Thursday, May 25, 2006

Breath of Fire V Dragon Quarter

Breath of Fire V Dragon Quarter
Role Playing Game - Playstation 2
Memory Card - 1 save, 1 quicksave
1 player

Once in a long while, you come across a game that is so far ahead of the pack that you can't help gush with praise. It aims so high and succeeds so well that you wonder why other games are content on pushing status quo. Breath of Fire V Dragon Quarter is such a game. It is phenomenal, intelligent, challenging, innovative, cleverly designed, and engaging from its FMV intro to Onitsuka Chihiro's "Castle imitation" credits. There aren't enough superlatives to describe it.

Although this is a RPG, I say that loosely. Dragon Quarter takes a completely different direction than the previous 4 Breath of Fire games. It is actually difficult to classify. Most of its structure hails from dungeon crawler design. Just like dungeon crawlers, you'll be challenged to push further and further into the game with few opportunities to save your progress. The emphasis is on survival, and your rewards for doing so is better equipment. Yet, it retains traditional jRPG cues like an overarching story, "towns", and character development. Fights are inspired by SRPGs. It's an ecclectic mix of everything, but is more than the sum of its parts.

The flow of the game is relatively linear. Your end goal is 1000 meters(?) away from the starting point. Getting there requires exploring a series of passageways and areas. All enemies are visible, so you can choose to fight them or avoid them. There will be treasure chests and item boxes along the way to help you in your quest. Some of these can only be opened by special keys obtained by killing all the enemies in an enclosed area. The cool thing is that you can throw things at enemies before encountering them. This is called PETS. If you toss a bomb at them and it hits, they'll be damaged prior to the battle. If you throw meat, you can lure them to you, or away from you. You also can attack them prior to a battle to initiate a battle. This will give your attacking character an extra turn. These are neat systems to keep the game engaging before and within fights.

When you're in a battle, the intensity is turned up even more. Like SRPGs, positioning plays a crucial role. You have to be aware of weapon range, areas of effect, walking distances and things like that. But what's cool is that there is an Action Point system where you can do as much as you want within your turn as long as your Action Points allow. It is reminiscent of Sakura Taisen 3's ARMS system, which was also released around the same time. There are 3 tiers of weapon attacks, each with varying AP values and each mapped to different buttons. You can chain them into a string of attacks. It not only looks cool, but combos get higher attack bonuses too. In addition, any AP remaining from a previous turn is added to your next turn so a valid strategy could be to pass on this turn so that you can do much more on your next. One of the neatest things is how Nina, your spellcaster, can cast magical traps. By placing them on the ground, you can use them to block off routes between the enemy and you. If the enemy wants to get to you, they will have to trigger the trap thus causing them major damage. You also have attacks that could push or pull enemies into traps you place too. Because of all these factors, Dragon Quarter is actually a leap above most strategy games, and a lot more fun too.

In Breath of Fire tradition, one of the cool things that your main character Ryu can do is transform into a dragon. It allows you to do heavily beefed up attacks. But if you could constantly do that, the game would be far too easy. So the designers capped its usage. Specifically, there is a meter called the D-gauge. Everytime you use your dragon powers, your D-gauge goes up. After every turn in dragon form, your gauge goes up. And even when you're in human form, it goes up. When it hits 100, your game is over. Completely finished. You lose. But it's not as bad as it sounds. When you're in human form, the gauge goes up extremely slowly, probably 1% every half an hour. So there's no way you can die from that. But over-reliance on the dragon form during battles can get you killed.

While the survival structure is initially overwhelming, there are game systems that help to alleviate that. The first is PETS, because it allows you to damage & effect enemies prior to a battle, so that the actual battle will be easier. Next is the SOL (Scenario Overlay) system. In essence, the SOL allows you to restart the game from a previous point (ie your save, or start of game). The difference being that SOL allows you to keep your equipment, money, skills, and "party experience" since you last saved. So if you die in a fight that was too hard for you to handle, you could always just SOL instead of a normal restart to make the game easier. It also resets your D-gauge to the last save. The game encourages SOL because certain story sequences occur only when you do it. Using SOL and the dragon powers are not required though. I finished the game pretty much without using either, so you can tailor the game systems to your style of strategy. And although some might not like that there are too few saving opportunities - a common complaint - you can quicksave anywhere (except battles) if you need to take a break.

When you play through the game the first time, there are certain areas that are locked out. But if you decide to replay it, those areas become accessible, depending on your previous game's score, and allow you to face new enemies as well as gain additional abilities and items. It's a nice bonus to an already outstanding game.

Breath of Fire V came out of nowhere. The four games before it are the very definition of generic RPG. But Dragon Quarter strove to not only surpass them, but the genre as a whole. Kudos to Capcom. This is without a doubt, the RPG of its generation.