“It’s not about changing the world. It’s about doing our best to leave the world… the way it is.”
-Big Boss, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
“The following is a contributor post by the Middle-aged Horror Mage.”
Japanese publisher KEMCO and developer EXE-Create are mostly known for their plethora of turn-based, retro-inspired JRPGs that typically originate on mobile devices. Plenty of them have released on modern consoles, though, with the Nintendo Switch alone being home to 13 KEMCO-published role-playing games. That’s a lot of dragons.
I haven’t played them all, of course, but I had a good enough time with Dragon Sinker and Revenant Saga that I always seem to add their newest release to my Switch’s wishlist for a rainy day. For a developer and publisher who specialize in retro turn-based JRPGs, I became more interested than usual in this month’s Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey as it’s instead an action RPG similar to the older Ys titles or the Saturn classic Magic Knight Rayearth.
You simultaneously play as a boy named Kunah and his best friend Riel, who are both chosen by their father Zeus (yes, that Zeus) to adventure into the world below the clouds in search of Escude, a missing angel and a dear friend. There’s talk of warring godlike factions that can’t agree on whether humanity benefits more from mystical blessings or physical trials, as well as a new religious cult that promises a better life in exchange for a virgin sacrifice. Despite how that may sound, it’s mostly light-hearted and sometimes comedic, which lends itself well to the game’s short runtime.
EXE-Create and KEMCO try to do a lot with a little, though “more” doesn’t always mean “better.” You can buy materials to cook food and craft household items, which can be used as restoratives or given as gifts to a handful of important characters in order to raise their affinity level. Reaching the maximum affinity with someone treats you to an additional dialogue scene, but earning the money to buy the materials needed to craft said items is a tedious affair. Gifts barely move the needle and it took over an hour for me to earn enough gold to raise just one of these NPCs.
I’m attracted to RPGs for the lore and the characters, so my desire to reach max affinity was pretty high when the feature presented itself early on. But once I saw how much grinding was involved, I immediately stopped after raising the first NPC to max level. I’m used to grinding in an RPG, but it wasn’t how I wanted to spend my time in Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey, since the reward wasn’t attractive enough.
In addition to crafting, you can upgrade weapons (of which there are three types — close, medium, and long range), hunt down collectable hamster creatures, complete a few side-quests, and participate in a slot machine mini-game at the in-game casino for some choice rewards.
Something that may turn potential players away, though, is the existence of optional time-saving DLC purchases. Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey is affordably and reasonably priced at $12.99 on the Nintendo Switch eShop. For the record, I found it to be a fun game to spend a day or two with, making it an ideal way to kill a weekend, and honestly I’d say it’s the most enjoyable KEMCO-published title yet.
Those looking to speed up the process (which doesn’t make sense for such a short RPG) can spend $4.99 each to deal double damage, earn triple the normal experience from killing monsters, or receive half the usual damage. I mean, I’m all for player choice and if you want to spend a little extra to speed up the grindy bits, then go for it. I’m not here to shame anyone. It’s your money, right? But the game itself is incredibly easy on the default setting, it’s relatively short, and $4.99 is a tough pill to swallow for a single piece of time-saver DLC for a 6-hour game. This is the typical price for KEMCO’s optional DLC in similar games, like the aforementioned Dragon Sinker, but most of their catalogue is a bit more robust in terms of length.
Anyway, let’s dig a little deeper with our 8-bit Review, shall we?
As I mentioned above, Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey‘s narrative shows promise out of the gate but is ultimately light-hearted. I enjoyed the friendly banter between the do-gooding Kunah and the sassy, always-ready-to-brawl Riel, and found the supporting cast to be pretty interesting as well. There are surprising reveals, betrayals, and comic relief, while also lightly touching on darker themes, like virgin sacrifice and manipulative religious sects.
The narrative as a whole was passable enough to keep me going, but it’s admittedly thin and carried by its interesting cast of characters.
There is a lot of combat in Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey, which is a mix of melee brawling and spellcasting. You control Kunah and Riel simultaneously with the left analog stick, though both are given their own attack buttons. Kunah can equip magically enhanced fists, medium-ranged swords, or a StarTropics-style yoyo. Riel acts as the pair’s glass cannon, firing off deadly spells at the exchange of her appropriately small health pool.
Each weapon and spell is given a fire and ice version, which serves as the core of the game’s battle system. Better spells for Riel are unlocked by leveling up, eventually giving her a free spammable attack, a homing attack that costs MP, and a massive area-of-effect spell that’s a lot more costly to cast. Her spells can be charged up by holding down her assigned attack button, which increases its MP cost for more damage. Oh, and she can heal if you need it, but you probably won’t.
Kunah dishes out close-range damage by spamming his attack button, which also applies a lock-on marker atop nearby enemies that cause Riel’s magic to zone in (otherwise she just fires in the direction you’re walking). If you can imagine, this requires A LOT of dual button mashing during combat. As long as there were enemies on the screen I was mashing two attack buttons simultaneously, wishing there was an option for rapid fire instead.
Enemy elements are determined by the color of their health bar, with red indicating fire, blue for ice, and white for neutral. The game wants you to attack with the opposite element, which is fine, but there’s no quick switch option for weapons or spells which means a lot of time is spent in and out of the menu to equip the pair appropriately. This is a major bummer that’s made even worse during boss fights where the menu can’t be accessed at all. I went into most of them with Riel using her MP-free spell instead of her cream of the crop stuff.
Granted, every boss was easily defeated using Kunah’s special attack, so I guess it didn’t really matter anyway. Kunah has a secondary meter that’s filled by attacking stuff, and it fills rather quickly. Said meter can then be spent on a severely overpowered special attack that makes quick work of just about everything. As long as you enter a boss’ room of doom with a full meter, there’s no way you can lose.
Using restoratives is a bit cumbersome as well. You can select 5 items to place on a hot bar at the top of your screen, scrolling between them with left and right on the D-pad while holding down the R-button on the console’s shoulder. However, you can only place one item in each slot, regardless of type. For instance, if you have 5 potions and place one in the hot bar, it only places one potion (not the stack). It’s just more unnecessary menuing, really.
It’s worth noting that the game does run just as well in handheld mode as it does docked on the TV. I didn’t notice a difference at all made sure to split my time 50/50 between the two.
Albeit slightly generic, Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey certainly has that 16-bit era charm that I love so much. All of the characters, be it playable or not, look great (if you’re into that sort of thing) and they’re all accompanied by some pretty solid illustrated portraits during the game’s storyboard dialogue scenes (Balboa is totally Rudy from Wild Arms, by the way).
The main reason Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey is deserving of this slightly above average score, though, is its dull environmental design. During my 6-hour playthrough I explored deserts, castles, and mines, which were passably fine but far from being noteworthy. Nothing I’d call “bad,” though!
And that’s basically how I’d sum up the rest of the visuals. Attack animations are minimal and even the magic spells aren’t very interesting unless they’re charged up to the max. For instance, Riel’s high level ice spell spews out multiple versions of the rank below it, but summons a gigantic snowman that crushes everything beneath it when charged up. And poor Kunah’s weapon animations are consistently drab unless he’s unleashing his special ability I mentioned above.
There’s nothing bad I can say about the game’s audio work or the soundtrack, but I just finished it a day ago and I can’t remember a single song. I jumped back in for a refresher and everything is perfectly fitting, but nothing really stood out from the usual “fantasy RPG” stuff.
Each zone had their own respective track, which is to be expected. I guess I just wish it was more memorable and less average.
As I mentioned above, Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey is a fairly simple game. Kunah and Riel make short work of their enemies as long as you have the proper elemental weapon and spell equipped, and should you enter a boss room with Kunah’s special attack ready to roll then most major encounters are over within the blink of an eye.
There are higher difficulty settings that provide denser bullet sponges, but the default setting is certainly a cakewalk. I also found the game to be far more difficult when using Kunah’s close-range weapons since touching an enemy immediately cause him harm. This was a non-issue when using the long-range yoyo, though.
I know I’m coming off soured on the game, or at least unimpressed, but I really did enjoy my time with it. Every game doesn’t need to be difficult and sometimes a button-mashy action RPG is just what the doctor ordered. Maybe it’s a case of right place, right time, but so be it!
If an RPG offers New Game+, I typically give it an average 5/10 score based on that alone and then work my way up from there. Without New Game+, the only reason I could see booting up Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey after finishing it would be to see the additional dialogue scenes unlocked by grinding out max affinity ranks. I… probably won’t do that.
Without New Game+ and no additional options opening up after the credits roll, it’s hard to recommend a return trip.
Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey is more unique as a KEMCO-published, EXE-Create-developed RPG as they’re known for their turn-based games rather than these action-intense ones. In terms of the genre as a whole, it’s still above average.
It may not reinvent the wheel, but it does sprinkle in a bit of variety not often found in an action RPG — namely affinity ranks by way of gift giving. It’s not uncommon for an RPG to offer item crafting and weapon upgrading, though.
What makes Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey stand apart from other similar titles is the ability to control two characters at once and making use of their respective abilities simultaneously. It may come off as a bit too button-mashy, but action RPGs usually have a sole hero (hence the Magic Knight Rayearth comparison I made earlier!).
My Personal Grade: 6/10
Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey was a fun way to spend two days between all of the usual full-length JRPGs clogging my backlog. I had just spent 50+ hours with something, so getting to experience a shorter role-playing game that I could finish in a weekend was most welcome (especially at $12.99).
Being an action RPG, it’s also easier to recommend this one over KEMCO’s usual turn-based games because there are so, so many of those to choose from.
The story is fine, the gameplay is fine, and the sprite work is worth an applause. With some more attention to quality-of-life features (like quick weapon and spell swapping in combat), a reason to revisit it, and providing an actual challenge, Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey could definitely score higher than an above-average 6/10.
If you’re hard-pressed for RPGs on the Switch, or maybe want a shorter RPG to cleanse the ol’ palate, then give it a look. It’s fun (which is the most important thing), if not slightly unremarkable!
Aggregate Score: 4.9
Bradley Keene is the Middle-aged Horror Mage and a self-proclaimed JRPG and horror game junkie. He’s a Baltimore native that can be brutally murdered in Puppet Combo’s ’80s-inspired slasher game Christmas Massacre as an NPC and goes by the nickname Trash online as a tribute to his favorite Return of the Living Dead character. Follow him on Twitter @Trashlevania for exploding head memes, cute goat pics, and Japanese wrestling nonsense!
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Categories: Game Review