Friday, December 28, 2007

Old Favorites: Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, part 2

The progression of Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is constant. The story and gameplay work together to create an overriding sense of urgency and the constant push to move onward. In most RPGs of this kind, the progression of the game is more stop and go. The usual progression involves alternating time spent exploring dungeons, and time spent outside of dungeons gathering information and buying stuff. In this way, most RPGs have a leisurely pace that allows the player to explore, back-track to old towns, fight battles to level up, and take on side-quests. However, the gameplay structure of Dragon Quarter is such that it creates a very different pace than normal: an urgent one that matches with the plot of the game.

The plot of Dragon Quarter is pretty straight-forward: the hero, Ryu, is simply trying to save the life of the young girl Nina, another one of the main characters of the game. Early in the plot, Nina becomes terminally ill thanks to some poison, and the only way to save her is to get her out of the polluted environment of the game's setting. The entire game takes place in a massive underground complex, where no one has seen the outside world in over a thousand years. In order to save Nina's life, Ryu and Lin, the third character, have to get her to the surface. However, while the plot is simple, it has a lot of poignant elements to it. While Ryu has been granted tremendous power, that power is killing him slowly (or quickly, depending on how much the player uses it), and it is quite clear that Ryu knows this. So he decides to use this power, and his remaining life, to save the life of Nina by smashing all of the obstacles between them and the surface.

Since both Ryu and Nina have death looming over them for most of the game, the plot has a strong sense of urgency to it. And the gameplay backs up this urgency by encouraging the player to constantly move forward and not look back. The most important source of this urgency is the D-Counter. Since the D-Counter goes up every several steps, the player is encouraged to not waste time running back to old areas. Furthermore, there is never really any need to back-track in the game. The entire game progresses one floor at a time. There is one treasure chest on each floor, and everything you need to open it is on that same floor. At no point in the game is there something you can only get by backtracking back down a floor. In addition, as I briefly mentioned in my last post, there is no way to spend time leveling up by fighting old enemies, since every monster in the game stays dead once killed.

The game also cuts out other aspects of most RPGs that slow down game progression. Towns were minimized in Dragon Quarter. Most towns are only a few screens long, and have little more than shops, a save point, and two to six people to chat with. Furthermore, there is no need to advance the plot by talking to people in town. You can normally just skip right through a town with no drawbacks. Towns are little more than bigger versions of the small rest stops scattered throughout the game. The entire game is essentially one big continuous dungeon.

In addition, there are no side-quests to be found in any of these towns. There really only is one side-quest in the game. At one point, the characters are given the option to go on a short side-quest to find medicine to help ease Nina's worsening condition. In that way, that one side-quest only serves to add to the urgency of the heroes' mission. There is only two major exceptions to this in the game: the mini-game of developing the Fairy Colony, and the optional dungeon Kokon-Horay. However, the Fairy Colony takes place in essentially an alternate dimension where the D-Counter doesn't go up, and time only progresses by killing monsters in the normal game. So in practice, the Fairy Colony is only a place the player checks in on a semi-regular basis while pursuing the main plot. The optional dungeon Kokon-Horay exists inside the Fairy Colony, and is itself one of those massive dungeons where the character's levels revert to 1 and the D-Counter resets to 0.00% whenever the player braves it. It is in practice an optional challenge that a player only attempts after beating the game once or twice.

The game also adds to the sense of constantly moving forward by giving the player a way to track his progress: the depth gauge. While the game starts a bit higher up in the underground complex, Ryu only acquires his dragon powers and meets Nina and Lin at the very bottom of the cave system, 1200 meters below the surface. From that point on, the characters are constantly going upwards towards the surface. Every floor brings the player one step closer to reaching the goal, and that progress is tracked by the depth gauge, which constantly reports the player's distance from the surface in meters. This gives the player a concrete way of tracking his progress.

This progress is part of one of the symbolic elements of the games plot. In some sense, the character's actions are an attempt to overthrow and transform their corrupt, dystopian society. The characters are from the very bottom of a society that classifies everyone by some estimate of potential known as a D-Ratio and locks in their choices of promotion and housing based on those numbers. The characters, an extremely low D-Ratio soldier with no chance of promotion, a poor, abused lab subject, and a rebel, start their quest in EndSector, the lowest level of the complex and home to the people with the lowest D-Ratios and poorest conditions. Yet they eventually climb to the highest levels of the complex and fight against the rulers of that society. In a literal sense, it is the story of the weak and oppressed over throwing the strong in their quest to find a new world.

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