Niche games are generally pretty awesome – so long as you're in that niche. Unfortunately, there are always so many uneducated types frittering away their pointless lives outside of your chosen niche, and that's a difficult obstacle for a commercial game to overcome. Dragon Bane II is about as niche as any game on the App Store, so that undeniably means it's going to be viewed as totally awesome by a highly educated minority of the iPhone populous, while the remaining 95 per cent struggle to understand its appeal.
Old-skool is very much the theme with Dragon Bane II, and although it's utterly saturated with retro styling, the purpose seems to be one of nostalgic recreation – not simply re-engineering an old game for a new platform. Everything from the gameplay to the fonts scream 8-bit adventure, so if classic 'roll the dice' and 'you turn north' exploration plucks your nostalgia strings, Dragon Bane II will make you weep for the past.
The game is just this side of a text adventure, featuring pseudo-3D graphics akin to the old fantasy dungeon crawlers; jumping forward or to the side with each step, devoid of animation but still providing a tangible world to investigate. The storyline is equally classic, though giving too much away in a review would harm your enjoyment. Suffice to say there are wizards and spells, dungeons and monsters, towns and townsfolk all primed to drop clues when properly quizzed in parser/noun vernacular.
Battles take the form of automatic dice rolls and as slashes hit and miss you can decide whether to run, cast a spell, defend or attack. This raw form of turn-based combat still contains as many essential ingredients as any RPG, though they're displayed through text rather than flashy animations of character's jumping back and forth – a few good fights, and your imagination fills in the visual blanks instinctively. There aren't many games, even by modern standards that so effectively evoke the powerful gaming resource of the player's imagination, much to Dragon Bane II's credit.
Also unlike most modern games, there's very little in the way of narrative coaxing, so uncovering elements of gameplay, such as finding a key or talking to the right characters, is a matter of thoroughness, perseverance and luck. It might sound unrefined, but this reflects the nature of classic adventure games when graphics were first added to the mix, so it's hard to think ill of Dragon Bane II for making you work.
Indeed, the low level of sophistication throughout (in comparison to a contemporary adventure) is very endearing. Graphically we're looking at a game that an old BBC computer or a Dragon 32 might have managed, and while that might not live up to the expectations we have of an erudite piece of equipment like the iPhone, the attention paid to recreating this retro experience is profound.
True enough, it would have been nice to see some subtle enhancements. Basic animation when turning and moving would be a practical break from form, as it would help with navigation immensely, and an extra page or two displaying character info, team statistics and inventory would also be functional without betraying the rigid retro styling. Where the game does forge a path into the 21st century, however, is in the Dragon Bane II Adventure Construction Kit, which enables you to build your own dungeons and maps to share with other warriors on a retro quest.
Due to Dragon Bane II's strict adherence to such a superbly realised, yet undeniably limited niche, we're not free to award it the high score that a stalwart of this retro genre would like. If you are one of those gamers who clocked up countless hours turning north, using keys and trying to coax text adventures into swearing, you can confidently ramp the overall score two whole marks. For everyone else, this shouldn't be overlooked due to its classical style; it could be the beginning of the most stimulating history lesson you'll ever learn.