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Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter
Publisher: Capcom (2003, PlayStation 2)
Throughout the 16 and 32-bit eras, Capcom's Breath of Fire series was always solid, if not particularly ambitious. That all changed with Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter -- the fifth game in the series, although the numeral "V" was left out of the English release. This is because it's only barely related to any of the prior games.
Sure, the main character is named a guy named Ryu, who, like all of the other games, can transform into a dragon. And there's still a winged girl named Nina, but this time she takes on the appearance of a frail waif. Beyond that, one could barely tell it's part of the same series.
If nothing else, Dragon Quarter feels like a spiritual successor to Square's PSOne title Vagrant Story. Both feature dark, oppressive atmospheres, long segments of dungeon crawling, and minimal NPC interaction. Both are scored by legendary game music composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, although while Vagrant Story's soundtrack leans on the atmospheric side, Dragon Quarter features more industrial and electronic influence.
And both are unrelentingly unfriendly to newcomers, and subject newcomers to a trial by fire to learn the game's innovative intracices -- as a result, both are love-it-or-leave-it games amongst RPG fans.
Where the games diverge is with its battle system. Unlike most traditional RPGs, the battle segments play out like a tactical strategy RPG, allowing your selected party member to run freely around the field and attack, as long as they have action points remaining. Once you get into the meat of the game, Dragon Quarter lets you control three player characters.
Ryu is your melee fighter, but he's hardly a tank, and is usually the most susceptible to damage. Lin uses guns, allowing her to attack from different ranges and knock enemies around the playing field. Nina, the physical weakling of the trio, utilizes magic spells that can be used to attack multiple enemies at once, or stun them with skillfully placed traps.
Most RPGs feature similar character relationships, but Dragon Quarter so strongly defines each character's role that none is more important than the rest, and using all of them effectively is the key to winning the game's most brutal battles.
The other most interesting aspect of Dragon Quarter is its survival elements. Dragon Quest -- with its similarly sparse save points and limited inventory and magic use -- has been using these same elements all along, while most other RPGs have eliminated them for the sake of user accessibility.
Dragon Quarter has taken those elements and put them at the forefront, making for a stressful, yet exhilarating, experience. Taking a small cue from the Resident Evil games, your resources in Dragon Quarter are severely limited, at least compared to any other modern RPG where you can carry almost unlimited healing supplies.
More pressing is the D-Counter, which starts up after the first few chapters. In the previous Breath of Fire games, the dragon powers were extremely powerful attacks, and Ryu's transformations provided a sense of awe and excitement. Here, the dragon power is a curse, slowly eating away at Ryu's humanity.
Every few steps, the counter creeps up, slowly marching towards 100%, at which point the power consumes Ryu and the game will end. Additionally, each time Ryu calls upon his dragon powers, it chews up even more of the D-Counter, hastening his advance toward death.
Given that nearly all of the boss battles are extremely difficult, it's all too easy to give into temptation and use these skills to easily demolish your foes, but using them too judiciously will lead to an earlier end. There's no way to reset it, either, short of restarting the entire game.
Thankfully, at any time, you choose to begin the game from scratch, but keep some of the skills and experience you've learned, so subsequent playthroughs will be much quicker and easier. It even rewards players with extra cutscenes which reveal alternate angles on the game's story.
It's also relatively short for an RPG -- the full story can be played through in less than ten hours. This same idea was carried forward with similar effect in Capcom's Xbox 360 zombie slayer Dead Rising. Despite the frustrations inherent in this system, it makes for an intensity by removing the safety net that so many JRPGs seem to feature, and is all the better for it.