Saturday, December 22, 2007

Old Favorites: Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, part 1

One of my favorite PS2 RPGs is Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. Dragon Quarter is certainly the black sheep of the Breath of Fire series; it is technically not even a numbered part of the series. In terms of tone, gameplay, character design, and story, it is completely unlike its predecessors. Unfortunately as far as I know, game critics and fans did not receive the game well. It certainly falls into the category of "you either love it or you hate it." However, there is much about the game that I think is original and truly artistic. Here in part 1, I will be talking about the overarching gameplay system of Dragon Quarter that sets it apart from any other game on the market.

At its core, Dragon Quarter is built around one gameplay mechanic: the D-Counter. The D-Counter is a numerical display in the top-right corner of the screen at all times that shows a percentage that is constantly going up through the game. The D-Counter first appears after a significant event early in the game where Ryu, the main hero, first gains the power to transform in his dragonized form, a staple of the Breath of Fire series. From that point on, the D-Counter begins its count at 0.00% and begins its steady climb upwards. Every several steps or eery round of battle, the counter goes up by 0.01%. However, it climbs much, much faster whenever Ryu actually uses his Dragon powers. Whenever Ryu uses his D-Dash power on the field to avoid encounters with enemies, the D-Counter rises constantly and quickly. When Ryu transforms mid-battle using D-Dive, the gauge rises a full percentage point every round, and rises another point or so whenever Ryu attacks with his super-charged strength. And when the D-Counter reaches 100.00%, Ryu dies and it is Game Over.

The entire game revolves around this relatively simple mechanic. Using Ryu's dragon powers can make any point of the game very easy. D-Dash allows the party to avoid any non-boss battle, and D-Dive makes any boss battle impossible to lose. Whenever Ryu uses D-Dive, he literally becomes invincible to all attacks from every enemy in the game (excepting a couple of enemies in special boss battles). Furthermore, by charging up his attacks, at the expense of 2.00% of the D-Counter per charge, Ryu can kill even the strongest boss in the game in one hit. However, if you rely on this overwhelming power or are reckless with it, the D-Counter will reach over 90% in a matter of a couple hours. At that point, a Game Over becomes inevitable. On the other hand, if the player completely avoids using the dragon powers, the D-Counter will barely break 10.00% by the end of the game.

The trick of the game design is that it is impossible to beat most of the bosses in the game on your first attempt without using D-Dive. Most of them are disproportionally powerful compared to the enemies leading up to them. Furthermore, there are enemies lurking about the areas of the game that are much higher level than the other enemies. Without D-Dive, the characters would quickly die. And since there are no random encounters, and no enemies in the game regenerate, it is impossible to farm enemies for experience to gain levels. So, the game design forces the player to use D-Dive without throwing enemies at the player that can only be killed with D-Dive (again, with limited exception at the end of the game).

Since the player is expected to use D-Dive, and thus create a situation where advancing through the game becomes impossible, the game designers created a system to make the game more playable. At any point in the game, it is possible to reset to either a previous save point or to the beginning of the game, and keep your equipment, skills, items in storage, and bonus experience. This means that Dragon Quarter is a game where you play through the game multiple times, growing stronger every time you reset. Since you can't keep your levels nor all of your items, it isn't something to be done lightly. However, this system allows the characters to gradually grow strong enough to defeat enemies and bosses that previously required D-Dive. This means that the player will gradually progress further and further through the game, becoming progressively less dependent on D-Dive. However, to avoid abuse of this system, game saves are strictly limited, and the player can only make permanent saves in a handful of locations.

Because the game demands that the player resets an area or to the beginning of the game occasionally, the game designers made allowances to make the experience more fun. First off, the game is short for an RPG. In order to get the best score, the player has to beat the game in a single run of 8 hours or less. A more typical run would take between 12 and 20 hours. With replays, it takes a typical 60 or so hours to beat the game, probably less. Furthermore, replaying through areas in the game is spiced up by a prevalence of alternate choices and paths in the game, where multiple play-throughs is the only way to see everything. In addition, the game uses something called the Scenario Overlay System, where additional cut-scenes appear at different points in the game the more times you reset, making certain there is something new every time the player resets.

Altogether, these gameplay systems make Dragon Quarter very unique. The replay value of Dragon Quarter is much higher than any other RPG on the market, except maybe the RPG classic Chrono Trigger. I am impressed how the game designers took the basic idea of the dragon transformation from the previous installments of the series, and found a way to make it a full on god-mode, that was still balanced within the framework of the game design. Furthermore, they took that framework and made it very fun. By making a small game with a lot of re-playability, they were allowed to focus their graphical and musical resources on a relatively small number of areas, the game looks and sounds great for a mid generation PS2 game.

Next Time: How this gameplay framework controls and contributes to the plot of Dragon Quarter.

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