Despite dozens of titles available on the PS2 and other platforms, the console RPG has been in need of a good kick in the ass for a while now. While there are some stunning visuals and character art all over the place, for the most part some developers are fiddling with far too many arcane battle systems and even more incomprehensible mini-games that take too much time away from the fun of actually playing the game. Capcom, which has been on a sort of reinvention kick these last couple of years, has come up with a number of cool ideas in Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, a game that'll keep you on your toes from beginning to end.
If you're a fan of the series who's played the game from the SNES original (or the Game Boy Advance versions), you'll be more than a little shocked at this new BOF. In fact, the game is pretty much a departure from just about any recent console RPG, as it mixes together a number of gameplay elements and manages to pull most of them off smoothly and leaves that nice fresh minty good game taste in your brain.
Like the other games in the series, the basic plot is different than the other titles, but DQ has even more superficial references to previous games in the form of some items and minor visual elements. Gone are the bright, colorful visuals, fun minigames, and sunny outdoor locales. DQ is pretty much all about battle and learning to battle effectively in the confines of its combat system.
Rather than endless random encounters (except for a series of tough boss fights), enemies are clearly visible in the areas that you explore. You can also purchase or find assorted traps or bait to distract most enemies or leave them hurt or disabled when battle begins. Part of the strategy here is to get the first strike in and try to keep who or whatever you're fighting off-balance enough so that they don't try to return the favor.
In a move borrowed from some strategy games, each action you take during a fight costs AP, unless you're using an item or special technique that doesn't expend any AP. For example, do you have Nina cast a couple of spell glyphs or high AP spell with no points to move, or do you have her move out of enemy range and add up AP points to cast magic and use glyphs? There's a lot to consider here, and another interesting thing is Capcom has limited you to a 3-party team only. You meet your teammates in different areas of the game, and each one has their particular strengths and weaknesses.
Ryu (or whatever you wish to name him) is a sword user who inherits a powerful transformation skill, Lin (Rin in the manual) is a gunner with some pretty impressive skills, and Nina is the requisite fragile magic user with some really powerful spells. The very first bit of the game has you playing with Ryu and a second character who later adds to the plot by coming after you and your new friends as you try to bring Nina to safety. There's really not all that much going on story wise at first, but the game is carried heavily by a unique gameplay element which actually encourages you to LOSE and restart or reload an old save in order to see more of the story.
It's called Scenario Overlay (SOL), and it extends the gameplay somewhat allowing you access to closed off areas and items not available peviously. The thing is, the game can actually be beaten by skilled players without SOL-ing in a paltry 10-12 hours. but I'm one of those crazy folks who spends about 3 or 4 times that trying to get the most mileage out of my 50 bucks. The game keeps track of the number of times you restart, and new scenes are highlighted by a small blinking SOL bar at the bottom of the screen. Playing through the game only one time will have you scratching your head a bit at the brevity of some cutscenes, but when you see stuff fleshed out courtesy of SOL, you'll nod and smile accordingly. It's a clever gimmick that works quite nicely for the most part.
The graphics are great here- a combination of cel-shaded 3D characters and well-designed, varied environments with little touches like bugs flitting around corpses and lights, a cool water splash effect (like in Baldur's Gate), and some nice transparencies and lighting effects. The enemy design is excellent, ranging from deceptively cute to extremely deadly looking, and of course, many of the tougher characters are completely amazing, hard to kill nightmares. BOF: DQ has a great Yasunori Mitsuda/Hitoshi Sakamoto music score, and is easily one of the best I've heard this year. Sound effects are well implemented, and what little voice there is in the game (mostly characters grunting or gasping at key points in the game) is also quite solid.
My main (but quite minor) gripe is with the camera system, which is good, but sometimes you'll come through a doorway and have enemies right in front of you before you can separate them by D-Dashing or throwing a trap or two down. Another odd thing is the quirky mini-game where you help fairies build a little village. It's a lot of fun hiring and firing ants to dig and uncover rooms, but compared to the dark tone of the main quest, it seems a bit out of place, almost as if Capcom just needed to add something to extend the length of the game. Still, you can dig up some cool items and bonuses, and with a bit more depth, this would make sort of a nice game on its own.
What's really cool about BOF: DQ is that it's one of those games that the RPG elite will no doubt argue over, and perhaps convince them that there are other alternatives out there besides the usual sequel-driven pap. The game adds much salsa to a sometimes stale soup of "me too" RPG ideas, and it'll definitely be fun to see what Capcom comes up with for the next game in the series...
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