Mike is definitely correct in saying that Breath Of Fire: Dragon Quarter is a huge departure from the previous (and very formulaic) games in the series. The new formula it introduces may not be perfect, but it's safe to say I had a better time with the game than he did. The "traditional" role-playing game has been done to death, and typical cliché offerings bore me to tears. Perhaps I'm playing the role of Jaded Critic to the hilt, but I graciously welcome creative breaks from the norm in this genre. Instead of Fire, I find Dragon Quarter to be a Breath of fresh air. (Terrible pun most definitely intended.)
Before getting into the areas where we differ, I did want to say that I'm with Mike about the game's learning curve. Due to the abysmally poor instruction manual and the lack of in-game tutorials mentioned earlier, getting comfortable with the intricate and unorthodox structure takes longer than it needs to. As an example, I had questions about the finer points of the Trap system that weren't answered until several hours in—a bad way to make a player feel welcome in my opinion. Learning by doing is fine in your standard fifty-hour save-anywhere RPG, but with such an unusual structure and high stakes play, the developers really should have handed out a bigger bone.
On the issue of game length and replay, Mike and I seem to have had significantly different experiences. Dragon Quarter offers players two choices when enemies get the best of you: Restart and Restore. Restarting does indeed send players all the way back to square one, but Restore puts you back at your last hard-save point. As long as Ryu hasn't expended too much of his dragon power, Restore will get you through the game without ever losing too much progress.
Keeping that in mind, it took me about thirty hours to see the disc's ending, as opposed to Mike's ten. Taking the game to completion once was enough to satisfy me without even taking advantage of the bonus content during repeat sessions. Granted, my time was inflated by experimentation and an extra Restart that wasn't totally necessary, but my gut feeling is that the main quest will prove substantial enough for most gamers without multiple playthroughs.
In any event, the concept of New Game Plus (starting a new game with your previous stats, weapons, etc.) isn't a new one, but this is the first time I've encountered it as a central play mechanism. At first the old-time gamer in me was put off by the notion of starting over, but in essence Dragon Quarter uses the difficult boss encounters and paucity of items to increase playtime instead of tedious and time-consuming random battles. It's debatable whether or not this system is better than endless waves of imps and orcs, but I wouldn't call it flawed for two reasons: First, Dragon Quarter is really a dungeon-crawler, not a typical RPG. Since the point of this genre is to collect better equipment and gain higher levels, it seems to me like a natural fit. Second, the only time a player needs to fully Restart is if they've squandered Ryu's unbelievably potent Dragon abilities (Like I did. Twice.). Conservation of this resource is the absolute heart of the game, and once players catch on in spite of the rotten manual, the rest of the pieces fall nicely into place.
Besides the general confusion players can initially expect, there are a few other irritants that could have been ironed out. For example, the camera control for a game taking place entirely in underground passages and hallways has no business pointing straight downwards in doorways or being so skittish when peeking around corners. I was also somewhat taken aback by the lack of voicework during cutscenes. Videogames are at the point where this level of production is practically a matter of course, so a non-vocal approach felt out of place. Finally, the game's Scenario Overlay system doesn't seem to keep track of which cutscenes you've already seen and which you haven't. A minor point to be sure, but a strange omission for a game that was meant to be replayed several times.
Those quibbles aside, I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Quarter from start to finish, and found the experience to be deeply compelling in a visceral way. The typical "save the girl" portions didn't resonate much, but characters trapped miles underground in a decrepit, dystopian maze of tunnels surely did. The concept of struggling to gain the surface for a reward of sunlight connected with me at the core, and despite all the gameplay decisions that could have potentially turned me away I was determined to see this ragtag band of scrappers make their way out.
Obviously Dragon Quarter is not going to be for everyone, but it does have a very unique appeal. The decision to make the game a "Survival RPG" with sensibilities borrowed from another of Capcom's franchises add a serious amount of tension to a genre that can usually be played in your sleep. The strategic nature of combat ensures that your brain won't take a vacation during battles, either. The project as a whole may not be successful on every level, but I'll take an eccentric game with spark over a well-polished "me-too" title any day. I'm not just praising simply for its differences, though. Aside from the bold, untried formula, Dragon Quarter has the added benefit of being a solid and satisfying game. You've got to respect it for that.