Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter
Alternate Titles: Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter (JP/EU)
Based on: Sheer genius, flaunting genre traditions...and not Breath of Fire, that's for damn sure.
As mentioned countless times before, Capcom tends to run its franchises into the ground with perhaps the worst of intentions and business strategies. Yet the company also retains a special A-team in reserve, a group trotted out to inject new life into franchises that have gone terminal, among other things. The designers and programmers responsible for Mega Man Legends?, Dead Rising?, and Lost Planet? were also behind the latest entry in the Breath of Fire series, Dragon Quarter. At this point, it seems fairly certain that they killed the franchise in the process. You could possibly argue otherwise in light of the upcoming cell phone game based on Breath of Fire IV, but c'mon: cell phone games.
Anyway, Dragon Quarter transformed the series so fundamentally that its Japanese fanbase -- the ones who still crave mostly extremely traditional RPGs -- cried foul and the game sold like a fresh coprolite. And it didn't fare any better in America, either. Talk to RPG players about the game and you're going to come across two polar viewpoints: they either love it or hate it. There's not a whole lot of middle ground with this particular game. But then, that's usually the case when it comes to works of genius, and Dragon Quarter absolutely is genius. That's not to say that the game isn't flawed; it is, definitely. Yet the final chapter in this traditionally staid franchise was so revolutionary, so ahead of its time, that the rest of the genre is only beginning to see its influence play out.
For starters, it's one of the few games out there that rewards the player for knowing when to quit, rewarding for accepting their limits with panache and skill. You almost certainly won't beat Dragon Quarter on your first playthrough -- not without resorting to cheating, anyway. But it would be missing the point, as you'd miss out on a fair chunk of the plot by doing so. The crux of the game is Ryu's Dragon Counter, a sort of countdown that ticks away until the powerful dragon spirit inside of him grows too powerful and kills him. Every action, every step you take adds to the D-Counter, bringing you closer to death and failure even as you draw closer to your objective and the end of the game. It's twisted, certainly, but it's also utter genius (albeit somewhat sadomasochistically) in the way it tosses out staid genre conventions like grinding and exploration.
Or so it seems, anyway. In fact, the secret the game hides is that you're free to grind and explore as much as you want, so long as you remember to follow the rules. Taking the time to fight and discover will net you more of the "party experience" that carries over between "lives," as well as more equipment and player skills to speed your progress through subsequent attempts. Make no mistake: this is not an easy game just because you can choose to start over as often as you like with ever more money and experience to dole out to your party. The road to the top is long and requires much more strategy and lateral thinking than raw battle planning. Efficiency and long-term planning are the name of the game, and without either you'll find Dragon Quarter nearly impossible to complete.
The D-Counter plays a role in everything, be it simply walking around the map or battling a powerful boss. A single step will add a fraction of a percent to the counter, while taking actions in battle as Ryu will add somewhat more -- or considerably more, when he's shifted into his dragon form. This balancing act between selecting the right combat skills for the situation and their cost to the D-Counter represents a significant facet of the game, and while Ryu is incredibly powerful as a dragon, that power comes as a significant cost. This favors a decisive approach to combat, as you need to secure each victory quickly to keep the D-Counter down. The need for speed doesn't translate to battles that make it each, though. Dragon Quarter's battles are tough, especially the later bosses, which require an intimate knowledge of skill and attack chaining system's mechanics to simply deal damage without resorting to the simple but desperate expedient of Ryu's dragon form.
Of course, the game's greatest moment is probably the final battle, which requires the player to throw away the slowly learned "rules" of the game, a particularly diabolical thing to do considering how closely the player needs follow those rules up to that point. It's a calculated move that fits with the strategic nature of the game, despite the seeming contradiction it presents with the framework of the game itself.
Unlike most RPGs of Japanese origin, Dragon Quarter isn't a passive game where the player simply enters commands in preset turns or as a gauge fills and watches as the fireworks unfold. Battles are active and involving, and the sheer amount of forethought required to simply complete the game is what makes the adventure so compelling. The slowly unfurling plot and characterizations that develop across restarts and replays, along with very important decision of whether to explore or train or head for the ending, creates an experience that draws players right in. The small scale of the plot and the strong element of personal commitment possesses a greater weight than any tired tale about saving the whole damn world -- it's perhaps one of the most affecting aspects the game's plot. Ryu and crew have no desire to change or save the world; they live in a grim underground world and want nothing more than to reach the surface and see sunlight for themselves. The depth of commitment required by the game is also perhaps its greatest flaw, since the true worth of Dragon Quarter is not something that is found in a single hour (or even a handful of hours) of playtime, and those who are not willing to put forth the commitment required will never appreciate its true worth.
Granted, it's not without its frustrating elements, its flaws and gaffes; one needs to look no further than the manual for proof of that. Capcom has always had problems with its localization efforts, some greater than others. Not everyone can be a Nintendo or Atlus or Square Enix and enjoy their reputations for quality work, but the glaring translation inconsistencies between the manual and the game itself are hardly representative of a professional localization. Thankfully, the game's script itself doesn't have nearly as many problems as the manual, but it still has its share of quirks.
Most notably: this game is an absolute ego crusher in several respects, most notably in its emphasis on skill and foreknowledge. There aren't many games out there that require the skills necessary to beat the game right from the start, along with the full knowledge that, hey, no way are you beating this one on your first attempt. Wrapping your head around the fact that you have to lose in order to win and that you consciously have to pull the trigger to reset your party isn't the average gamer's cup of tea. It's more an acquired taste, if you will. The Dragon Quarter team later went on to work on Dead Rising, where they implemented a similar restart feature...and netted equal Internet bellyaching.
Also, the sheer number of skills and equipment combinations possible in the game is more than a bit daunting as well, especially when you have, at most, three offensive and one defensive skill slot per weapon or piece of armor. When you begin to stack each characters' massive array of skills (each with wildly varying effects) on top of this, it quickly becomes something of a headache.
So, is this the franchise-wrecking game truly a work of genius? Perhaps not, but it dared to be something very different from the norm, bucking and twisting genre conventions into something almost wholly new and different. It's a tiny milestone in gaming history, and time has been kind, allowing it to mature from a failed experiment to a brilliant cult favorite. It belongs to that select group of games that represent both gaming's creative highs and its turning points, and for that reason alone it deserves to be experienced. Its rules and its open-ended approach to gameplay make it almost chess-like in its way. The game's complexity gives it considerable appeal for those who like think ahead, plan strategically and puzzle out a game's interior logic -- but again, only if you're willing, truly willing, to put forth the necessary commitment.
Thanks to Dragon's Tear for the artbook scans