Review: Breath of Fire: DQ (rewrite)


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256px-Bof_dq_case.jpg

Platforms: Playstation 2

Release Date: 18/02/03

Publisher: Capcom

Developer: Capcom

Genre: Turn-Based RPG

Players: 1

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. Rather than add one or two new aspects to the combat system like previous installments, DQ went for a complete gameplay overhaul. The initial outcry from fans was that of disgust, a series that has stuck true to its roots for so long was changed dramatically. But the game received a fair amount of critical acclaim, and with good reason. It’s fun, challenging and highly unconventional. It uses ideas that I’ve yet to see in any other turn-based RPG, and it’s a shame that there aren’t more games out there like it.

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 a system called the D-Ratio; which works as an indication of one’s potential. It’s affected not only by one’s upbringing, but by their accomplishments in life. But life is hard for those with a low D-Ratio. Society revolves around the D-Ratio system, so it’s rare for those with a low D-Ratio to attain jobs above that of a typical grunt, meaning that the system works against those who are already in poverty.

As it so happens, our hero has a low D-Ratio. His name is Ryu, a ranger who patrols the lower sectors of Sheldar, the underground capitol. There’s little to set Ryu apart from the other rangers, he’s loyal and hardworking, but it is doubtful he will ever rise above his depressive surroundings. Things change when during a routine transport mission with his partner, Bosch; they find themselves taking fire. A member of Trinity, an anti government organization, seems determined to stop them transporting the cargo. It isn’t long before an explosion separates the two, and Ryu is hurtled further underground.

It’s down here that the real adventure begins. You soon meet the two other members of your party, the frail mute young girl, Nina, and a member of Trinity named Lin. Nina plays the tragic heroine with a mysterious past, who is sought after by the government for unknown reasons. When Ryu first finds Nina, he sees her being dragged away by a monster and upon rescuing her becomes determined to help the young girl in any way he can. Lin it seems, is trying to protect Nina as well, and so agrees to a shaky truce with Ryu. Despite their different beliefs, the two agree it would be better to work together to protect Nina from the hordes of monsters underground. But the three will face various trials in order to help the young girl. Both Trinity and the government want to get her, but to what means? If that isn’t enough, the three will have to deal with a scary power that has appeared within Ryu, one that is slowly killing him from within. Throw into the mix corruption and betrayal, creepy experiments, and a mythical battle between dragons, and you end up with moving, if occasionally cliché story.

Needless to say, the story is one of my favorite aspects of DQ. The relationship between Ryu and Lin starts off shaky, but the two slowly find common ground, as their beliefs about society begin to change. Nina is the tragic character who pulls them together, her past is one of pain and suffering, but she stays positive despite her situation. Since this is the first entry in the BOF series to have Ryu talk, it is also the first to explore the effect of his dragon transformations. Ryu is unsure whether his actions are his own, or that of the dragon persona, which talks to him from inside his mind. He’s also afraid of losing himself, as every time he uses his new found powers, he becomes a step closer to becoming a dragon, losing his humanity.

The big downfall to the story is that you only get around 2/3 of it 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. A single playthrough will give you more than enough to understand the characters and will give closure to the main story, but the added scenes have a lot of character development. Whilst in some cases it makes sense (certain plot twists would be revealed early if they were shown in the first playthrough) it seems unnecessary to have to finish a game twice in order to understand the story completely.

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, so it’s wise to use this power sparingly.

Spoils after combat initially seem like typical RPG fare. You’ll gain XP to level up your characters, money to use in shops and occasionally items and equipment, 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. Enemies can only be killed once, so utilizing party XP effectively is a must.

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 keeping your level up above your enemies is hard to do. You may find yourself unable to continue regardless of what tactics you use. And since save tokens are rare (in the U.S version at least) you may be forced to either utilize Ryu’s limited dragon powers, or restart from an earlier point.

When you travel from location to location, you’ll see the enemies on screen. Every enemy interacts differently when they see you. Some charge head on, while others will cower away. There’s a whole trap system to utilize as well. You may be able to lure enemies away with a slab of meat, or perhaps throw out a confuse mushroom, so they will damage themselves during battle. If an enemy ignores food, maybe it’s worth using a bomb to knock them back. You’ll get the first turn in battle if you strike the enemy first, so by stunning or confusing them, you’ll stand a better chance.

When you interact with an enemy, the screen shifts and the camera angle changes. You’ll see the field from an isometric point of view, and you list of commands will change. If you’ve ever played a strategy RPG, you may find some familiarity with how the combat system works. Every action, except the use of items, depletes your AP. Each turn, you will be given a full AP bar, and a list of attacks you can use. Any movement, towards or away from your enemy depletes your AP, so you’ll have to be careful how you position your characters. When an enemy is in range, you’ll be given the option of 3 levels of attack, weak attacks take up 10 AP, mid level attacks take up 20 AP and powerful attacks take up 30 AP. It’s possible to chain attacks together, one after the other, and by chaining weaker attacks into stronger attacks, you’ll get bonus damage points. If you limit your actions, you can get up to 2 full AP bars, allowing you to create longer chains and deal more damage.

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.

The length of DQ is small compared to most modern day RPGs, easily beatable in less than 20 hours. Since enemies don’t re-spawn and the game is linear, DQ instead places a large emphasis on replaying the game through again. At the end you’ll be given your score, depending on how well you went throughout the game. This is represented as your D-Ratio. Whilst your heightened the D-Ratio won’t effect the storyline in any meaningful way, it does add an extra aspect to the gameplay. Throughout the game there are doors that can only be opened on subsequent playthroughs giving you multiple roots to reach your goal. The higher your D-Ratio, the more doors you can unlock and the more you can explore. All Party XP, money and stored items are transferred over, so repeated playthroughs become a lot less frustrating.

When you do feel like a bit of a break from the gameplay, there’s a fun little side game in the ant colony. Whenever you want, as long as enemies aren’t around, you’ll be able to manage an ant colony, sending ants out to dig caverns for you. Occasionally they’ll find treasure, other times they’ll find a place to set up a store, and there’s quite a variety of stores available. You can invest your money in a bank, have ants research new weapons for you, set up a café to keep your ants happy or maybe listen to music in the music store. It’s surprisingly addictive, and since the ants continue to work while you play the game, you’ll often return to new items and locations for you to utilize.

Considering that it’s a low budget title that was released 4 years ago, the graphics hold up quite well. The cell shading gives everything a nice outline, at helps to separate everything in dark corridors. My only complaint is that the characters look terribly cartoonish, with large eyes and stick thin bodies that feel out of place within the context of the serious story. The environments are beautiful though. You’ll travel through old corridors, abandoned buildings, murky caves, and a host of other environments on your quest. There’s a much larger variety of scenery than you’d expect for a game that’s set thousands of meters underground.

In the audio department, DQ is a mixed bag. On one hand, the music is spectacular, directed by Yusunori Mitsuda who previously worked on titles like Xenogears and Chrono Trigger, he brings a rich feel to the underground world. There’s a variety of tracks to suit each situation, from tense boss battles, to the calm exploration of underground caverns. Voice work on the other hand, is almost non existent. The little that is there is entirely in Japanese, and mainly comprises of the grunts and groans in battle and the rare cut scene. The voice actors do a good job with the little time they get though, and they fit their characters perfectly. Sound effects are adequate but little more.

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. To get the most out of DQ, you’ll need to play through it at least twice, which seems a bit extreme. And whilst the D-Counter system isn’t as restrictive as it looks on the surface, it’s still an unconventional mechanic that may turn off anyone who isn’t a hardcore gamer. But if you're looking for something a little different to the typical Turn-Based RPG, that offers a good challenge and a nice story, I’d definitely give DQ a shot.

AJR

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