My Review- Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (PS2)
When it comes to RPGs, there are many great franchises that simply don’t get enough attention. While nearly everyone has heard of the virtues of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, too few have heard of equally great series like Suikoden, Wild Arms, and of course, Breath of Fire. Capcom’s RPG franchise has been around since the SNES days, and while they do star a boy who transforms into dragons, the first four installments of the series have been traditional console RPGs to the bone. That said, Dragon Quarter stands out as the black sheep of the Breath of Fire family, featuring so many changes and odd design choices that it is difficult to recognize the last Breath of Fire game as part of the series at all.
Past Breath of Fire games had two things in common with one another- a blue-haired boy named Ryu who could transform into dragons, and a girl named Nina. These elements return in Dragon Quarter, but the rest of the package is far removed from tradition. This is a Breath of Fire game in name only.
Dragon Quarter takes place in a steampunk world known as Deep Earth, where mankind has been forced to live underground due to pollution of the surface. Hundreds of years later, the air below ground is growing difficult to breathe, but the government refuses to allow anyone to leave Deep Earth, even though the surface is reportedly safe to live-on again. People also live in a strict class system, where the lower classes live deeper underground with less breathable air. Our hero, Ryu, is a ranger from these lower areas. Ryu is sent with his friend, the much higher ranked Bosch, to escort some important cargo to the higher areas. Their train is attacked, and when Ryu awakes, he meets a mysterious girl named Nina, who cannot speak. Ryu also meets Lin, a member of an organization called Trinity, which sees the Deep earth government as corrupt and rebels against it. Because of this, Ryu is attacked by Bosch and branded as a fugitive, but when Bosch stabs him, Ryu awakens the dragon Odjn’s powers and easily fights off his attackers.
Ryu eventually discovers that Nina is mute because her vocal cords were tampered with in an attempt to turn her into an air purifier. She is slowly dying without clean air to breathe. Determined to save her, Ryu decides to rebel against his former government and reach the surface, all while conflicting with the dragon inside him and fighting the government who seeks to capture him and Nina.
Dragon Quarter’s unique setting and story are actually quite interesting. The main characters get plenty of development over the course of the game. Ryu’s dealing with Odjn as a sort of internal crisis is something previous BoF games never explored, although it adds to one of the worst gameplay elements of this game (more on that later). Nina is suitably tragic- hearing her sputtered and strangled cries as she tries to speak can be positively heartbreaking. Lin doesn’t really do much, but she’s pretty cool, too. Bosch is a suitably douchey rival/ recurring villain character, who you will come to hate as the story progresses.
Unfortunately, not all of the story makes too much sense on an initial playthrough. During some cutscenes, you’ll see SOL flash across the bottom of the screen. What this means is, when you restart the game (the Scenario OverLay system), you’ll see an additional cutscene at that point. It’s an interesting idea, but a lot of these story moments are actually pretty important to the main plot, and encouraging replayability by withholding plot information isn’t good. Dragon Quarter’s story is interesting, but unfortunately is hindered by the…
As mentioned earlier, Dragon Quarter features what is known as the Scenario OverLay system, or SOL, which allows new cutscenes and areas to be viewed upon subsequent playthroughs. This does encourage replayability, giving the player a lot to do if they really become invested in the game. However, the game was unfortunately built to support this system, and this reliance on it ends up ruining what is otherwise a pretty fun game.
Interestingly, Dragon Quarter is essentially one giant dungeon, peppered with the occasional town to visit. Every area in the game can be revisited at any time, and as enemies don’t respawn, each playthrough seems like one long dungeon run. This is an interesting change to the traditional exploration seen in other RPGs.
Dragon Quarter’s battle system is one of the most unique and fun I’ve seen since I played Final Fantasy XIII. Each character has a certain amount of action points to spend any given round. Characters can move in real time within a certain area surrounding them, moving within range of enemies to attack them. Both movement and attacks cost a certain amount of AP, and when a character’s AP runs out, their turn automatically ends. Skills can be chained together, but that quickly burns through AP, and as any leftover AP carries over into the next turn, movement and positioning becomes very important. Pre- battle planning is also important- enemies can be distracted or damaged by a variety of items before battle begins. Dragon Quarter’s battle system is tactical, varied, and fun, but the battles are also very difficult. You begin the game very weak, and even as you get stronger, enemies do quite a lot of damage, requiring a constant supply of healing items in order to stay alive. And staying alive is very, very important, because if you die in Dragon Quarter, you have to restart the game.
That’s right, you have to start over all over again. When you die, you can either go back to your last hard save and lose everything you’d gained up till that point, or restart the whole game. The choice between the two is significant- SOL Restoring (going back to your last save) earns you no bonuses and loses everything you had on your character and any EXP you’d earned recently, but isn’t as large a setback. SOL Restarting, on the other hand, sends you back to Level One, but carries over all of your EXP, which can be re-added to characters, in addition to all the weapons and skills on your character and any items you had stored (stored items also carry over to SOL Restores). To make matters worse, there is the D Counter, a percentage that increases with every action Ryu takes. The dragon form may be extremely powerful in this game, but using it too much will raise the Counter quickly, and if it hits 100%, you die. With hard saves being limited to a finite item in this game (Save Tokens), and all other saves being temporary, Death in Dragon Quarter has a certain roguelike element to it in that it is punished severely.
And that’s Dragon Quarter in a nutshell. Fun and unique gameplay in a series known for tradition, but broken by a terribly punishing system. There are ways to trick the system into doing what you want, but any game that requires such gymnastics simply to save isn’t well designed.
One thing that Dragon Quarter does reasonably well is provide a decent presentation. The game’s cell-shaded graphics aren’t the best looking, but they’re serviceable and do a good job of carrying the look of the world. Character models have a gaunt and pale look to them, showing their adaptation to their underground life, and while some dungeons have a slightly copy-pasted look on occasion, the levels are varied enough to keep from being monotonous, although many early areas are simply too dark. Outside of battle clips (which are still in Japanese), there is no voice acting, only the occasional sound effect like a cough. The game’s soundtrack is simply superb- composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto (Final Fantasy Tactics, Ogre Battle) and supervised by Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross), the movie-like score adds a perfect level of ambiance to the dungeons, and intensity to the fights.
Dragon Quarter is a game I’m slightly torn on. It’s easy to see what the game does right- combat, story, and presentation- and have a lot of fun with the game. It is, however, impossible to overlook the single flawed mechanic (the SOL system) that ruins the entire experience. Without the forced difficulty of SOL, Dragon Quarter would be a great, unique RPG, but as it stands, it’s just a mediocre one. Dragon Quarter can be fun, but it also can and will be frustrating.