RPG games are always a rare breed, especially on platforms not designed for them. Palm is one such platform; the hardware is simply not really game-friendly (or hasn't been, until the advent of the Dragonball VZ 33MHz and the SuperVZ 66MHz CPUs, which make games like that a bit more of a reality) so developers had to work with little to create much. Enter Dragon Bane. I never played the original, so I will be unable to compare the second incarnation with the first one, but I will be honest: when the opportunity first came my way, I was reluctant to try it for a few reasons. First off, I am generally averse to first-peron RPGs - just matter of personal preference; I (fortunately or unfortunately) grew up on the likes of Wasteland and Fallout (whatever happened to Fallout 3, anyway?). Second, I never expect the Palm to be able to provide a worthy first-person role-playing experience - and when I say "experience", please note that I am not looking for Zork or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on the Infocom (or the Infocom ports to the Palm). So anyway, that position is where Dragon Bane II found me when I was sitting in my chair wondering what game I should try next on my NR70.
The game's story is not of the same calibur as Baldur's Gate (or my vote for the all-time best story, both for the literacy and the convolutedness of it - Planescape: Torment), but it strings the game along. Some big, bad God (or demon - doesn't really matter, I suppose) called Kra'an has escaped and has been leaving traces the size of elephant footsteps everywhere as its minions are arising; and the only respite is by re-forging the Dragon Bane sword, which will forever vanquish the evil overlord, or at least until the next expansion pack is done. On an interesting side note, it looks like all evil overlords in this game (or most - so far as I remember) have names with apostrophes. I wonder if the developers had the same flash of brilliance I once had in naming my evil overlords and anything else that needed a name by assigning names with repeating vowels separated by apostrophes and preferably several hard vowels like K, Q, T and so forth. Else how to explain names like Ta'kall or Raamtha? That's nitpicking, though, everybody chooses their own names, some better than the others. For instance, I never forgave Volition for calling support fighter wings in Descent: Freespace by simply using Greek alphabet letters - Alpha, Beta, Gamma, etc., and the enemy wings by constellation names - Pisces, Taurus, etc. Wing Commander, by contrast, actually gave NAMES to most pilots, which I preferred. But that's an aside, again. Back to our goats, like the French say.
The game is based around a first-person engine, with modules that make it suitable for both 4-grey, 16-grey and 256-color devices. Unfortunately, there is no separate module for either Sony Clie's 320x320 resolution or the 16-bit color that the newer units support. Even without that, though, I must admit that the game looks better than expected. Although both in outside areas, where forest and tree tiles are reused, and inside-city areas, where house tiles are reused (hence the game takes up 1.3MB for the colour version, rather than a lot more), the game doesn't look half bad. Granted, if it supported the high resolution of the Clie, it would look worlds better (no [remote] pun intended), but even as it is, it is rather entertaining. The other thing is, that chances are, you will not be looking at the screen too much. Either you will be walking around navigating with the mini-map on the screen, or you will be simply moving forwards and backwards trying to recover spellpoints (more on healing and recharging later), so the on-screen graphics are not even that important. To further make this point, let me put an example on the table. There are some weapons in the game that give your party Light +1, meaning when you are in the dungeon, you have 1 square's worth of light in front of you - the equivalent of a permanent torch. The thing is, while I appreciate the light-uppedness, there is really not enough alive or notable in the dungeons (or outside, for that matter) to justify a light power-up. Basically, I end up navigating using the minimap in the top right corner on the screen, which only appears when a dwarf called Gyrko (I cannot cease thinking of gyroscopes when I see his name) is in my party.
The game starts off with you talking to the king of New Treleon about the rise of Kra'an, as mentioned above. He suggests that you look around town and bribe a barkeeper to get some information on how to proceed; and once you do that, you find out that another bar in town seems to hold a key as to where you should proceed further. Not before long you find yourself scavenging around in the dungeons, fighting monsters and scrambling for healing. Of which I want to pause and speak. In this game, healing comes from four places: fruits, which are not easy to come by; paying a dude in New Treleon, which is done by using money, which is not easy to come by; using spells, which uses spell point... you guessed it; or staying at an inn, which regenerates hitpoints at a ridiculouly low rate. Unfortunately, the inns become rather useless as your characters gain levels because even at the best, if you manage to get about 10 HP regenerated, that doesn't get you very far if your max is 90 and you are at 15 and need urgent healing. You end up using spells to heal, which, of course, uses up spellpoints which are regenerated by walking during daylight only (and NOT by sleeping). So basically, when you are in need of healing, you are looking at running around for a while using spellpoints to heal and staying at inns overnight to regenerate some more hitpoints. A bit tedious, I rather wish there were a better way to do it.
As you fight many evil bad monsters, you will gain experience points, and, as expected, levels. In a good design feature, the toughness of monsters goes up with your experience but so does the amount of experience you get from killing them - so comparatively, you gain levels at a reasonable rate. That is, assuming you can kill said monsters. While regular monsters are killable, I must file a complaint against boss monsters. Perhaps I am just not a good RPG player, but they cheat! Generally, boss monsters are headed by some minions, and you have to get by the minions while the boss monsters either summon more minions or pummel you with powerful spells. The cheating part comes from them running away. They generally appear at 30 - 40 feet away from you, and you can only advance 10' per turn, *assuming* all the minions are dead. So if a monster appears at 40', he can cast Fire Arc on you 4 times, shaving off about 60 - 70% of your life, if not killing you, then summon a monster and back off a few more times, casting said Flame Arc many more times, essentially rendering him very, very difficult to kill. This happens with every boss and gets to be rather annoying at times since killing him becomes a monumental task.
The whole adventure is reasonably long, though it depends if you factor in the time you will load, fight a boss, die, load again. The aggravating fact is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to revive dead players. I will not say it is IMPOSSIBLE to do so, but I have not found a place to do it at, and I will be happy to be proven wrong. As it stands, though, it becomes quite hasslesome to fight big bosses, simply 'cause your wizards will usually drop dead like flies.
The spells used in the game are not particularly varied but they do serve their purpose. There are healing spells (two: heal player and heal party), attack spells (which vary in strength and in spread - some attack one creature, some attack a group, etc.), and summon spells (which summon elementals that help you out by attacking the enemy and casting occasional helpful spells, like Treat Party). Elementals are generally disposable and die at a somewhat high rate. Since their AC is high and they can barely fend off attacks, if at all.
There is a rather large variety of items to be found, but these items generally fall into one of the predefined categories, which, I suppose, somewhat limits the variety (but then, isn't it the same in any RPG?). You will find swords, axes, wands and scepters, helmets, armour, potions and miscellaneous items. One somewhat annoying bit is that most "good" items are initially not identified, and, at least so far as I could see, none of my party members had any Identify spells - so I had to waste a bunch of hard-earned gold identifying the items (which frequently do not sell for as much as they cost to identify). Perhaps a Thief has an Identify spell on him - but I would have figured a Wizard or a Necromancer should be able to learn such a simple spell - shouldn't he? Spellpoints needed to cast spells can be recharged, as mentioned above, by walking around in daylight, eating sunfruits which regenerate 40 spellpoints, or casting spells which damage enemies and convert the hitpoints that they lose into spellpoints the wizard gains.
Occasionally as you travel, you will converse with characters. More specifically, the characters will converse with you, seeing as you rarely have any choice in the conversation - generally you are told about what happens in the world or whatever, and you basically have to live with it. In addition to talking with characters, you will have to solve puzzles. Puzzles come of several varieties in Dragon Bane. Sometimes you will have to figure out which order to push buttons in on a wall to unlock a door. Other times you will have to figure out where to go to pick up a spare character that can help you on a quest (good luck figuring that one out, by the way. I had to check the solve for it). Yet other times you will have to actually type in an answer from the keyboard (or Graffiti) -- for some reason, in that window, I was unable to get the game to recognize the letter M as typed from my NR70 keyboard; quite weird. Overall, the puzzles obviously don't measure up to the level of Baldur's Gate but nor do they strive to be - they are doable, and don't require you to whack your head on the wall to find solutions for it, which is quite useful on transatlantic flights, where such an action may get you labelled as a terrorist in this paranoid world.
The last thing that I want to mention about Dragon Bane II is that it has a modular engine behind it - a rather big and important feature. What it allows people to do is create their own Dragon Bane adventures, and Return of Kra'an is just one of the adventures you can play. As of the writing of this review, there is one commercial add-on for Dragon Bane II by a third-party developer, which claims to have a much bigger world and a much more advanced storyline and gameplay than Return of Kra'an; since it is a separate product from Dragon Bane and is not even made by the same developers, I have not had a chance to look at it, and hence, cannot comment on it. But from an overall standpoint, simply the idea of having modular adventures that you can jump in and out of (the game saves your progress at the point where you exit it, which is a GREAT feature) is enticing. The one thing that I do not know is whether characters are exported or not - I expect they are not, since it would likely upset the game balance.
As a whole, Dragon Bane II is definitely a step forward in Palm OS RPGs, to use an old, beaten-up cliche. Since I have not played the original, I cannot judge how much new ground it breaks in comparison to it, if any, but most definitely, there is little else out there that compares with it both in depth and in quality of execution. I just wish it supported the high resolution of Sony Clies (not even necesssarily the long screen) - that would make it really, really, really outstanding. As it is now, it is quite a good game on which I spent a solid couple of days, in all body states - half-sleeping, walking, sitting in train and so forth. And it is, and was, worth it.