Last year's Dragon Fantasy: The Volumes of Westeria was a thorough, if unsurprising, callback to the early days of JRPGs. Rather than try to buck tradition and innovate, it instead opted to embrace all the well-trodden tropes that made the genre so popular. Its sequel, Dragon Fantasy: The Black Tome of Ice, is very much the same in that it doesn't set out to reinvent the wheel, but this doesn't necessarily mean that it's a bad experience.
The story picks up shortly after the end of the first Dragon Fantasy, and while it certainly helps to have completed a playthrough of that, the plot is easy enough to follow for those who are starting with this game. Much like its predecessor the real star of the show here is the incredibly humorous and lighthearted manner in which most dialogue is written. Rather than take itself seriously, The Black Tome of Ice typically goes down the tongue-in-cheek route, and this will no doubt draw many smiles as you play through the campaign. While too much humour can sometimes ruin a game, it works to great effect in this case, as the writing is generally of decent quality and has a certain degree of unpredictability. You may find yourself reading an item description and suddenly notice a nuanced joke in the wording; the humour is occasionally unexpected, but never unwelcome.
Of course, the gameplay is likely what will dictate your mileage here, and it is improved in some ways from the originals, but still retains much of its repetitiveness. The biggest change is that enemy encounters are no longer randomized, instead aping the Chrono Trigger method of showing them all moving around onscreen with the characters. Bump into one and everyone will jump into a fighting stance right there in the environment, there's no longer a separate battle screen. This has some bearing on combat, too, as some attacks are dependent upon enemy or ally placement in order to be most effective. For example, picking a spin attack will show an area of effect around the enemy you'll be using it on, leading to a decision of when and where to use the attack to damage the most enemies.
This helps add an interesting extra layer to combat, but it still doesn't keep encounters from beginning to blur together. The battle system is still simple and turn-based, and it tends to wear away at you the further you go into the game. Witty writing can only go so far when a long chain of battles effectively sees you mashing the A button to keep going. There are certainly some exceptions, and it's assuaged somewhat by the fact that enemies don't respawn unless you leave the area, but it still feels like battles could be less mindless.
The dungeons are a particular highlight, often featuring a series of interlocking paths and secret rooms filled with treasure. Exploration is almost always rewarded, be it with a new piece of loot or a corridor that allows you to skip past a room full of enemies. Bosses are usually preceded by a bonfire that allows you to refresh your party and save your game; a pleasant concession that smoothly sidesteps the problem of some RPGs where checkpoints are an issue and large amounts of progress can be eradicated by losing a battle.
In terms of presentation, this game was built to evoke memories of 16-bit RPGs, and it certainly succeeds on that front. Environments are lovingly crafted and generally feel much more alive than in the first Dragon Fantasy, which never quite managed to showcase something like light sparkling in water to this effect. Sprites are generally very well animated and detailed, with plenty of coluor and lighting effects giving them a more charming appearance. The soundtrack is pretty good, too, and while it doesn't really offer anything that'll have you humming along, it's a fitting tribute to the games of this era.
Off-TV play is supported here as well, with the whole game being mirrored on the GamePad. If you wish, it can be even be played without using any buttons, as everything from menu management to character movement can be handled by taps and swipes. On the other hand, if you don't like having the HUD cluttering up the top screen, pressing the minus button will transfer everything to the GamePad, along with a handy map of the area.
Unfortunately, it must be noted that there are several bugs that hold the experience back from being the best it could be. We had the game crash on multiple different occasions in different places, requiring the console to be reset each time. It's certainly not unplayable, but there are definitely enough bugs that you'll find yourself saving more often than usual. Hopefully a patch will be put out at some point in the future to clean up these rougher edges.
Ultimately, Dragon Fantasy: The Black Tome of Ice is a love letter to fans of classic JRPGs. If you didn't enjoy early Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy games, you probably won't enjoy Dragon Fantasy. While there are lingering issues with repetitive gameplay and bugs, the excellent writing and remarkable presentation imbue The Black Tome of ice with a lot of charm. We give this game a recommendation - 16-bit RPGs don't get much better than this and it's one that RPG fans won't want to miss out on.