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Diamond in the Rough
By: Gabriel Putnam
Is Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter worth playing? Quite simply, this is probably one of the most original games to come out of Capcom in years. In the past, most Breath of Fire games have followed a predictable pattern of story and character development. Breath of Fire V offers none of this, and from the outset you can feel the change. No longer is Ryu the abandoned waif, but instead a stable working man. While on assignment, he encounters the helpless form of Nina, being carted away into the darkness by fiends, and his life is forever changed. Yet unlike so many games of recent years, this effort never tries to rise above its station. Gone is the plight for the world. Instead, Breath of Fire V's story remains tightly focused around one small group's struggle for survival in an unforgiving world. This personal aspect gives it a flavor which is refreshing after years of the normal fare. It also creates an RPG experience which is one of the darkest to come along in ages. If you're looking for a light and cheerful romp, you should be warned away now. Through the extensive series of SOL replay scenes, this game presents a number of the worst aspects of humanity to confront the player. They're generally not disgusting or sick - simply disturbing, and in many ways touching, as characters have aspects of their lives revealed which might have been better left obscured.
Much of your time in Breath of Fire V will be spent exploring the vast catacombs which form the world of Sheldar. In addition, nearly every step of this journey will be opposed by the host of monsters which run rampant throughout it. These monsters are encountered in a manner similar to Chrono Trigger, where foes are seen from afar and when engaged, fight the party in the same terrain. Through the careful use of obstacles or the hero's special abilities, most non-boss monsters may be bypassed to speed up game play. In addition, monsters may be distracted or harmed while in exploration mode through the use of "traps". Some of these are items, which attract an enemy's attention and then inflict status ailments upon them. Some also take the form of pure distractions, which are used to draw the enemies away from your beleaguered party or set monsters up for an ambush. Furthermore, there are also a variety of attack items, such as proximity mines, which may be thrown at the enemy to damage them, or planted for use in normal combat.
However, these are just a precursor to the battle system which the games most charming aspect. Like a free-form Hoshigami, characters are given a series of ability points at the beginning of each round, which may then be used to walk, fight, or stored. The fighting itself is refreshingly free. Using a system of weapon types, each character in the game must be within a certain distance before attacks may be initiated. Using these weapons, attacks are chosen from three different ranks of powers, each with a varying usage cost, and three available attack types at each power. These types are chosen before combat from a list of potential skills discovered during exploration. Furthermore, Breath of Fire V possesses a thorough combo system, in which skills may be linked to add to the damage of successive attacks within a chain. In addition, unique attacks may be discovered by combining two skills in a row. This wide array of choices, and the discovery of useful skills throughout the game, creates a battle system which is constantly engaging to the mind and never tedious.
Unlike the battle system, the music within Breath of Fire V is not a perfectly orchestrated affair. This isn't to say that it is bad, simply that there are only a few tracks which are noteworthy. In fact, much of the music within Breath of Fire V could best be described as ambience. Partially, this is due to the very nature of the title, in which a large proportion of its length is devoted to exploration of the tunnels of Sheldar. Naturally, the music follows this same pattern and reflects the very environs themselves. And it accomplishes this purpose quite well. A murky tunnel becomes all the more imposing for a subtle track of layered tones, while the depressing worries of travel may be thrown off for a moment by the cheerful bells which accompany a return to settlement. In general, a recommendation for the OST to compliment this game could only be given to those who were truly fans of the game's music. Many of the tracks would feel somewhat empty without the reference of the game to give them meaning.
The visuals for Breath of Fire V serve a similar existence as their music counterparts. Although highly detailed and beautiful, because of the story's location within an underground civilization, large portions of the art consist of complicated metal textures in shades of orange and grey. Although this color palette can become quite tiresome, the consistent use of tone helps to further establish the feel of the world as an artificial waste. In addition, the tones during exploration help to offset the brightness surrounding human habitation. The battle animations within the game stand in contrast to this, however, as nearly everything encountered is painted with a combination of cell shading or highly detailed 3D models. Fires, lightning, and ice all seem to have a very life of their own as they rumble and crackle amidst your foes. In addition, all of the attacking animations are rendered with a fluidity which would fit perfectly within today's fighting games.
Although it shines in a number of ways, one of the primary examples of Breath of Fire V's excellence is the extensive amount of content and discovery which is available for those who play through a second time. Instead of an experience in which most major items and discoveries may be gathered the first time, this game presents a system in which replay, and even surrender by the player, is encouraged. In fact, within the menu system there is an option for a "quick surrender", where a player may immediately restart the game with all of their equipment and money, but none of their personal experience. However, to offset the experience loss, there is also a reservoir of "party experience" which may be carried over between games and distributed to characters as the player sees fit. In addition, for those players who can complete the game, there is the added bonus of a Dragon Rank, which acts as a kind of social standing within the world of Sheldar. This ranking gives players access to a host of new areas and abilities. The opponents faced and conversations which take place around the hero will also be changed depending on his rank, as it serves as a reflection of his own theoretical abilities. This means that in addition to new loot, players will experience entirely new subplots and character expositions that were not present during the first run. In my own experience of two complete plays, and a meager rank of 1/256th, with the potential for 1/4th (hence the name Dragon Quarter), there has still been a quantity of new material which nearly doubled the number of cinematics and plot available. This also makes an accurate estimation of the completion time difficult. In general, the game can be completed on a first try in between 15 and 25 hours. Further runs through the game will then naturally decrease in scope, down to something approaching 8-9 hours I would guess if most battles were speedy or avoided. This can lead to a total play time for the game between 15 hours for a single play, and maybe 50 hours for three complete runs to try and gather everything.
As far as difficulty goes, there are no two ways about it. This game is extremely hard. In addition to the sheer tenacity of enemies and lack of power on the first trip through the game, players also have to deal with a "dragon gauge". This gauge represents the struggles of the hero with his alter ego, the dragon. This conflict is played out among cinematics and other experiences, however, the real trouble is due to the gauge which fills whenever dragon powers are used. And they will need to be used, as many of the fights are so over the top that players will find party members dying left and right without the assistance of a dragon. In addition, the simple act of movement also slowly fills the gauge, representing the hero's gradual slip into madness. The result of these factors comes due when the gauge reaches its peak, which results in an immediate restart. The outcome of this system is game play which relies on a constant weighting of risk from damage and death vs the hero's own condition. A particular combat may seem overly hard and dangerous, however, is the use of dragon power justified when it could trap the player into a guaranteed restart? This isn't actually as bad as it seems, as between four and five boss battles may be handled with Dragon Form powers, but it does make you strategically ponder beforehand whether any of these uses are worth it.
The interface in Breath of Fire V is fairly standard fare for RPG's these days. Built around a text based system, the items, weapons, and status of your party may be examined fairly quickly through the use of character and menu screen swap keys. Within gameplay and story events, the menu system becomes even more streamlined. Instead of a choice selection menu, players have each of their options automatically set to a particular button within a selection of three screens. These three screens may be switched between using the shoulder buttons on the controller, and if a selection is made on any of them, the player then either has their action executed or are taken to a relevant sub-menu to make further choices. All of this results in a very efficient, and transparent, control system for the game. In addition, all of the abilities, menu choices, and items which may be used within the game are explained in detail at the bottom of the screen. In the heat of battle, this can help greatly in determining whether a particular ability will be effective or even worth using. Finally, nearly every line of text within the game has been translated to conform to common English standards. In multiple passes through the game, the worst offenses which were noted were a couple of isolated misspelled words. Hardly disastrous mistakes and proof that Capcom put a lot of care into polishing this game for its North American consumers.
As a final capstone to this discussion, it can be said that Breath of Fire V is worth your money. Now, you may be saying, "But its a hard game that favors replay, and is focused more on story than on sidequests". Quite frankly, the lack of sidequests does nothing to impede the quality of the game and in many ways improves it. Instead of being diverted by numerous paths, which only serve to lessen the focus and impact of the game, Breath of Fire V keeps the player's attention firmly fixed on the goals ahead through a combination of gritty story writing, an invigoratingly fresh battle system, and some of the best paced level designs in ages. In addition, after the game has been completed once, which does take a fair length of time, the player is then free to explore and experience whole new "bonus" aspects of the game which were previously unavailable to them. If thought about as sidequests, this means that Breath of Fire V not only possesses a well thought out story mode with excellent pacing, but a plethora of extra content that nearly doubles the size of the game upon replay. Really, its almost a shame that this game was forced to be released when it was, as it offers a gaming experience which is heads above its nearest competition, yet was swamped under by the publicity those particular releases received. Truly unfortunate for Capcom, as they have managed to once again make a gem of a roleplaying game during their first RPG foray onto the PS2.
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