systems.
While the setting is rustic yet polished, the central characters' hand-drawn Chibi Manga art style is almost sickeningly cute. As the magical sound effects and suitably pleasant, jaunty tunes alternate every few floors, DragonfangZ - Rose & Dungeon Of Time oozes charm. There are 200 types of monsters and overall which, despite their limited animation, are crisp and vivid on-scree. Even if the protagonists over the top design is a little on the awkward side, everything looks good.
In addition to the main game, there is a tutorial of sorts called the Fairy Garden. This consists of 50 separate stages designed to teach you about various aspects of the games different mechanics, from spells and weapon usage, to strategy against groups of enemies. As the game's translation can be unintuitive to put it politely, these are useful lessons to set you up for your adventure.
Initially, DragonfangZ might not look like a traditional dungeon crawling affair. Movement is brisk, taking on enemies and picking up items is quick and easy. It's possible that there are elements of the games mechanics that you won't even notice, but it won't take long before you're brought crashing back down. Each new floor has more powerful foes and more dangerous traps, each time learning how to use the items you collect.
As with any contemporary roguelike, the levels being randomized inevitably is a double-edged sword. While you might gather a ton of items, they could be completely useless against a devastatingly powerful enemy, or in some instances an enemy off-screen using a bow and arrow was able to wipe Rose out in two hits before there was time to properly assess the situation. You can zoom in and out, but constantly alternating affects the game's flow. Similarly, the feeling of accomplishment and progression can be abruptly halted, as navigating corridors can be frustrating as it's easy to get blindsided or ambushed.
It's important to balance exploration with efficiency, as being unprepared will get you mercilessly killed, yet there are only a certain amount of moves you can take before your health will start to reduce. Each turn-based level has a certain number of moves/ attack in order to reach the floor below. Dragon Time, located in the top-left of the screen, is a clock counting down the number of moves you have on a particular floor so it's an important feature that needs tracking. While it's possible to use the analog stick, we find it more accurate to use the D-pad, especially in situations that required more planning. There are traditional weapons, shields and various potions to find along the way. Pressing A will use a melee weapon or use arrows with R as a long range attack, in addition to accessing the item menu with X or quick access to your fang stash with ZR.
Not everything you pick up is useful, though. You have to pay attention as there are poison potions as well as recovery potions. Likewise, weapons such as staffs can have unknown effects and levels of damage, sometimes even powering up or evolving enemies. Wearing the fangs dropped by enemies can be used in two ways - either use them straight away for a small but immediate benefit or equip and save them up for a more powerful attack that takes time. There's also the 'Brave system', which sees Rose's health restored every time she moves when there are no obstacles within an eight-square radius.
Ultimately, DragonfangZ's systems become increasingly deep and varied the more you play and you will always be learning new intricacies. Balancing the strategy of offence and defence management with seeking the strongest combination of items and fangs to progress adds enough JRPG bite to the rougelike format, and with a ranking function to track all your decisions, an item warehouse for storing gathered trinkets and a monster database to catalogue all of your beastly encounters, there's a well fleshed out and enjoyable experience to be had.
Get past the iffy localisation and maybe the cutesy characters if you have to, and DragonfangZ is a fun and interesting genre mash up. The roguelike element makes it ideal for a quick pick up and play session, but you'll also be rewarded if you invest more time to build up stats and learn the increasingly deep systems that are more in line with traditional JRPGs. All in all, it's simple-looking yet increasingly deep experience, one that can be as absorbing as it is perplexing.