In Chi's recent review of The Getaway, he raises some interesting questions about the importance of gameplay. Chi wonders if perhaps too much emphasis is put on the gameplay component of certain titles, to the point where it overshadows everything, including innovation.
And while I certainly think that innovation is an important piece of the videogame experience (otherwise, we'd all still be playing games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders), I often find myself wondering if we as gamers don't put too much onus on the evolution of games. This is particularly true of critics, who've been known to give mediocre games good scores simply because the game strives for something different than the norm.
All of which (in a very roundabout way) brings me to Breath Of Fire: Dragon Quarter, the fifth installment in Capcom's venerable role-playing game (RPG) series. RPGs are notorious for not embracing innovation, clinging desperately to the mantra of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. Innovation in RPGs comes in baby steps—because anything too radical could very well upset the hardcore fans. And since the hardcore fans kept this niche genre alive before it gained mainstream acceptance with the release of Final Fantasy VII, developers seem to go out of their way to please them.
Dragon Quarter is an exception to that rule—and a title guaranteed to divide RPG fans along lines similar to those of politics and religion.
A brief listing of all the ways that Dragon Quarter differs from the earlier Breath Of Fire incarnations would include the omission of random encounters, the lack of an overworld, the inclusion of an Active Point battle system, an emphasis on replayability, and a running time of approximately 10 hours. Any one of these changes would be enough to upset the traditionalists, but all of them at once is essentially overwhelming.
In fact, the only familiar concepts to returning Breath Of Fire fans are the blue-haired hero named Ryu, the young girl Nina, and the dragon transformation ability (and even that has been tinkered with to make it different from the earlier titles). Simply put, Dragon Quarter is a Breath Of Fire game in name only.
Most critics have been pleased with the departure from the standard RPG formula, scoring the game highly in many publications. But again, one has to wonder if they're doing so simply because the game tries to do something new, because the core gameplay of Dragon Quarter features more than a few significant flaws.
The first (and perhaps most daunting) is a fairly steep learning curve. Dragon Quarter thrusts you into the world of Deep Earth with little in the way of guidance. Players quickly learn that the game is essentially a combat-intensive dungeon crawl with a combo-based fighting system that requires a lot of strategizing. This wouldn't be so bad if the game included a short tutorial or something of that nature, but it doesn't (aside from a few brief sets of instructions on the screen before your first fight). Instead, players are left to their own devices, wandering the floors of the first dungeon with nary a clue as to what they should be doing. I've no doubt many players have quit the game in the first hour because they're hopelessly lost, which is a shame.
Of course a learning curve of more than an hour in a game that lasts only 10 is a bit much—which brings us to the second problem with the title. Dragon Quarter is a radical departure from today's RPGs in that the whole game can be experienced in a day or two. The real meat of the game comes from subsequent playthroughs (wherein the player can keep his skills and abilities—not unlike Chrono Trigger). Depending on how one beats the game the first time through (number of saves, number of treasure chests opened, etc.) the player gets a new D-Rank (which is essentially Ryu's social standing in his world). This new rank will allow Ryu to open previously unavailable areas on the second journey through the game. Continually playing through Dragon Quarter and raising the D-Rank will enable the player to see everything the game has to offer—but the question is, does anyone really want to play through the same game four or more times just to see a few different areas?
Battle is yet another area where Capcom attempted to tweak the traditional RPG formula and achieved mixed results.
Dragon Quarter utilizes an active point system (similar to the one used in games like Xenogears and Chrono Cross) that attempts to bring a more strategic element to the traditional turn-based battles. Any action (save for using an item) uses active points. Moving, attacking, casting spells, etc. all deplete the gauge. When the gauge hits zero, the character's turn is over. While this certainly makes the battles more involved than your traditional 'stand on one side of the screen and press X to select an action from the menu' set-up of standard console RPGs, it still gets rather tedious as you progress. Unfortunately, the game just never achieves the dynamic feel of the Grandia battle systems.
Weirder yet is the experience system, which can be absolutely confounding at first.
After battles, players earn experience for their victory. Earn enough, and the character will level—this is all very traditional. What isn't traditional is the inclusion of party experience. Party experience goes into a separate fund and can be used at any time to enhance the characters. How much party experience a fight earns is dependent upon a number of factors, including number of enemies, number of turns to beat them, etc.
Party experience is extremely important, since Dragon Quarter essentially requires that you give up in the middle of the game. And by give up I don't mean you resort to a walkthrough—I mean you literally quit the game and re-start. Doing this will make you return to the start of the game, once again at level 1. However, your party experience is still there, meaning you can use it to level your characters automatically to make getting through those early stages of the game a snap and making it so you can earn even more party experience as you go. Since enemies don't respawn, this is the only way a player can get his characters to high levels. To say that quitting in the middle of the game and restarting is an odd concept is an understatement of epic proportions, and I wasn't particularly thrilled with the idea as a gameplay element.
Despite the flaws, there are some things that Dragon Quarter does well. The cel-shaded graphics are extremely appealing and fit quite nicely with the game's steampunk setting. If not for Dark Cloud 2, these might have been the nicest cel-shaded graphics to grace the PlayStation 2—but instead, they'll have to settle for second best.
Battle itself may be a mixed bag, but the inclusion of a clever trap system falls clearly on the positive side of the ledger. Players can carry a multitude of different traps, which can be used to injure the enemies or distract them before the real battle begins. Tossing a piece of meat will send the bad guys scurrying for the food, thereby allowing Ryu to walk up and strike first, earning a pre-emptive strike when the battle starts. Other traps will damage or confuse enemies as well.
The dragon transformation system has also been radically changed, and for the better. Earlier games allowed Ryu to transform into a powerful dragon almost at will, lowering the challenge of many encounters. Dragon Quarter remedies this in a number of ways. First, there's only one dragon form. Gone are the days of multiple dragons with a form for any given situation. Second, players must use the ability sparingly. Each transformation adds points to a gauge, and if the gauge fills, the game ends. There are no items to lower the gauge, either, so using the dragon becomes a last resort.
And that brings us to Dragon Quarter's greatest strength: its atmosphere. Many reviews have heralded the game as a 'survival RPG', and it's a fairly accurate description. In this age of interactive movies masquerading as role-playing games, Dragon Quarter harkens back to an earlier time—when games were hard.
Given the fact that there are no healing spells in the game and money can be difficult to come by (thereby making the conservation of healing items important), it's very easy to wind up dead. In fact, I died more in this game than I did in the previous five RPGs I played combined. Every fight is a tension-filled affair, because even a simple mistake can easily be fatal. The tension permeates the entire game from beginning to end, and it's honestly unlike anything I've ever experienced in an RPG.
Ultimately, though, Breath Of Fire: Dragon Quarter is a slightly better than average game that coasts along on the fact that it tweaks the traditional RPG formula. The innovations in the title are a hit-and-miss affair that generally obfuscate the fact that the game is little more than a traditional dungeon crawler with a few new wrinkles. Innovation is always welcome in games, but just because something is different from the norm doesn't automatically make it a great game. Dragon Quarter must be content with merely being a good, but flawed, game.