Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter - PS2 - Review
Capcom’s anxiously anticipated Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is the fifth installment in the long-running BoF series and yet another excellent RPG released exclusively for Sony’s PlayStation 2. Having played through my share of previous Breath of Fire games on the Super Nintendo I was quite excited to finally get my hands on Dragon Quarter (as I’m sure many others who have also played those games are) – and while, after playing Dragon Quarter I am far from disappointed, it did come as something of a shock to discover that it shares little resemblance with the past games in the series. But is resemblance to heritage needed in a next-gen RPG sequel in order to be fun? I think not. In the world of the RPG it’s all good, innovation is encouraged and only the truly original games in the genre ever really get recognized. BoF: Dragon Quarter is one of those truly original games that, while a tad liberal in the innovation department, manages to keep you entertained all the way through thanks to one of the best battle systems ever to grace an RPG (the Grandia games are still tops in my book for that award), a Now and Then, Here and There-esque anime-influenced presentation, and some of the most challenging moments a hardcore RPG gamer could hope for.
But as I mentioned, it does have a tendency to go a little sideways in the so-called “innovation” department. Three letters: SoL. That is the acronym of Dragon Quarter’s new Scenerio OverLay system that forces players to restart their game all the way from the beginning should they be met with an unexpected demise, as RPG gamers usually are at some point. The catch is that every time you restart you’ll be able to keep all the skills and party experience points (which I should note, are completely separate from character ExP that aids in the process of “leveling up”) you’ve acquired up to that point. So, in theory, you’ll have an easier time of getting farther thanks to the carried over stats. You’ll scoff at and curse this concept the first few times you get 5, 10, or 15 hours into the game and be forced to restart from the beginning. It is actually pretty annoying, after all. But this process is made tolerable thanks (or not) to the fact that the game is actually a pretty brief experience in contrast to other RPGs (read: Dark Cloud 2, Xenosaga) currently on the market.
Not a lot of introduction is needed for Dragon Quarter’s storyline. Not because it is already so well known but because it isn’t that heavily reliant on it. The game takes place underground, in “Deep Earth.” Untold disaster has forced civilization below ground, yadda yadda. So don’t expect lush outdoor areas to traverse, environments are made up almost solely of rocky passageways and darkened corridors. A hero named Ryu (no relation to Capcom’s famous Street Fighter) rises up and through a series of events and attempts to discover his destiny with the help of a Dragon’s magical Breath, or some such thing. Along the way he’ll meet up with a pair of characters; Rin: a 21-yo anti-governmental activist, and Nina: a 12-yo girl who (surprise, surprise) Ryu saved from peril and seems to harbor a mysterious secret.
While the story is full of interesting twists and turns that keep you anxiously awaiting the next revelation, it’s the battle system that really steals the show. Dragon Quarter doesn’t use the traditional random encounter battle method and instead opts for a more hands-on approach that requires your on-field character to actually come in physical contact with the opponent before battle ensues. When the fight starts it’ll be in the exact location that you initiated it, so keeping an eye on your surroundings is always useful. Also, you’ll have the ability to attack an enemy before the battle begins, giving you the upper hand with a preemptive turn in battle mode. You can also drop pieces of meat on the field in order to tempt nearby opponents to drop their guard and quickly devour it. At this point you can throw a stick of dynamite or other explosives that will damage the monster before a fight even begins, making them that much easier to kill once you initiate a battle.
Once a battle begins the action will switch to an overhead perspective that shows your characters and opponents (not always at the same time unfortunately). Your every move will be dictated by your available Ability Points (similar to the recently-released Xenosaga and the PS1 cult-favorite Xenogears). Ability Points carry over from one turn to the next, and actually moving your character within slashing distance of your opponent also uses up AP. Each character you control has three levels of attack, the weakest attack takes 10 AP and the strongest attack requires 30 AP. You can unleash combo attacks by stringing together different moves in real-time, causing more damage than if you were to execute one attack at a time. Once your character uses up all his Ability Points, his turn is over. But you can also prematurely end your turn so that you have more AP on the next turn. This method of combat opens up a vast amount of strategy and depth, making every fight feel unique.
In the world of Dragon Quarter every soldier is known by their D-rank, which is basically a status symbol that tells people around you whether you are just a smalltime cadet or a revered leader. Ryu starts the game with an incredibly low D-ranking, but as he defeats more monsters, accumulates experience and skills, and generally progresses through the game his D-rank will gradually raise. What’s cool about this is the fact that new areas, sub-quests, and conversations will open up as you rise through the ranks. Even after you’ve beaten the game you’ll still be able to start again with your D-rank fully intact, which gives Dragon Quarter’s replay value a major adrenaline shot. (a good thing since a scant 10 hours to beat the game is like a slap in the face to most any RPG gamer.)
The character models are about one notch above that of Skies of Arcadia, which isn't saying much. The cel-shading method that the developers went with lends itself to some interesting style, but the end result is far from impressive. Every now and then you’ll notice a fancy visual feat that the developers threw in – and to be fair, the somewhat simple character models are offset by the incredible architecture (that rarely repeats) and slew of special effects strewn throughout the experience. If I have one complaint though, it’s the often-annoying camera system that is nearly useless in claustrophobic corridors, frequently making enemies imperceptible during combat.
The musical orchestrations are magnificently composed, not wandering too far from established RPG-style yet being something completely new and original in its own right. But when you’ve got Hitoshi Sakamoto and Yasunori Mitsuda (from Vagrant Story and Chrono Trigger fame, respectively) kicking out the jams, to expect anything less would be an insult. This is one videogame soundtrack that I’m actually interested in obtaining. What seems to be lacking, however, is voice acting. To release a sequel to a well-known and respected RPG series post-FFX without full-on voice acting is mighty ballsy. Luckily, the conversations are kept short and sweet. The traditional sound effects that help to somehow validate an RPG, seemingly since the dawn of hit points, are all intact, everything from choosing menu options to performing a critical hit has that trademark old-school RPG sound to it.
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter initially feels like something of a Dark Cloud spin-off with less emphasis on pick-your-own-path-adventure and more emphasis on traditional dungeon crawling coupled with off-the-wall dynamics (SoL). But as you open up new areas, and discover pivotal points in the storyline from having to start over enough times, you start to realize that Dragon Quarter isn’t a knockoff with a spin but rather a genuinely bold attempt at mixing up the established RPG genre, which actually pays off in the long-run. It feels nothing like the games on which it is based, which isn't a bad thing per se', but potential buyers should have some semblance of forewarning lest they expect something drastically different. But besides that, fans of the BoF franchise can sleep well knowing that Nina isn’t the pathetic waste of space she has been in every other BoF iteration.
Easy to pick up and hard to master. The blend of real-time and turn-based combat is second only to the Grandia series.
Heavily anime-inspired. Despite it’s (almost) exclusive underground areas it manages to keep the environments feeling fresh.
Genuinely touching orchestrations engineered by two of the most talented folks in the business. But what’s up with the lack of voice-acting?
Getting through some of the tougher battles in Dragon Quarter can prove to be quite challenging, and the fact that you have to restart from the beginning multiple times to succeed is initially frustrating. Nevertheless, those who crave challenge will still get through the game in a day or two.
Dragon Quarter can’t be accused of being generic, that’s for sure. If you subscribe to the theory that certain rules in the RPG genre should not be broken under any circumstance than you may want to rent first.
At the end of the day, after the dust has settled from frazzled dual shocks and lingering contempt towards BoF’s dreaded SoL system, you’ll come away with an experience unlike that of any past RPG and ultimately feel quite satisfied that damage was kept to a minimal.