Review: Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter

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Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter

Every now and again, a series will reinvent itself to stay fresh. The Resident Evil series was given new life with Resident Evil 4, which cast aside many of the survival aspects of the earlier games and went for more high octane action. The Final Fantasy series got an even bigger shake up than usual with Final Fantasy XII, which streamlined battles and removed random encounters.

The Breath of Fire series received a similar treatment with Dragon Quarter. Ideas that were a staple of the series were changed, or removed completely. The story, the combat, gameplay in general was given a complete overhaul. But there are many ideas that feel out of place within a RPG. There’s limited inventory space, there are no healing spells or inns, the game is unusually short for a RPG (it can be finished easily under 20 hours) and saving requires save tokens. You’re even graded at the end of the game depending on how well you went during your playthrough. These are all gameplay elements you’d expect to find within Resident Evil, or one of Capcom’s other action titles. DQ takes all these unusual ideas and combines them to create a surprisingly compelling game.

The story of DQ takes place in a post apocalyptic world. The surface of the earth is almost entirely destroyed by dragons, so humans are forced to live underground. As the centuries pass, a civilization far beneath the ground is formed. But the world underground is a damp dark place. In order for the government to keep control of the population, humans are assigned a rank from birth. This is to show their social status and capabilities as a person. Those who are born from wealthy and successful families will have higher rankings; they live closer to the surface where conditions are much better, and have a life with better opportunities. Those with a lower ranking are generally born into poverty; they rarely get the opportunity to advance within society. This ranking system is called the D-Ratio.

As it so happens, our hero has a very low D-Ratio. His name is Ryu, a ranger who patrols the lower sectors of Sheldar, the underground capitol. He’s a quiet and determined worker, but he’s kept at a low ranking regardless of his efforts. We meet him just as he is about to go on patrol with his partner Bosch. The mission appears simple, the two are to guard some cargo as its being shifted between towns, but it doesn’t take long before things go awry. Not only is Ryu separated from his partner, he is also overcome with a power that lets him transform into a dragon-human hybrid. The story follows Ryu as he is joined by a young mute girl named Nina, and an anti-government agent named Lin. Not only will Ryu have to battle against the various monsters of the underground, he will also have to face an oppressive government, and overcome a new power that threatens to destroy his soul.

The story is one of my favorite aspects of DQ. It’s quite touching to see the interactions between Ryu and the naive young Nina. It’s also the first in the Breath of Fire series to explore the emotional and physical effects of transforming into a dragon. Every time Ryu makes the transformation, he loses a part of his humanity. Despite the short running time, the gave gives more than enough time to develop Ryu’s personality, as he struggles under the pressure of handling his new powers. The big downfall to the story is that you only get around 2/3 of the story in the first playthrough. There are several scenes that won’t play until you use the new game plus feature at the end of the game. If you intend to only play through the game once, you miss out on quite a lot, which seems a more than a bit unfair for the casual player.

The effects of Ryu’s dragon powers aren’t just within the confines of the storyline, every time you use his powers a percentage is added to a total in the top right hand corner. This is called the D-Counter, and when it reaches 100% its game over. There is no way to reduce it, no way to stop it. The D-Counter will increase every time you do an action; but the rate that it increases depends on what you do. When you aren’t in dragon form, the percentage will increase at a snails pace (it is possible to reach the end with under 20% on the D-Counter, even if you enjoy exploring). Using Ryu’s dragon form on the other hand, will cause the D-Counter to jump up considerably. Attacks in the dragon form will add as much as 5% to your D-Counter, but since it’s possible to kill bosses within a single turn in this form, it’s understandable why it’s as limited as it is.

Like in typical RPG’s, you’ll gain XP, money and items after every fight, but in DQ you’ll also earn party XP. Any party XP that is earned in battle is added to a pool, and can be added to your party’s current XP to increase their levels whenever it’s needed. Party XP is gained depending on several factors in battle; how many enemies you face, what level your enemies are, and how quickly you dispose of them.

The Scenario Overlay system (SOL) is another interesting idea. It let’s you restart, or restore at any time. Using the restart feature you can start again from the begging, albeit with party XP and any stored items intact, while the D-Counter will be reset to zero. The restore feature on the other hand let’s you continue from your last save point, again with any stored items and party XP intact, but this time your D-Counter is do reduced to what it was when you saved. This is important because it’s the closest thing you can do to reducing the D-Counter. It basically means that whenever you want, you’ll be able to restart the game and try things again, albeit at a higher level (through party XP) and with better equipment. So if you are finding it impossible to advance around mid game, you car restart so that your levels and equipment will be better. The big problem with this is that there isn’t any way around it. Enemies don’t re-spawn, so if you find yourself unable to continue regardless of what tactics you use, you’re pretty much forced to restart from an earlier point.

When you travel from location to location, you’ll see the enemies on screen. Interacting with them will cause a screen shift, but rather than shifting to a different battle screen, the camera switches to on isometric view. Fighting is similar to that of turn-based strategy RPGs. You and the enemy will take turns attacking each other, but rather than having mp, all attacks, spells and movement cost AP. Every turn you get one bar of AP, which will increase in amount as you go up in levels. You can stack up to two bars of AP by limiting your actions during a turn. This is important because you can chain together attacks to increase your damage, which becomes necessary towards the end of the game. Using items doesn’t take up any AP, so you can heal to your hearts content, but with the limited backpack space you’ll need to be careful how often you use healing items.

Each character has their advantages and disadvantages in battle. Ryu as a sword user needs to be close to his enemies to deal damage, but is great at melee attacks. Because Lin has a gun, her attacks are ranged, and whilst she isn’t as great at dealing damage, she is able to combine different attacks to cause ailments and status damage to the enemies. Nina on the other hand has some powerful elemental magic attacks, and can cause ailments on her enemies.

In order to get the first strike in battle, you’ll need to attack the enemy first, but an added layer of depth is added through the use of traps. Want to confuse your enemies? Send out a confuse mushroom and watch as your enemies hit themselves during battle. Want to group enemies together or distract them? Chuck out some meat and run around them. Or why not throw a bomb at them to make them weaker when the enter battle? The choice is up to you. You can also change character on the field, and each has a different way gaining a fist strike in battle. While Nina and Ryu are only short ranged and can hit enemies in front of them, Lin can attack enemies from afar. This allows you to reach flying enemies and may give you an extra turn if the enemy is far enough away.

One of the best features is the ant colony. Throughout the game you’ll be able to build up an underground colony to be explored by worker ants. In this place you can find items, open stores, and unlock a few secret areas. The option for stores is amazing, you can open a café to keep your ants happy, or open stores to get weapons and abilities you can’t find anywhere else. There’s even a music library and a bank to invest your money in. It really opens up a whole extra aspect of the game.

The graphics are surprisingly good considering the low budget. The cell shading gives everything a nice outline, at helps to separate everything in dark corridors. The somewhat serious tone is diminished a little bit by the cartoonish look of the characters; they all have thin stick like bodies and large heads with beady eyes. But for the most part the designs aren’t too bad. It’s in the environments that the game really shines. You’ll travel through old corridors, abandoned buildings, murky caves, all just to continue your quest. There’s a much larger variety of scenery than you’d expect in a game set deep underground.

Overall I’d give the game 8 out of 10. It’s such a unique experience, but there are a few ideas that don’t work as well as they should. It really is a game that requires you to play through it more than once, something that the casual gamer probably wouldn’t enjoy. But this game isn’t for the casual gamer, it’s hard and unconventional, and yet it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. If you're looking for something a little different to the typical Japanese RPG, I'd definately give this a look.


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First, thanks for posting this. Writers' Corner is a sorely underused section, so I'm glad someone is taking advantage of it. As for your review...

Overall, what you have here is a solid understanding of what you want to say, but some of your thoughts were lost in your excitement for the title. For instance, you were obviously enthralled by the story, hence the reason you spent two-plus paragraphs discussing it, but even after reading your synopsis I still don't have a firm understanding of the plot. What I mean is, certain story / character points you mentioned never came back up. How does Ryu's standing in this society change throughout the game? For that matter, how does the ranking of citizens come into play (either in terms of the characters you meet or how the story unfolds)? Do Lin's politics ever bite the group in the ass? Ryu can now turn into a dragon, but I don't have a sense of how this affects the story or why it's even important.

I'm not asking for spoilers or a detailed transcript of the dialog, but a deeper analysis of what's driving the characters forward and how the world pushes back would be nice.

You also have to assume that you're writing for a broad audience. Not everyone who'll read your reviews is a hardcore gamer. Some might be casual, others might not be gamers at all. That said, I felt your coverage of the XP and AP systems was a little too hardcore-gamer-friendly. There are people who don't play RPGs because they believe them to be too confusing. Discussing XP and AP as if everyone knows the score is only going to further reinforce their anti-RPG bias. Make your reviews inviting. Don't dumb it down for the informed, but don't ignore the uninitiated; it's a fine line, but you'll find a way to straddle it with practice.

You mention that the game needs to be completed at least twice, but what if I only want to play it once? Will I be satisfied with the outcome of the story and gaming experience?

After a rewrite, one which addresses these points, I'd like to read it again. Like I said, you have a good start, but I'd like to see where you can go from here.

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