Playing through Dragon Quarter will probably lead one to eventually ask why it's called Breath of Fire. In a series that shares little more than main characters (who are being continuously reinvented) that travel upon a bright, shining world and participate in funky mini games, Dragon Quarter strips away all but the bare essentials and completely rebuilds itself. It isn't so much a Breath of Fire game as it is a wholly new RPG unlike any you've ever really played before, which ends up becoming both its greatest strength and its largest weakness.
In a nutshell, Dragon Quarter is about Ryu, Nina, and Lin and their attempt to find the way out from the deep underground cities where humanity now dwells. Their quest to find the sky and save the life of Nina seems unoriginal in execution with cliché coincidences littered throughout, but in truth, death and giving up are your greatest assets in discovering who everyone really is. Playing through without losing is not only insanely hard, but will also keep much of the character development, background, and story in the shadows. Enter the SOL system, which is affected by encountering events, giving up, or dying, and it's all tied into a unique new feature. As travels are made, the usual assortment of skills, weapons, and experience points are accrued along with a nastier addition - something that can save the group from any battle, no matter how dire, but also damn them to annihilation with the same blow.
Early on, Ryu aquires his infamous dragon form, and dragged along with it is the Dragon Counter. It plays like the timer on a bomb, where every action performed by Ryu while transformed bumps it up a notch, and every step adds a miniscule amount. When it reaches 100%, you die. Dragon Breath, the most powerful attack in the game that can slay anything in a single shot, can use the entire Counter in a barrage of flame and death. How the Counter gets used must be measured carefully. Reckless actions won't get very far and needless waste will lead to an early grave. However, the design here is anything but typical and death is not an end.
When the party falls or when the Dragon Counter becomes too much, the group is given a selection for either returning to the beginning, reviving at the last used save point, or going back to the title screen. For the first two options, all skills and weapons are kept while the party experience points (separate from the normal acquired experience) suffer a penalty and any held items are lost. Returning to earlier points or the beginning will also open the way to new cut scenes that explain far, far more then the game originally lets on to, creating an incentive to go back once in a while anyway.
If one doesn't want to die, there's always the option to give up. That can only be selected outside a battle, and takes the player back to the beginning with the above stipulations except that all party experience is kept. That valuable experience can be used at any time to boost a character, so one could keep playing deep into the game and restarting constantly to build up a massive amount, and then level everyone to the high heavens.
Building all that experience can be a very difficult matter, as Dragon Quarter plays more like a Resident Evil RPG than it does a Breath of Fire game. Saving can only be done with Save Tokens that must be found and used at telephones, although a temporary save that deletes itself upon loading can be done at any time. There isn't much space to carry items and merchants double as item boxes, allowing you to store extra equipment and have it keep through to the next game. The monsters themselves exist in real-time in the dungeons, hanging out until they see you and decide to come charging. Bait items like meat can be used to distract them or dynamite can be tossed to inflict some pre-battle damage. Once an enemy comes close enough, the character can try to gain an extra turn by attacking before the creature reaches them, and then battle begins.
Whichever enemies are within a certain distance of each other are drawn into battle, so it's often necessary to draw monsters away from a larger group and take them on one or two at a time. From here it plays much like a turn-based strategy game, in which you have a certain number of points, known as AP, with which you can move and attack. Move too far and combos become impossible through lack of AP, and often not destroying an enemy as quickly as possible can be devastating. Because of the rationing that must be done with money and items, taking damage at every battle is simply not an option like it is with other RPGs, and not having a healer-type character makes things even more difficult. The strategy pacing involved means that battles move quite slowly. Combined with the enemy interaction while wandering around, that adds up to a lot of time spent planning and moving very carefully. While not very long in terms of exploring space, the difficulty and setup make that journey much longer then it might seem.
Thankfully, Capcom's designers make that voyage much easier, as many of the characters and creatures throughout look amazing. Cel shading is used on most every interactive object, which helps give an interesting look to such a dark and dreary place. That also helps give off a bit of an explanation for the draw distance - which isn't the greatest but one can see far enough to prevent surprise enemies. Sometimes they do decide to get sneaky and will hide on the ceiling behind a door frame, but characters will look in the direction of enemies so nothing will surprise the vigilant. Unfortunately a number of enemies are typical in design, like mere spiders, slimes, and bats, but there also exist enough unique creatures, like the giant cyclops and mad-as-hell ogres, to balance that out. In their defense, the graphical effects used on the slimes are pretty damn cool, with them stretching and morphing in interesting ways.
The environments are less so, primarily being the same dark mechanical and stone tunnel surroundings, which do their part well but aren't really all that appealing to see for so long. Environmental changes start to come in after a while, but those feel a bit too much like a forced video game dungeon than it does a natural flow. Other graphical inadequacies rear their heads from time to time, like seeing blatantly tiled stone walls during a cut scene. The cut scenes in general lack good animation, relying on pre-done loops far too often and making the character movement looks silly as hell. It's almost painful to go back to after Xenosaga, but fans of Final Fantasy X should feel right at home.
A lot of people will probably have a great number of problems with Dragon Quarter, because of the ways that it differs. It's hard, slow, and takes pre-planning to make it through areas in good shape, something that will turn off a lot of players. But if you're tired of the current genre or simply want to try something different, Dragon Quarter will easily fulfill those desires. I wasn't always pleased with the battle system because I like my fights quick and that just won't do here, but everything else was just so damn interesting that I stuck with it regardless. Being one of the few console RPGs ever designed specifically with replay value is a definite plus, and I like having a "kill button" at my constant disposal. God-like power is always fun to toy with.
· · · MechDeus