Over the last two and a half years, KEMCO has dropped a shocking number of budget RPGs onto the Nintendo Switch eShop. Some of these titles, like Dragon Sinker and Alvastia Chronicles, have served as a proof of concept for how to make a stellar 20-hour adventure at a low cost. Others, like Fernz Gate or Revenant Dogma, have shown us the opposite, uglier side of that coin, resulting in rushed and poorly executed experiences that are better left in the dustbowl of gaming history. KEMCO’s legacy, partnering with developers like EXE Create and Hit Point Inc., is nothing but mixed, but they have shown a propensity for innovation, experimentation, and learning from the lessons of their past.
Today, we’re taking a step backward, with the release of a remastered title from EXE Create’s backlog. Before the developer jumped headfirst into the world of turn-based RPGs, they got their start on a series of action RPGs in the early 2000s. The Frane series offers short, simple action RPGs filled with lively (if stereotypical) characters, along with some of the earliest seeds of what would become staples in EXE Create RPGs today.
This week, KEMCO published an updated version of the third game in this series, now titled Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey. So we’re taking a stroll 16 years into the past, and seeing if a title from one developer’s infancy still holds up today.
On its face, the visual style of Frane is not that dissimilar from titles seen today. The developer’s reliance on tried and true spritework means that very little has evolved for many (if not most) of their RPGs. Sprites are clean and relatively detailed, each bringing out a fair amount of personality in both design and animation. Likewise, the game’s artwork featured in dialogue scenes holds to the same standards held by other EXE Create games today, with anime-style characters that could have been plucked straight from a fantasy adventure manga.
From an audio standpoint, Frane is a bit of mixed bag. While the musical tracks are catchy and entertaining, they are also severely limited in variety. At the same time, the looping on the music is practically non-existent. Every track, if left the play long enough, will awkwardly fade out before starting up again, like a song on an MP3 player set to repeat. Audio effects, meanwhile, are passable enough, though some of the effects can come out a little garbled, as if being played out of an aging speaker. This is particularly noticeable when executing a special attack.
The opening of Frane: Dragon’s Odyssey sets up the lore of the world and the relationship between the story’s two main characters. Frane stars a wingless angel, and member of a prominent dragon clan, named Kunah. Kunah and his fellow angels live high above the human world, existing in a constant cold war with the demons who live below. Both angels and demons want to help usher mankind into an era of prosperity, but disagree on the methods. While angels wish to bestow blessings on the humans to foster their growth, the demons believe that by putting trials and tribulations before the humans, they will rise up to the task, increase their self-sufficiency, and eventually achieve prosperity on their own.
This philosophical conflict drives Kunah’s childhood friend, Escude, to head to the human world against the wishes of the other angels. In response, the god Zeus orders Kunah and another of their friends, a hot-tempered girl named Kiel, to seek out Escude and escort her back to their realm above.
While this premise promises to set up an epic showdown between angels and demons – as Escude going rogue would certainly provoke some kind of response – in actuality, the story in Frane takes a turn for the personal, rather than the epic. Kunah and Riel set up shop in the human realm, and quickly fall in a variety of seemingly disparate characters with different wants, needs, and struggles. All these scattered characters, in true soap-opera style, slowly come together as you discover connections between them. In the end, Kunah and Kiel fight not for some grand struggle between heaven and hell, but for the Escude, the friends they have met on Earth, and each other.
The core gameplay in Frane is simple, but poorly explained. I personally spent a good hour or so starting out in the game dying over and over again in combat, unsure of how to make heads or tails of it. However, when I did finally catch on to exactly what the game wanted me to DO, combat went from being insufferably difficult to an effortless and satisfying breeze.
Combat in Frane is all about the ebb and flow of standard attacks and special attacks. Kunah can make simple melee attacks with limited range (particularly when equipped with his starting fist weapon), which is able to kill appropriately leveled enemies in a few hits. As you kill enemies, a rage meter slowly fills on the upper right of the screen around Kunah’s HP bar. Once fully charged, the player can then execute a special attack, which sends Kunah dashing forward, surrounded by a powerful aura. This attack lasts for several seconds and can be controlled like regular movement, allowing the player to cut through huge swathes of enemies with no effort.
Enemies in Frane infinitely spawn when you scroll around each dungeon, meaning there is never a shortage of fuel for your special meter, nor a shortage of enemies to kill once its fully charged. This system allows players to spend as much or as little time on a given floor as they choose, making both grinding and exploration a satisfying affair. The key downside to this core gameplay system is its repetitiveness, as outside of three weapon types with varying ranges (and no functional variety in special attacks), Kunah does nothing else of note from a combat perspective.
Magical Combat, Elements, and Upgrades
Kiel, meanwhile, follows behind Kunah throughout the game, allowing the player to cast magic spells at range. The most simple spells fire in a straight line, unless Kunah has started an attack, in which case a little targeting sensor will appear over the enemy, making these spells zone in on Kunah’s target. As you level up, Kiel will unlock better spells which auto-target or fire multiple shots, but I found myself consistently sticking with her two simplest spells. It is too easy to simply spam the melee and magic attack buttons simultaneously, effectively turning Kiel’s basic spells into homing spells for the low cost of zero MP.
Perhaps the only iota of strategy involved with Frane’s combat system are the elemental weaknesses. Each monster is either a neutral, fire, or water type. Fire and water type monsters are weak against the opposite type and take very little damage from their own. Kunah and Kiel’s weapons and spells, meanwhile, come only in fire or water varieties, so depending on the dungeon, you will find yourself switching back and forth between these elements to dish out the most damage possible. As time goes on, you may find areas with a mix of fire and water monsters to assault, and I found myself simply putting a fire weapon on Kunah and a water spell on Kiel, dealing with each threat in turn.
The final wrinkle in the game’s combat system, which I only fully discovered towards the end of my playthrough, is the weapon upgrade system. Throughout the game, you will find small gems which can be used to upgrade the power of your weapons. Through most of my game, I would only upgrade each weapon to Level 2, hoping to conserve my gems for the endgame. To my surprise, however, my final weapon upgrades to Level 3 did more than just give a boost the damage of my weapons, but also gave the attacks a boost in range. I played primarily with sword weapons throughout the game, and boosting them to Level 3 caused Kunah to fire off little slashing projectiles to extend his range. While not revolutionizing the battle system by any means, this little tweak introduces an extra tiny dose of customization in an otherwise rote combat system.
In terms of side content, Frane is a bit… strange. The game introduces several options, including a friendship system with select NPCs, farming system, and a crafting system, which are all supposedly tied to one another. However, throughout my time with Frane, none of these elements ever rose to the surface.
Farming and cooking were the most straightforward, but there never seemed to be anything to do with these items other than turn their recipes over to one NPC. Supposedly, I was working towards some kind of reward for turning in enough recipes, but I never saw what that reward might be, because I never found enough ingredients before reaching the endgame. The crafting system, meanwhile, remains a complete mystery to me. I never picked up a single crafting ingredient as loot, and I only recall one shop in the game selling anything that could be used at the crafting table.
The friendship system, meanwhile, seems to be based on both talking with NPCs and giving them gifts. Each of the NPCs available for this system have a little friendship meter at the bottom of the screen when you talk to them. This meter builds as you have conversations, but never in any meaningfully large amount. Presumably, the player is expected to give the NPCs gifts of either cooked meals or crafted items, but whenever I tried to give an NPC a meal, they ended up telling me that they didn’t like that food, making the friendship bar go down. And of course, as mentioned before, I never crafted a single item the entire game, and the game didn’t go out of its way to explain how any of these systems worked beyond the farming.
All told, Frane: Dragons’ Odyssey is not a bad game. The core gameplay is satisfying, if repetitive, and the various characters are entertaining and visually well designed, though most fall into standard Japanese tropes (including some of the “pervier” ones). Side content is limited and unrewarding, never given enough time to breathe in the game’s scant 5-10 hour runtime. While I certainly don’t expect players to be running to the eShop to download this title, it’s worth a look if you’ve got the cash to spare and an interest in a short, simple action RPG with very little frills.