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By: Andrew Long
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is the game Vagrant Story should have been. Instead of ponderous gameplay and a sluggish, mind-numbing battle system, it boasts highly customizable, inventive combat and an intensely personal plot that doesn't take forever to get to the point. It also just happens to have excellent replayability, a unique setting, and characters worth caring about. In all, Dragon Quarter goes a long way towards redeeming the series, and is one of the best titles to appear on the PlayStation 2.
Dragon Quarter is all about the tale of Ryu 1/8192, a "grunt" ranger who patrols the smelly tunnels of Shelter to make sure that mutant bioengineered pets don't run amok and kill the people before the pervasive smog can. Among those who live a kilometre beneath the earth's surface, there is an understandable tendency towards this sort of behaviour, and so it is that Ryu and his ilk are required to perform their duty on a fairly frequent basis. The game begins, however, with Ryu tackling the slightly more tedious task of guarding a train as it goes from point A to point B. This, naturally, becomes impossible when a connecting junket falls through, and so Ryu and his slightly aloof sidekick, Bosch, are forced to wander through the tunnels to their point of departure instead. This spells trouble.
The battle system in Dragon Quarter is oddly layered, just as the game itself tends to be. The collection of its various layers is referred to as "PETS", or Positive Encounter Tactical System. What this means is that enemies appear on the dungeon map, much like in the Chrono series. Unlike that series, however, players can trap, deal damage, and even kill some enemies before a fight ever happens. It is also advisable to avoid just running headlong into monsters, because doing so will allot them an extra turn, while players who possess sufficient wherewithal to attack monsters themselves will get the bonus kick at the can.
Combat plays like a mix between Legend of Mana and Xenogears, with three tiers of abilities and corresponding deductions to AP ranging from 10 to 30 for each action taken. These are all customizable based upon abilities found or purchased throughout the game, and can be linked together to form combos which deal extra damage for each successive attack. The battlefield is highly mobile, as both the player and enemies can move around freely during combat. Nina and Lin, Ryu's allies later in the game, also possess magical and ranged attacks respectively, which further adds to the complexity of combat.
All of these things are very nice, of course, but what sweetens the deal even further is the fact that players can gain extra "Party" experience after successfully accomplishing these feats. This becomes especially critical in relation to the Scenario Overlay System, the other neatly interwoven composite fibre of Dragon Quarter. The SOL becomes a nagging reality once Ryu is granted the innate ability to kick ass and chew bubble gum in dragon form, a skill that manifests itself fairly early on in the game. Once Ryu's dragon form awakens, the "D-Counter" starts up. This nifty little display is basically a monitor that goes from 0-100%. Walking increases it by .01% every few seconds, while turning into a dragon during combat jacks it up rather more quickly.
Why is hitting 100% to be feared? Because the second it happens, the game ends. Quite simply, it is virtually impossible to play through Dragon Quarter in its entirety without dying at least once. This is because the game is ungodly difficult by virtue of the fact that it is meant to be played through multiple times, meaning first-timers are in for a rough ride. Fortunately, the Scenario Overlay System allows defeat to be less painful than it would otherwise be, and often a complete restart isn't a bad idea. Party Experience is carried over, as are items stored in the Weapons and Item Lockers found throughout the game, and gold can be stockpiled in the Antz Colony, a minigame that becomes available about a quarter of the way through. This makes it possible to be fairly strong fairly early on and subsequently, regaining lost ground isn't the onerous task it would otherwise be.
Dragon Quarter features music composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto and directed by Yasunori Mitsuda, and it shows. Not overly grandiose or memorable, the tracks found in the game are nonetheless very well-suited to the environments they are found in. Songs tend to mirror the overall dark and dirty atmosphere of Shelter, and so it is that there is an almost eucatastrophic quality to the game's conclusion, as well as its accompanying music. Sound effects are of similarly high quality, and Capcom mercifully decided to leave the entirety of the voice acting in Japanese. There is little to complain about aside from the rather grating and hackneyed Organ of Doom end boss music, which is really getting kind of old.
Cel-shading puts in an appearance in Dragon Quarter, and it adds the effect of playing an old-school RPG in 3D, which is, on the whole, rather nice. Character design tends towards bishounenesque for male characters, while female characters bear the distinction of being the most perkily breasted in RPG history. There is a distinctive quality to the artwork that is hard to put a finger on. This is a good thing, because as far as the background art goes, there isn't too much to speak of. Things are functional, but not terribly above average. This is perhaps understandable, however, since the game aims to convey a certain level of bleak despair, which it does admirably. Meanwhile, the only technical complaint with the graphics is the fact that while the camera is fully rotatable in most areas, non-combat regions (marked in yellow on the minimap) do not feature this function.
The minimap, incidentally, is pretty functional, although slightly difficult to see by virtue of its size. This is, happily, the only real interface problem with Dragon Quarter, which features easily navigable menus and very little visual clutter at any time. Aside from slight quirks in the manner in which the various character information is accessible, everything in this area has been pulled off to a T.
This is also true of the translation, which is virtually spotless. There are perhaps one or two errors throughout, but overall, it is a well-executed localization, which is helped all the more by the fact that there is no horrible voice acting to muddy up the waters. Not only does this save Capcom some money, it also saves the gamer the pain-inducing prospect of hearing Lin shout out the same shudder-worthy lines again and again, and that alone is enough to make Dragon Quarter worth its weight in gold, so to speak.
Not only will players almost certainly be forced to restart Dragon Quarter at some point through the proceedings, it is likely that many will opt willingly to begin anew, as the game offers a wealth of extra material for those who take the plunge. The plot, which is fairly cohesive over just one playthrough, fleshes out impressively with repeated play, and as one's D-Ratio drops, more and more becomes available. While the first time through the game is likely to eat up a good 15 to 30 hours, it is easily possible to breeze through in half that time on subsequent playthroughs as experience and good items accumulate. There is also an in-depth minigame that leads to a secret dungeon which will keep players coming back for more, placing this game in very good standing as far as this category goes.
Indeed, there is much that places Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter in very good standing. Its comprehensive attention to detail and striking originality of both concept and gameplay makes for a refreshing change from the generic offerings being served up in the action-based RPG market today, and indeed, the title is one of the select few that make it worthwhile to own the system it is on. Games like this are what developers should strive to create, and it is a credit to Capcom that it turned this out as opposed to something like Breath of Fire III or, say, Vagrant Story.
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