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


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



Gameplay: 8.9

Easy to pick up and hard to master.  The blend of real-time and turn-based
combat is second only to the Grandia series.


Graphics: 8.3

Heavily anime-inspired.  Despite it’s (almost) exclusive underground areas it
manages to keep the environments feeling fresh.


Sound: 9.1

Genuinely touching orchestrations engineered by two of the most talented folks
in the business.  But what’s up with the lack of voice-acting?


Difficulty: Hard

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.


Concept: 8.7

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.


Overall: 8.6

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.