Saturday, July 11, 2009

PS2 look - Breath of Fire 5: Dragon Quarter

Dramatic changes in the core gameplay are very rare for a series and when they do happen they typically signify the death of a franchise. You may have played the prior Breath of Fires and/or read my thoughts on parts III & IV. Though the games have underwent a number of additions and changes none of them were all that significant. Progression was still tied to exploring an overworld, entering dungeons to further the story, and visiting towns to buy equipment and gather clues. For whatever reason Capcom put together something entirely different for the fifth entry in their only notable RPG series.

Dragon Quarter is yet another tale about Ryu and Nina. Ryu still has the soul of a great dragon inside him and Nina has her trademark wings. The similarities end there however as their storylines are completely different. The overworld we all remember is gone as well, this time it's an underworld where no matter where anyone goes they'll only see the ceiling when they look up. They're joined by a mysterious woman named Lin who is at least some percentage feline(though due to her outfit all that can be noted is her ears and tail). Between the three of them they must reach the surface and maybe see the sky. The usual combination of monsters, evil organizations, bitter rivals, and powerful foes bar their progress.

The most obvious change from just the brief story description is the lack of playable characters. Prior BoFs had many characters with unique abilities that could be swapped out at any time. Here you have Ryu(specializes in melee combat), Nina(offensive magic), and Lin(uses a gun). The game is also a good deal shorter than prior BoFs. Your first playthrough should take at the most 15 hours. If the developers wanted to they could have stopped here and created possibly a side-story that still used the basic gameplay but that simply isn't to be.

Since there's no surface there is essentially no overworld. There are no plains to cross, random encounters to get involved in, oceans to cross with boats or perhaps a whale, and so on and so forth. The game follows a fairly linear path with most of the side areas locked away for one very particular reason. There are a set number of monsters to fight in the entire game and once they're dead they're not coming back(until you start a new playthrough or retry a particular area). The towns have been truncuated into short paths where people merely complain about the state of their world and the usual shopkeepers to help you keep your wares stocked and equipment updated. There's little if any reason to go back to prior areas and your only goal is to push onward and upward. 

Exploration is handled from a third-person behind the leader view. Depending on who is currently the lead(Ryu, Nina, or Lin) they can access a handful of minor abilities. Ryu can swing a sword to open treasure-containing boxes or gain the first strike on enemies, Nina can also strike as well as use her wand to summon nearby treasure to her position), Lin fires her gun which needless to say has its own advantages. All three are capable of placing or throwing a myriad of traps. Some act as merely a lure while others can damage or even hit enemies with status effects. 

The dungeons are crafted of many rooms and hallways filled with monsters. These monsters can be seen wandering around and most will chase you down if they spot you. While not all of them behave the same way and require the same strategies to lure or avoid them effectively dealing with them is handled in the same manner. The goal is to approach these monsters and lead them into a position where you can not only handle a lot of them at once but also that you gain the first strike and possibly wipe them out before they get a chance to react. A great performance in battle is rewarded with more party experience(something we'll get to later). 

The battle system is also quite unlike prior BoFs. Instead of the standard turn-based affair the battle system in Dragon Quarter has undergone a complete overhaul. When a battle starts it takes place in the exact area you initiated the fight(by striking an enemy or getting ambushed) and the enemies are positioned as they were before the transition to battle. Here you are introduced to the AP system. Every action you perform costs AP. Moving to an enemy will cost however much AP it takes to get there and they'll be shrouded in darkness if you're not close enough to attack. All attacks and abilities are divided into three levels with the weakest costing 10 AP and the strongest requiring 30 AP. Once you initiate an attack you can either hit the enemy with another attack of a similar level or you can move up to stronger level and gain a small bonus to damage. This continues until you no longer have the AP to attack. It's simple enough to grasp and necessary for progress as well as gaining party exp. Using items costs no AP so healing/buffs are available as long as you have them. After making your turn your AP is replenished and any leftover will be added in, thus it's possible to have twice your total AP for a round. This is very useful for the later bosses. You can also change your equipment around if need be.

There's a lot of variety in the abilities the player has access to. While most attacks are simply for doing damage a number of them can add status effects, cause debuffs, or even move the enemy around. A common strategy early on is to employ a combination of Nina's trap spells and Ryu's kick that sends an enemy flying backwards. Kicking an enemy into a bundle of traps can wipe them out pretty easily. Furthermore getting a large group of enemies into a single spot is a great idea as certain attacks can damage them all at once. Enemies are effected by movement range and AP as well so they can do some brutal combinations or even be prevented from attacking if the player can keep them far enough away. This leads to a very rich and rewarding battle system as through careful planning and skillful manipulation of enemy behavior the player can rush through most battles with no trouble. The bosses are many in number and they all employ tactics that keep them above the oft-overused description of "guy with lots of HP that hits really hard". Some use the environment in unique ways while others have the assistance of others or use particular strategies. Every major encounter is fresh and exciting. 

The equipment and ability systems are unique in this game in that players don't gain new abilities from levelups. Instead these are found in treasure chests(which are opened with keys that are only gained from destroying monsters), bought from a store, found off certain monsters,  or tied to equipment. Once discovered these abilities can be affixed to weapons or shields(provided necessary slots are available). Though items don't cost AP they do cost inventory space and knowing what to carry is essential for progress. Since items are the only way to heal plenty of those are required but there are also a handful of buffs/debuffs and some very useful items(like one that raises exp gain) should be held onto.

If you've read about Dragon Quarter in the past you've heard of the controversial D-Counter. After a certain point early on in the game the dragon-power inside Ryu is triggered. While this opens up some truly powerful abilities they will eventually consume Ryu. In fact simply running will cause the D-Counter to rise(albeit very slowly). Once the D-Counter hits 100% the game is over. Using Ryu's dragon abilities or the D-dash(which allows him to rush quickly through enemy enemies) will cause the meter to rise at a rapid pace. 

I'm going to take this time right now to point out that the D-Counter is really not nearly as bad as some will make it out to be. On my first couple playthroughs my D-Counter was somewhere around 10-15%. This is due to the simple fact that I didn't need it. It's incredibly useful when applied properly as it can make short work of any boss but it can also make short work of a playthrough if abused. Some people are acting as if there's a strict time limit when really this isn't the case. It's a very well-designed system and perfectly blends the risk vs reward aspect.

With that out of the way there's the other major change Dragon Quarter introduces: The replay system. While this is a short game it introduces a number of sub-systems that may cause first-timers to fumble or a bad encounter that can end their game quite quickly. Furthermore the only saves that are readily available are of the temporary kind and bosses aren't always going to happen when you most expect them. Thus when the party is wiped out (or if the player simply "gives up") the player is given a some options. The player can choose to restart from the last save point provided they saved there using a token. All enemies/boxes from when that save was made and when the player died are respawned(this can be very useful) and the player retains their experience level. However for those who seek a fresh start they can go back and start over the entire game. This causes their level to drop to 1, everything to respawn, but they keep all of their equipment, abilities, party exp, and money. In terms of items only things that are kept in the locker are safely carried over to the next game. So it's always a good idea to put away all of your exp bonus items, certain extremely useful buffs, and others before you decide to restart, retry, or replay. It's a unique method of handling the initial and all future playthroughs.

Future playthroughs? Yep Dragon Quarter is an RPG with replay-value. The replay-value in RPGs typically comes from self-made challenges like beating the game at a lower exp level or going without certain abilities/equipment(though its not limited to just that). In Dragon Quarter the player is expected to play through the game at least a second time to see everything. Additional story sequences and new areas in dungeons that were previously locked away can be discovered provided the player has a high enough D-ratio.

The D-ratio is mentioned several times over the course of the story. It determines the rank of the citizen and that of the player. Starting from 1/8192 the player can eventually achieve the rank of 1/4(aka the highest a human can achieve). How this is done is through a very impressive and deep system. Rather than rate your performance in battles the game has already assumed you've succeeded in fighting and judges you on everything outside of that. This is split amongst seven categories and you must do the following to get the highest possible rank: 

1. Beat the game in 8 hours or less. Though you won't get lost in dungeons spending too much time goofing around or on a tough boss will kill your chances of achieving this goal. This is punishment for the players who rely too much on healing items to carry them through battles rather than through learning how to properly apply what they have.

2. Get 95 to 100% extra turns. Extra turns are acquired by hitting the enemy in a dungeon before they bump into you. How you accomplish this is obvious but like the time there's not one perfect way to achieve this goal.

3. Get 100% completion on the map. This one absolutely requires a second playthrough since in order to access the entire game you need at least a D-ratio of 1/128. This is also good for the players who don't want to go for that 1/4 rank but still want to see everything. The additional unlocked areas also house new abilities and interesting encounters, which help future playthroughs retain their freshness.

4. Open at least 42 Treasure boxes. Simple enough. Since merely walking into a room counts as "completing it" there still needs to be reason for the player to deal with the enemies. This game is masterful in how it implements balance and shows that no matter what the player does there are forces at work that keep them from abusing any aspect.

5. Don't use any save tokens. This requires ignoring the various savepoints in the game. There's still the temporary save as playing a game for eight hours in one sitting is a bit much. Besides if you're at the point where you're attempting a 1/4 playthrough then the bosses shouldn't be a problem. This is done to prevent abuse of the levelup system(since the player could simply retry certain areas to attain a ton of party exp to guarantee they're at level 50).

6. Must be at experience level 50. Note how this ties into the "don't use save tokens" goal. While it may very well be possible to reach level 50 on a regular playthrough most players will have better luck accomplishing this goal by retaining quite a bit of party exp. Besides having a higher level means fights go by faster and easier, which ties into everything else quite nicely.

7. Complete the secret dungeon. After a certain point in the game you can access Dragon Quarter's version of the Fairy town from BoF III/IV. However instead of fairies you control the fate of Antz. Yez I mean Antz with a z. They allz talkz likez zizz and itz realz annoyinz. Anyway through a lot of digging rooms are unlocked that can be filled with everything from shops to sound tests to tons of ways to make more money. It's not too complicated to figure out but on the road to 1/4 there's only one goal in mind. At the end of all that digging is the entrance to a secret dungeon known as Kokon Horay. This 50 level dungeon is quite a trek and as a bonus you start from exp level 1(hopefully you saved some party exp). This is best tackled towards the end of a playthrough as you have all of the available backpack space(found through certain treasure chests) and you can check to make sure you've satisfied the other six conditions to achieving that 1/4. 

However you prepare for this 1/4 rank is up to you but thanks to the retry/replay system you can gather all of the necessary items and party exp as well as fine-tune how you want to go about accomplishing it this task. It helps that every other facet of the game shows excellent design in terms of progression, level design, creativity in enemy behavior, and so on.

Needless to say your work is cut out for you but at least as mentioned earlier you don't need a 1/4 rank to see everything the game has to offer. It does offer an additional challenge and shows the great lengths that Capcom went towards to balance such a unique title. Sure there are critics of many facets of the game like the lack of a reward for not using the D-counter or items not costing AP but the rank system directly works with and against those. Using the D-Counter properly means difficult bosses that consume a lot of time are gone in a snap. Sure you can sit around and use up a ton of items but what does that accomplish? It's a waste of time and resources.  This is a game that is completely aware of every trick the player will use to master it and welcomes it all with open arms. It's a smart game that not creates something new but also gets it right the first time and doesn't need a sequel or three to fine-tune the elements...

...Which I guess is just as well since the only game that remotely qualifies as a sequel to Dragon Quarter is the Xbox 360 game Dead Rising which for the most part also seems to be handled by the same team. Dead Rising is another great game that was unjustly bashed for its unique system and approach. People picked that up expecting a basic zombie slashemup like they picked up Dragon Quarter expecting a basic RPG. A lot of the same ideas are present and the goal to mastering the game is not in survival but in how the player works with all of the various sub-systems and wisely uses their limited time. It's unfortunate that due to a number of factors there is fear among Dead Rising fans that the sequel will do away with the aspects that made the original such a classic.

Cause in the end if either Dead Rising or Dragon Quarter had nothing going for them(which they do as they are both excellent) they still retain their identity. They don't fall into the trap of being just another *insert genre here* game and are able to not only create something memorable but to also show immaculate game-design and are accessible to a large audience.

I'm disappointed in myself for ignoring Dragon Quarter when it just came out and I only got into it a short awhile ago at the low low price of $7.99(local Gamestop). If you haven't given this game some serious time and you consider yourself a fan of videogames I require that you check out. As I might have mentioned in the past, when I say a game is required that is the highest possible recommendation I can make for a game.

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