Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter - Reader Review  

Dragons: Serious Business
by John Boske

Mild, chance of annoying
10-15 hours


Rating definitions 

   Every now and then, you have a game in a long-running series that completely turns the formula on its head, which is a polite way of saying "if we didn't put the name on it, you wouldn't think for a second it's part of the series." Such is the case with Dragon Quarter, ostensibly the fifth entry into the Breath of Fire games and a radical departure from not only the series, but from RPGs in general. Oh, Ryu and Nina are still there, and he still wigs out and does some badass dragon stuff at some point, but beyond that the comparisons to its predecessors are scarce. Fortunately, the game is plenty good on its own merits, and most of its innovations are implemented well, though at times it feels excessively linear, claustrophobic, and a little too rushed.

   Out of battle, the game controls much like most RPGs: wander around towns or other safe spots, talk to people, buy things, save at save points, and so on. In battle, and in the field, is where the differences truly reveal themselves. The game features an encounter system, by which monsters appear throughout the field, and can be proactively pulled into battle by striking them; one can also lay down traps, bait and other objects to decoy critters or prepare the battlefield. Combat occurs in the same area, from a top-down perspective, and any other enemies who were near the player at the time are included in the fight. Characters use action points each turn to move, attack or use pre-set traps/items (inventory items require no points), and the points refresh after each turn. Attacks come in low, medium, and high AP requirements; different attacks can be picked up or learned from the enemy along the way, and, depending on your current weapon weapon, multiple skills may be equipped to each level, and can be chained together for combo attacks.

   Graphically, Dragon Quarter delivers. The cel-shading for characters and monsters looks nice and doesn't clash with the scenery, and the environments are generally colorful and easy on the eyes. Battle effects are flashy and weighty, and combat as a whole is fun to watch. As the game takes place in a massive underground complex, there isn't a lot of variety in the locations - civilian buroughs, labs, industrial facilities and train lines, to name a few; they don't get particularly interesting until later - but each one shows enough attention to detail and care in design to keep from being too repetitive. Music is less noteworthy, and while there are a few solid standout songs, particularly the different battle tracks, the soundtrack is usually just innocuous enough not to be irritating. More often than not, the music gets in the background and stays there. Sound effects fare better, with a good variety of convincing sword clashes, gunshots, voice samples and other noises.

"Now, where's that weak point that I can attack for massive damage..."

   The game isn't hard for the most part, though you have to be careful when dealing with large numbers of critters - particularly early on, when Ryu is by himself - and the boss fights spike abruptly in difficulty later on. Some monsters are highly resilient to certain physical or magical attacks, and until you figure out what they are some fights wind up being a lot harder, unless you happen to have the right skills equipped. Dungeon crawling is fairly linear, and a minimap helps with navigation, but the overall challenge depends a lot on how you use the encounter system; whoever strikes first in the field gets the first turn in battle. Monsters do not respawn, and there are no random encounters, but the game still rewards caution and effective tactics over using the same attacks again and again.

   The game is not very long, and a single playthrough will likely not exceed fifteen hours, but it does boast some genuine incentive for replay due to its unique save overlay system. This system permits one to return to an earlier save in mid-play, or even start the game over, while keeping any stored weapons, items and party experience (earned in battle, which can be distributed to the party at your discretion). Basically, one can go through an area, or even the whole game, several times to build up bonus XP and stat-boosting or healing items, and save those so they carry on to the next run. This is the only true means of leveling up, due to the lack of respawning critters, but the more important aspect has to do with Ryu's D-ratio; a sort of ranking system which, as it gets closer to 1/4 (it starts as 1/8192), unlocks more 'secret' areas and reveals more of the game's backstory. D-ratio is only recalculated after beating the game, and the faster and better you do it the higher your ranking is.


   Perhaps the most obvious departure from the series lies with the story. Gone are the epic, globe-spanning adventures of previous titles. Instead, humanity has retreated from a now-uninhabitable surface to live below ground, and lives in a stratified society where one's class is determined from birth. Ryu, a member of the Rangers (a pseudo-police force), is on the lower end of this society. One not-so-routine assignment later, Ryu discovers that there is something evil lurking inside of him, and that his fate may be intertwined with a mysterious winged girl who needs to get to the surface - where no one has been in centuries.

   Unfortunately, it is with this departure where we come to the more glaring problems. The story is serviceable, but lacking; most of the main characters are forgettable, and some elements aren't explained at all until you unlock extra scenes through replays or a higher D-ratio. It's unique, but a little shallow and not very compelling. Furthermore, the dragon system, a staple and defining trait of the Breath of Fire games, is nothing more than a single 'morph' ability: Ryu changes forms, gets a new set of attacks, and is virtually unstoppable. The major downside is that, once this ability is available, a counter starts, from zero to 100%, and once it hits the top the game is over. The counter goes up even from moving around in the field, but it shoots up even faster when the dragon form and its attacks are used. Simply put, the player is discouraged from using the form, and the game has an artificial time limit - and neither change feels particularly welcome.

   It goes without saying that Dragon Quarter is about as far from the other Breath of Fire games as a role-playing game can get, minus a few recurring names and creatures. On the upside, the game is good enough to stand on its own; it features some legitimately fun battles throughout its unique presentation, and the encounter system is simple enough to accomodate most players, while still allowing for a lot of tactical options. On the downside, despite its differences from the rest of the series, the game still doesn't do anything truly remarkable. Graphics and sounds are good, but not great, the plot is just kind of there, and there may not be enough incentive for many to bother with a replay. That said, Dragon Quarter is still an enjoyable, well-rounded game that promises an adventure unlike most RPGs today, and will doubtlessly appeal to those players searching for something other than your typical 'save the world' endeavor.

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