Author’s Note: This review was originally published on May 5th, 2010. Like other reviews of the time, it uses “witty” taglines to separate each section. I feel like Dragon Quarter is one of the most misunderstood video games of all time. I will never stop defending it and all of the unique things it does so well.
My first RPG, Breath of Fire for the Super Nintendo, was one of the most basic, conventional RPGs in the genre. With each installment, Capcom kept these basics while adding subtle, new features that differ them from each other. For instance, Breath of Fire II (boo!) had the shamans, Breath of Fire III (yay!) had the dragon gene splicing, and Breath of Fire IV (meh…) introduced a simple, but fun, magic combo system. While there were differences, the formula for battling enemies and “saving the world” was about the same. That has changed with Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. Capcom tossed aside conventions and norms and ended up creating a wonderful fifth installment in the series thanks to some of the most unique ideas ever used in an RPG.
The Underground Scene.
The bleak world of Sheldar is an underground civilization where people’s roles in life are determined by their D-Ratio. The higher the D-Ratio, the better your life. After a cataclysmic event caused the above ground world to become unlivable, people retreated to Sheldar and now live by the government implemented D-Ratio program. A ranger with a grunt level D-Ratio of 1/8192, Ryu has been assigned a task with another ranger, Bosch. However, Bosch’s D-Ratio of 1/64 makes him far more important than Ryu will ever be. Or so he thinks. After an accident during their mission, Ryu ends up meeting a mysterious girl named Nina and a member of a resistance organization, Lin. Ryu also ends up obtaining amazing powers that have the power to destroy those around him, and himself. Not concerned with these powers, he decides to help Nina breathe clean air so she can survive. Ryu must venture out of the underground and reach the sky in order to free himself, Nina, and Lin from the polluted world of Sheldar.
Sheldar is a cool setting with some interesting history, but the best part about Dragon Quarter’s story is that it makes you feel like you’re slowly but surely accomplishing a lofty goal. The game shows you how far beneath the surface you are and as the story progresses, you see that number start to get lower and lower. Ryu and his team are trying to perform the impossible for no other reason than to save themselves, not the world. The chemistry between Ryu and his friends was undeniably well scripted. While the villains could have had more written about them in this relatively short RPG, the heroes were interesting enough to carry the wonderful story to the end.
The most interesting aspect about the story, which also gives you incentive to replay the 15 hour game multiple times, is the SOL system. SOL stands for scenario over-lay. Every time you complete the game, you will be granted a new D-Ratio depending on how well you complete the game. When the game starts from the beginning you will see “SOL” appear at the bottom of the screen. This indicates that you have unlocked a new scene of the story. The better your new D-Ratio, the more SOL scenes you will unlock. While there is only one ending, seeing the SOL scenes will give more depth to the characters and make the ending more rewarding.
Sheldar, as well as the rest of the environments in Dragon Quarter, get further enhanced thanks to a wonderfully cel-shaded presentation. While some of the environments can get a repetitive after a while, the visual style is unique from the start to finish. The characters express realistic expression while still retaining their anime influence, despite the fact that they all look like they could stand to eat a couple of cheeseburgers. Their small size ends up making little difference in battle, when they hold their own against a wide a variety of interesting monsters. The music in Dragon Quarter is another major highlight. I know for a fact that I’ll be hunting down this OST so I can listen to the well-composed battle tracks, the up-beat town music, and the pulse-pounding tunes that play during the game’s well designed cut scenes. Voice acting would have helped the story play out, but the ending sequence and the battles showcase Japanese voice acting that gets the job done. As you can see, Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter’s story and presentation are unique. The trend continues with the exploration and the battles.
Fighting with Heart and SOL.
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter plays similar to a dungeon crawler, but with multiple towns in between the dungeons instead of just one. In these towns you can shop for items and weapons. At first, you will have limited room in your backpack to carry items. Luckily, as you progress, the item limit will increase. Money is also a problem in the game at first, especially because of the amount of healing items you’ll want to purchase. When you enter an enemy infested area as Ryu, or whoever you decide to be in the lead, you will see monsters doing their thing in the many corridors. You will also see boxes that can be broken for items, and locked treasure chests that need a key to be opened. To obtain this key, you will need to finish off all monsters in the current room. Instead of random encounters, you have a choice about whether or not you want to get into battle. By pressing a button, the lead character can strike with their weapon and gain an extra turn in battle. If the monster touches you, however, that monster will get an extra turn. To have a better chance of gaining that extra turn, you can implement PETS. PETS strands for positive encounter and tactics system. The acronym sounds complex, but all it means is that you can throw a trap to lure the enemy, give it some damage, or have it start the battle with a status ailment. Ryu and his friends have quick reflexes, so you can just as easily forget PETS and still be fine gaining an extra turn.
Battles transition to the same spot you were standing when you encountered a foe. The room you’re in may have a bunch of enemies, but in each battle, you will only be fighting a certain amount due to each enemy having a different line of sight. Sometimes it’s best to fight enemies one at a time, despite the fact that your rewards may not be as great. The battle system is an interesting mixture of strategy, real-time, and turn-based combat. Those with higher agility move first. Characters have Ability Points underneath their energy. Moving and attacking requires the use of AP. Each character has a range of movement. Typically, you will move your character into the range of enemy and then you pick from a variety of skills, threaded onto your equipment, to use. Skills cost 10, 20, or 30 AP. The more powerful attacks cost 30AP, but by starting with a weak attack and transitioning to stronger attacks, the damage potential will increase in the combo. Plus, the right combination of moves will create a hidden skill. Your team and the enemies will exchange blows back and forth until one side falls. Once the enemies die, they die for the rest of the game. This means there is no level grinding available. Most of the time, battles are difficult because enemies hit hard. Later in the game, bosses have force fields that need to be damaged in a combo before they can begin to receive damage. On the plus side, using items costs no AP and you can store AP to create a long string of attacks.
Later in the game, Ryu has the ability to transform into a dragon and completely destroy anything that gets in his way. Bosses don’t even stand a chance. However, with this power, comes a price. With the ability to transform, or D-Dive as the game calls it, Ryu will acquire the D-Count. When this counter reaches 100%, the game is over. The game doesn’t explain this, which would have helped, but I never felt the need to transform into a dragon until the very end of the game. Thus, I was never fearful of it reaching 100%. The D-Count will increase by .01% for every 10 to 20 steps Ryu takes. It will increase by .1% each time he uses the D-Dash, which allows him to blaze past enemies and knock them down. Using his abilities when he D-Dives to transform as a dragon will increase the D-Count up to at least three to four percent. Basically, this counter acts as a sort of time limit before Ryu’s powers get the best of him and the game ends. This may turn off some gamers, but those are the gamers who have no idea how to play the game properly.
First, the game is beatable without using the D-Dive. Instead of spamming powerful attacks on bosses, you have to plan your strategies. Second, walking around Sheldar multiple times barely increase the counter. I did a ton of backtracking to get back to town to buy supplies and the minuscule amount of percentage increase was hardly anything to worry about. Third, Capcom tried something different to incorporate the battle system along with the story: if you abuse your powers, you will suffer the consequences. I give them credit for trying something new that made the sense of urgency that Ryu, Nina, and Lin are experiencing more significant. This all amounts to a unique, challenging and innovative battle system that is completely different than what’s expected based on the rest of the Breath of Fire titles.
Of course, not all ideas are good despite them being new. First, to make a save, you need an item that you cannot buy in shops. While there is a trick you can exploit to get more of these items, having the ability to save without restriction would have been helpful. Save spots are few and far between, too. Luckily, there is a soft-save option that gets cleared every time it gets loaded up. Money is always a problem to buy new equipment, and your limited inventory gives you little room to fill it with healing items. Finally, getting a game over means you have to SOL Restart or SOL Restore. SOL Restart means starting the game anew with some of your stats in tact. SOL Restore means starting at your last save point. While you can perform either of these two options at any time, doing so means starting from a point that might be far from where you were when you gave up.
The Sky’s the Limit.
As I reflect on the Breath of Fire series, I think about how fortunate I was to have Breath of Fire be my first RPG. It was a great way to introduce me to the genre because of its basic design. Many years later, I’m glad I played the game’s consecutively because Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is one of the most innovative and unique games ever created; very different than the other games in the series, as well as the genre as a whole. The amount of new stuff Capcom brought to the table shows that games can be different and still be thoroughly enjoyable. It was so enjoyable, I immediately began my second file after the credits rolled. Once you reach the sky, you will be given a new D-Ratio as well as the ability to see new secrets. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter also features a new fairy village mini-game that will grant you access to prizes and a secret dungeon. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter does need a bit tweaking in certain areas, but the finished product is one of the greatest RPGs of all time that most RPG players will enjoy. The game took some risks, and in doing so, shot for the moon. They might have missed the mark of perfection, but they still landed amongst the stars.