Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter Review
Too Much of a Good Thing
Innovation and originality in the RPG genre are a bit misleading, in that most of what is touted as “new” is simply an old system in a fresh coat of paint. True to form, most of the sequels that constitute the staple diet of all RPGamers only deviate very slightly from one iteration to the next. This standard deviation is best illustrated by the perennial Legend of Zelda and Breath of Fire series, as both contain the same reoccurring characters, items, quest order, and scope. It is in that context that Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter comes as such a profound shock. While the basic story archetype of Ryu saving Nina once again remains intact, the vehicle of delivery is a game paradigm with an almost unheard of amount of innovation. Indeed, one might say too much innovation.
Evidence of the radical departure from the Capcom norm comes from everywhere, but the battle system changes are especially noteworthy. First and foremost is the fact that it is easier to relate the system to those featured in Parasite Eve and Xenogears than earlier games in the Breath of Fire series. Enemies are encountered in real-time once either Ryu or the enemy touch one another, with the one initiating the contact gaining a free round of combat. A momentary transition later, Ryu and friends are fighting the enemy in the exact environment where it was encountered. Attacks come in three strengths and consume a character’s pool of Action Points accordingly, a la Xenogears. Indeed, just like with Xenogears, AP can be pooled from round to round to offer a character the chance to chain together a large number of successive attacks which deal more damage than normal — these long chains are often a requirement to deal any sort of real damage to later enemies. Choosing an attack brings up a wire-frame grid showing exactly what kind of area the attack can hit, although there are relatively few attacks which hit multiple enemies aside from most of Nina’s magic and some of Lin’s gun skills.
The way combat evolves over the course of the game is interesting and manages to maintain a level of excitement that other dungeon-crawls lose as the hours drag on. Most of Dragon Quarter‘s difficulty in terms of normal battles is negated by Nina’s magic, but the enemies encountered do require a few varied strategies in order to defeat without taking damage. Since combat is based on rechargeable AP, Nina is not burdened with magic points and the like, nor are the other characters limited in the number of times a given skill can be used. The downside is that healing magic simply does not exist, forcing the player to maintain an expensive pharmacy of healing items at all times. These items can be used on anyone regardless of range and, furthermore, do not consume AP in their use. Even so, they remain relatively expensive given that most battles earn no money, in addition to the items taking up valuable inventory space, something that is also in painfully short supply. Regardless, battles in Dragon Quarter are never quite the same considering the real-time environments and the fact that attack routines are player-determined — instead of mechanically pressing Attack over and over, these fights often require some intellectual involvement from the player lest your characters begin to be wore down by attrition.
While much of the originality of Dragon Quarter stems from past developments in other RPGs, one thing that is uniquely its own is the Scenario Overlay system. Essentially, the game is set up in such a way to make it virtually impossible to beat on the first play-through. What makes this design interesting is that when facing defeat, the player has the option of reloading either from their last save file or from the beginning of the game with all of their equipment, money, skills and Party XP intact. Party XP is earned normally through battle and offers a pool from which any character can draw in order to level up. In practice, this means that the player is encouraged to plow through the game as far as possible, die to some absurdly difficult boss, and then restart the game not only with high-powered equipment and skills, but also the ability to boost their level 1 characters to higher levels immediately. By the time players reach that same boss, their characters will be much more powerful than they were before and likely be able to defeat the same boss with relative ease. In order to facilitate this sort of counterintuitive gameplay, Dragon Quarter features special story scenes that are only unlocked after the player has restarted the game a certain number of times.
Another wholly unique and integral part of the entire strategy of the game stems from a new take on Ryu’s traditional dragon forms in a mechanic called the Dragon Gauge. Unlocked early in the story, this is a counter which begins at 0.00% and steadily rises over the course of the game to 100%, at which point Ryu dies. In the meantime, Ryu has the ability to transform into a dragon with incredibly powerful attacks all at the expense of increasing the gauge at an alarming rate. Nothing in the game lowers the gauge, and since most of the later bosses require attacks from Ryu’s dragon form to take any real damage, a delicate balance is necessary to maintain over the course of the game to a certain extent. Of course, a player may choose to use the Dragon Gauge recklessly in order to earn XP faster and then simply restart instead of dealing with that liability later. All in all, it is a mechanic that simply works, for lack of a better term, in ways that few game mechanics of similar scope have been implemented before.
Unfortunately, some of Dragon Quarter‘s innovations fail to bring about positive changes in the genre, especially in the areas of interaction and storyline. While the Dragon Gauge and Party XP mechanics require little thought, the management of equipment and skills remain tiresome chores over the entire course of the game. Weapons can contain up to three slots for skills per “strength” of the attack with most not offering all nine open slots. Thus, when buying new equipment, the player is forced to reassign skills to skill slots for every member of their party lest they get into a battle and only have the weakest default attack at their disposal. Additionally, saving the game is handled quite a bit differently than what most RPGamers are used to. For one thing, the player is only allowed a single hard save file and a single temporary save file. Inexplicably, Capcom decided that these save files needed to be created with a unique ID that identifies with both the exact Dragon Quarter disc in the PS2, and the exact PS2 itself. This means that your save file cannot be played on another disc-PS2 combination, including those discs rented from a game rental place or your friend’s PS2. Making matters worse, your game can only be hard saved with Save Tokens, a la Resident Evil, which are in relatively short supply as are the locations where you can use them. A player can make a temporary save at any time other than while in battle, but these temporary saves can only be made as part of resetting the game, a la Diablo 2, and are immediately erased when they are loaded. One can only imagine why Capcom decided to enact this absurd saving system with Dragon Quarter, as it adds absolutely nothing to the game other than a ridiculous layer of danger.
In similar ways, the unique presentation of the game adds little to the way the story pans out. The premise is that, in the future, humanity has been living 1000 meters below the surface for almost as many years. By an accident of fate, Ryu is granted the powers of a dragon and uses this power to try and save Nina by bringing her to the surface. Various sub-plots occur in tandem with the monotonous crawl up to the surface, but they all share one distinct quality: their irrelevance. The Breath of Fire series is not exactly known for its stellar dialogue and gripping drama, but Dragon Quarter manages to fail in a particularly spectacular fashion. Character development is one-dimensional, dialogue is terse and unconvincing, and overall payoff largely nonexistent. For a game that went off into so many new directions, the reliance on tired plot devices and lame commentary is disappointing, to say the least.
At least Dragon Quarter maintains certain levels of visual and aural interest, which work a bit to offset the vacuous text boxes. While the cel-shading is noteworthy in of itself, the character designs are especially intriguing, reminiscent of Tim Burton in general, and A Nightmare Before Christmas specifically. While facial expressions are used sparingly, when they are used they are used to great effect. Similarly, the musical score has moments of astounding brilliance which serve to flavor the somewhat bland ambiance that dominates the rest of the game. Taken together, the visuals and sound are more than adequate in pulling the player into the world, but sadly that world is largely devoid of life or interest.
Determining in an objective sense whether a game experience is worth a thirty hour time investment despite its serious flaws is usually a difficult endeavor. In the case of Dragon Quarter, the decision is relatively easy: pick it up if the price is reasonably discounted. Too many RPGs on the shelves today fail in imitation, few in innovation. Dragon Quarter belongs solidly in the latter category, and for that reason alone deserves to be at least given the chance to make its case before a jury of its peers. If only more companies followed in Capcom’s somewhat uncharacteristic footsteps, perhaps we would finally come across a game that hits upon all of Dragon Quarter‘s successes in innovation and none of its failures. Until such a time, at least one cannot fault Dragon Quarter for not trying something different.