And with this, my tour of the Breath of Fire series is complete. This game is every bit as good as I remembered it being, back when I bought it on the first night it came out (February 16th, 2003), starting it on Tuesday, and finishing it by Friday.
Capcom, after releasing four installments of the Breath of Fire series, finally realized that it was a pretty boring series. Or, at least, that’s what I imagine happened, since Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter was so radically different from everything we’d seen from the series thus far. Many fans of the series felt alienated by the change of pace, but I think this was one of the best things Breath of Fire - no, the entire genre of RPGs - has ever done.
For starters, the key feature of the game is the Scenario Overlay system (SOL). Basically, upon losing a battle, one can start over from the beginning of the game, or from their most recent save, with all acquired abilities currently held equipment, progress in the fairy village (more on that later), and a fraction of the currently held money and party experience (also more on that later). One can also ‘Give Up’, at any time, allowing them to do roughly the same thing, but while carrying over all party experience and money. Depending on how far one progresses through the game before restarting, they’ll be able to view more of the story than before. The game is played with the concept in mind that you’ll lose and start over again. Lastly, the game only allows you to make one hard save, which can only be made if you have an item that allows you to do so. Otherwise, you have to make a temporary save, which deletes itself after you load it, giving you a a sense of incredible urgency.
This can prove to be frustrating for some people; however, as a reward for beating the entire game, one gets to start over with all the extra story. Also, determined as a part of the SOL system, is D-Ratio. The D-Ratio’s role in the gameplay is that it allows the player to visit extra rooms in just about every dungeon in the game. D-Ratio changes upon beating the game, depending on many different factors, such as the number of saves, game completion time, et cetera.
The SOL system was made to provide a very good challenge, and reward those that persevere with further elaboration of the story. However, I really think this singlehandedly alienated a lot of potential fans to the game. For one, even though the game isn’t absurdly hard, they could have just as easily made an ‘easy mode’ which allows you to make hard saves without the use of limited items. Also, the idea of not being able to see the entire story from the outset of the game is kind of stupid, ESPECIALLY because the story is so damn good. The problem is, without the full picture, the story instead appears to be mediocrely-constructed. Having an easy and normal mode would really fix the problem, as players could get initiated into the process in a way that will show them the need to be always alert and on guard, even when you’re not fighting.
“Even when you’re not fighting?” That’s right! Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter works something a la Paper Mario in 3D, where combat is initiated by attacking enemies that appear on the map. You can gain the first strike in battle by attacking first, and lose it if the opposite happens. As such, when walking through the dark catacombs in this game, it’s easy for enemies to get the jump on you if you’re not paying attention, and get easily wiped out. As you can see, combat strategy in Dragon Quarter begins before the battle even starts.
To expand upon that that, the game relies more on strategy than simple brute force. Battles are turn-based, and take place on the same map that you walk through, like Chrono Trigger. Your position matters on the map: your allies can only move so far in a turn, and can only hit things so far in front of them, not to mention they can only attack so many times during their turn. Your three characters all have very different roles in combat, as well: Ryu controls close range combat, Nina controls mid-range and does elemental damage, and Lin controls long-range combat. Your party also has a variety of different skills at their disposal, some of them being much more useful than others depending on the situation. This means, of course, that you can’t just mash one button until your enemies die, like you could in all the previous Breath of Fire games.
And to top it all off, there are no random battles, enemies don’t regenerate after dying, and item space is limited, all of which prevents the player from relying on grinding - hell, it prevents grinding in and of itself!
“So, what the hell!? This sounds so hard! What can I do to make this easier?” That’s where the second original feature of the game comes in: the Positive Encounter and Tactics System (PETS). The PETS system is just a glorified name for “Use bait and traps to either lure tough enemies away, or to deal damage/enduce status effects on enemies before battle.” Your use of the baits and traps, along with how well you do in battle, nets you party experience - experience points that you can award to your party members in any way you see fit. The PETS system is a good idea, which is a perfectly logical addition to the gameplay. The only trouble with the PETS system is that you have to be at a running start to throw traps (rather than drop them at your feet). If there could be a way that you could throw them from a standing position, it would be a lot easier to implement. Overall, though, it’s still an excellent and original idea.
Overall, I have virtually nothing bad to say about combat or gameplay in Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, other than that its difficulty could alienate some (easy mode, people!), and using extra story scenes as a device for replay value is stupid.
Speaking of story, it’s pretty excellent. You are Ryu 1/8192 (The ratio determines your status in society; Ryu’s, of course, is about as low as you can get), an average soldier in the world of Deep Earth, a series of subterreanian caves and catacombs built by remaining survivors of a worldwide catastrophe. One day, you and your friend, Bosch 1/64, are assigned to guard cargo on a transport train, when a terrorist group blows the train to smithereens. Ryu, having somehow survived, soon finds a very young girl - Nina - under attack from a monster. After saving her, Ryu attempts to make his way back to the Ranger HQ while protecting Nina, and that’s where the action picks up.
So, the story might not sound like anything new to you, but it’s not the plot that makes it interesting. What sets Dragon Quarter above the rest is the sheer amount of detail put into the characterization. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter makes the absolute best use of non-verbal communication out of any RPG I’ve ever played in my life. Personally, I think a lot of games could really learn from this, rather than delivering contrived, ‘epic’ storylines which uses tons of text to get its point across, all of which usually results in a mediocre game. No, Dragon Quarter definitely goes for a ‘less is more’ approach and lets the characters’ physical actions and facial expressions do the majority of the communication. That’s not to say the game is like Ico, which probably has less than 100 words of dialogue in the entire game; however, there is not even ONE lengthy conversation in the game, but you will still feel like you understand your characters and their feelings. And after all, isn’t that something that storytelling in Video Games should strive for? That is, a way to use the medium to its fullest potential in telling a story? If all I ever wanted was to read a bunch of text, I could always pick up a BOOK, for crying out loud.
What else? The music, done by Hitoshi Sakimoto, (Final Fantasy Tactics, Ogre Battle, Vagrant Story), did an excellent job of catching the ‘techno & fusion’ aspects of the music of the previous games in the series, while still putting a ton of his usual contemporary orchestral flair into the game. The result is incredible. The graphics are cel-shaded, and 2D pictures are used for the characters’ facial expressions. Sometimes, the blending of the 3D models with the 2D faces is seamless; but sometimes, it looks so obvious, and SO ugly. There is also no animation for changing facial expressions, which takes slightly away from the subtlety of it: for example, if someone is waking up from being unconscious, you will see that they don’t slowly open their eyes, but rather, they abruptly go from closed to wide open. The solution is obvious; I just wish they had done something about it.
I can easily that Dragon Quarter is the best PS2 RPG, the best RPG of its generation, and quite possibly the best RPG. Unfortunately, this game will likely go down in history as the game that killed the Breath of Fire series for good; however, if the series were to continue to be much like the first four games, then it deserved to die. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter was a game made by someone who understood that RPGs needed to undergo a drastic change to become relevant again; it’s unfortunate that, at the time of its release, no one else realized it. The truth is, if games like this get critically lambasted for trying to make radical changes to the genre, we’re just going to see a bunch of uninspired anime JRPGs and Final Fantasy 7 wannabes until RPGs die out. Think about that when the next ‘Dragon Quarter’ of the genre gets released. Or, better yet, play Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter and see for yourself how much better RPGs could be.