Being clever only gets you so far.
I didn’t play the original Dragon Fantasy, but a little research tells me that hero Ogden once saved the world as a youth but then went on to live the good life, and that the gist of the first game is that he is pulled out of retirement to save the world once more. Well, things have gone south yet again, and after an inventive way to introduce players to the controls, Ogden is off with his merry band of pirates to defeat evil and continue being awesome. The real star of Black Tome of Ice is the writing, which is irreverent and often chuckle-worthy. This extends not just to the dialogue, but enemy names and descriptions of actions and items. For some reason, I really like the term used for enemy pirate ships: “JERKS.” It always made me smile.
The game looks and plays like an SNES RPG, namely Chrono Trigger. Instead of random battles, enemies appear on the map, and enemy placement now has a bearing on your attacks. Ogden’s spinning-blade attack, for example, will hit not just its target but any enemies immediately around it, too. Enemies are surprisingly hard-hitting even early in the game, and you’ll be relying on healing spells and campfires (strewn liberally throughout each area) to keep on keeping on. Unfortunately, the combat is not as involved as Chrono Trigger—characters don’t have linked attacks, and for the most part, you’ll just be mashing the A button to keep things moving.
One interesting aspect is monster capture. Using nets (mainly), you can attempt to capture enemies once they are sufficiently “beat up,” and they will then join your party as low-level fodder. Should you keep them alive, these enemies will gain in stats and learn new attacks, but should one ever fall, a new minion is only one capture net away. You’re encouraged to experiment and find the minion mix that’s right for you. My only criticism with this system is that there is no graphical difference between party members and foes, so the rock monster that is fighting for your cause looks no different than the one you’re pummeling. This can lead to some confusion as to who is where on the battlefield.
While overworld exploration is often rather rote (go this way, find this thing), dungeons are more fun to traverse, featuring lots of nooks and crannies that often hide equipment or items to find. Towns often involve optional quests if you ever want a break from the critical path. The game looks good, but not great; music is present but unmemorable. You remember the game for the writing, but that only gets you so far.
Dragon Fantasy: Tome of Ice is a good game, made with heart, but I just didn’t find it very engaging. The whole thing feels kind of vanilla, with the exception of the writing. I suspect your mileage will vary based on how much of a fan you are of SNES-era RPGs. With a few exceptions, it’s not an era I yearn to relive, so I didn’t get much out of the game.