Some of you might remember that I did a paragraph on Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter during the PlayStation 2 Staff Picks. I feel one paragraph kind of does an injustice to the amount of innovation placed into such a tightly woven game as Dragon Quarter. Furthermore, some of you also might remember a game called S.O.S: The Human Escape released by Human Entertainment (The first games company that Suda51 worked for). S.O.S took place on a sinking cruise liner that would become engulfed in the ocean in one hour. While on the surface, your goal was to escape from the sinking ship with your own life, that was only scratching the surface of the game as it would result in one ending. The true goal of the game was to explore the ship to find trapped passengers that need you to rescue them. Escaping the ship causes different endings to occur with different combinations of passengers. This can be considered the first example of a New Game Plus in video games and Dragon Quarter would take this concept to an entirely new level.
To those not familiar with the series, Breath of Fire is a series of JRPG’s that existed primarily on the SNES until it made the jump to the PS1. The main feature of the game was that the primary protagonists, Ryu and Nina would be the main stars through each game. This challenged the conventions of JRPG’s which switched out their heroes and heroines with each installment (Final Fantasy being the quintessential example of this as well as Konami’s own RPG series Suikoden). However like Suikoden, one of the more interesting aspects of the franchise were the relationships between each game in the franchise regarding the continuity. For example, a town in BoF II would be reused in BoFIII to show the development of the town itself and it’s inhabitants. In a rather bold move by Capcom, BoF V drops these canonical aspects entirely only keeping the character designs and names of Ryu and Nina and changing pretty much everything else (They wanted to add more aspects such as the popular fishing minigames but they had been cut during crunch time, with the Kokon Horay fields remaining the only location retained from the transition between games.) In fact the game was so distant from the previous entries in the series the V numeral was dropped from the title entirely in the European and American localizations, leading some people to believe this was just a side game rather than a new installment This might have been a marketing decision to bring in a new audience, although it is definitely alienating.
It wasn’t just the locations that were changed. During the PS1 era where most RPG’s make the transition from 16-bit to 32-bit by going towards polygon models, BoF III used sprites in the same way that Suikoden II did while BoF IV used a more colourful look. Dragon Quarter took this and instead of using sprites went for a cel shaded look with lots of dark colours in contrast to the more colour cel-shaded games of the time such as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Jet Set Radio. This is in conjunction with the characters themselves which have bright colour schemes and interesting visual style in comparison to the setting (Nina’s all white dress gives a sense of purity and cleanliness about her that distances herself from the dark caves which you explore for the course of the game).
The gameplay in Dragon Quarter is so unlike any other video game. It’s a bit overwhelming to describe. Dragon Quarter implements the P.E.T.S system which allows for placement of characters and antagonists to affect the structure of the battle. Each of your three characters have their own AP gauge. This gauge affects what attacks they can do, how far they can move, what combo’s they can do and so on. There are also times where running into the enemy head first may not be the best option. Through the game you given access to food items that can either be eaten to regenerate health for your own sake or placed on the ground to attract neighbouring enemies (preceding Monster Hunter, showing that no-one is better at copying Capcom than Capcom). Making the enemies come closer towards you gives you more time to strike first allowing to use more of your AP points to attack rather than walking up to your enemy.
The plot puts you in the shoes of the aforementioned Ryu with a D-ratio of 8192 (more on this later). As a grunt in the large mining industry, he is asked to guard a train carrying important cargo that must not be opened in any circumstances. After he is separated from his partner Bosch, he is confronted by a large dragon whom he merges with. This brings in the introduction of the Dragon Counter. The Dragon Counter is the second main feature of the battle system which is interesting as it is also affected by actions outside of fighting. When you gain the Dragon Counter there will be a counter on the top left hand side of the screen saying “000.00%.” By walking a couple of steps this counter increases by 000.01 percent, when you get to 100 percent, this gives an instant game over as you turn permanently into a dragon. In battle you are given the option of turning into your dragon form to gain access to a new set of attacks that, unsurprisingly, raise your dragon meter. This adds a level of tension to the game where you have the balance your use of the dragon meter (the games can get really tricky but never to the point where it’s absolutely necessary… Until the end) so you can get to the end in one piece. Along with the ticking dread of your dragon meter slowly rising as you walk, Ryu’s character mode starts to undergo subtle changes such as glowing, his skin changing to a slightly different hue of white and physical deformities as it approaches 100 percent.
The music also deserves to be talked about. Despite being created by two of Japan’s most respected video game composers: Hitoshi Sakimoto and Yasonori Mitsuda, the music normally goes unmentioned. It’s sad really as in terms of atmosphere the music does a lot to help convey the mood portrayed by the games dark visuals. Interestingly enough the music seems most reminiscent of either composers more atmospheric titles such as Mitsuda’s Chrono Cross and Hitoshi Sakimoto’s Vagrant Story (Stay tuned!). Although the game definitely seems like a modern-day version of Vagrant Story. The emphasis on loneliness, the expanding plot confined in a small space (Dragon Quarter underground, Vagrant Story in Lea Mondé) and the interesting take on New Game Plus.
When you complete the game you are assigned a new D-Ratio (based on how much of the map you explored, how many treasure chests you opened, your average final level etc). Depending on the D-ratio, you are able to access more of the game on your next playthrough such as more cutscenes, extra rooms in the game that allow your D-ratio to increase even further at the end of that playthrough and etcetera and overall a more compelling experience. This is the S.O.S method of game design that Dragon Quarter takes to the next level by expanding on the current story rather than merely retelling it (Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Dead Rising are also games that take advantage of the S.O.S level design).
In conclusion Dragon Quarter is one of the greatest examples of a happy accident in video game history. Capcom Production Studios 3 decided to reboot a failing franchise by cramming as many innovative ideas they could think of into one of their more critically acclaimed series (until the fourth installment came) and accidentally ended up creating a game that continues to inspire modern-day games almost a decade after its creation. In terms of similar mechanics, Valkyria Chronicles mixes up the P.E.T.S system rather well with some RTS/FPS mechanics that makes it worth checking out. However, Dragon Quarter will be representative of how JRPG’s can be innovative and unique, even in the modern gaming industry.