The Breath of Fire series is immensely popular among older gamers, for some reason. If you ask me, how anyone could enjoy these games is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. They are constantly marred by slow, droll combat, frequent random battles, and even more frequent fetch quests; the payoff being a set of predictable, mediocre storylines in pretty much every respect.
I think Makoto Ikehara, the mastermind behind the series, must have realized this. That’s the only explanation I can come up with as to why Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter turned out so much different from the rest of the series. Even though it may tragically go down in history as the game which ‘killed’ the Breath of Fire games, I believe that this game is perhaps the best thing that’s ever happened to the entire genre of RPGs.
Deep Earth is a series of subterranean caves and catacombs built by remaining survivors of a worldwide catastrophe. In this society, citizens are assigned D-Ratios, a label which determines one’s status. Players assume the role of Ryu 1/8192 an average Deep Earth soldier with about as low a D-Ratio as there could be. One day, Ryu, along with his friend and fellow soldier, Bosch 1/64, are assigned to guard cargo on a transport train. A terrorist group blows the train to smithereens… while they are on it. Ryu, having somehow survived, soon discovers a young girl names Nina being attacked by a monster. After saving her, Ryu attempts to make his way back to Ranger HQ while protecting her.
Nina is no ordinary girl. Her very existence points to a secret experiment that the Deep Earth government would rather not have the citizens know about. Thus, Ryu’s benevolence sets the army against him. Obviously, fighting an entire army off as just one man is suicide, and Ryu is almost killed for trying. However, at the last minute, the soul of a dragon makes a pact with Ryu, saving his life and giving him special powers. If Nina wants any chance to survive, she needs to get out of Deep Earth, so Ryu vows to take her to “the sky.”
This might not sound like anything special, but it’s not the originality of the plot that makes it interesting. What sets the storytelling above the rest is its superior use of camera direction to portray emotion. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter makes the absolute best use of non-verbal communication out of any RPG I’ve ever played in my life. The ‘less is more’ approach to dialogue allows the characters’ mannerisms and facial expressions to do the majority of the communication. Despite not having a single lengthy conversation, I always felt like I understood each characters’ feelings by just watching them. In particular, Nina has only one scene in the entire game where she speaks, and yet it’s still easy to understand what she is ‘saying’ and empathize with her.
And after all, isn’t this type of communication something that storytelling in video games should strive for? If all I ever wanted was to read a bunch of text, I could always pick up a book, for crying out loud. If more games followed this example, we’d see a lot less verbal diarrhea, which plagues the genre (and, incidentally, makes for ineffective storytelling).
Combat relies more on strategy than brute force. Battles are turn-based, and take place on the same map as the dungeons instead of using a separate screen, as seen in most JRPGs. Character position during battle is important, as they have limited movement and attack range. Players gain the first strike in battle by attacking them first, and vice versa. As such, when walking through the dark catacombs in this game, it can be easy for enemies to ambush you and wipe your party out unless you’re paying attention.
What gives Dragon Quarter its edge over 99% of JRPG genre is that combat strategy begins before the battle even starts. Enemies never respawn after dying (which prevents grinding, a plus in my book), so experience points are limited. Bonus experience is earned by getting the initiative and ending battles quickly, so lacking alertness while exploring will result in players losing out on experience.
Any enemy in proximity of the player will be in the battle when it starts. Even weaker enemies can be dangerous in large numbers if they gain the initiative, so players need to consider how to separate enemies from the pack and weaken them using trap and bait items, lest they want to fight several tough enemies simultaneously.
Thus, the player is always playing. This is different from the majority of the JRPG genre, where players can absent-mindedly drudge through dungeons like zombies until a battle calls for their attention. Now players need to be alert and use their finely-honed strategic skills all the time. As a result, it’s ultimately more rewarding to succeed in this game than it is in other JRPGs.
A key feature of this game is the Scenario Overlay system (SOL). Upon losing a battle, players can restart the game with all acquired abilities, equipment, and some of the party’s money and experience. Depending on how far one progresses through the game before restarting, they’ll also be able to view new story cutscenes that weren’t available before.
The SOL system was made with the idea in mind that players will have to start over again. Players can only make one hard save, which requires a consumable item to make. Temporary saves can be made; however, they delete themselves upon being loaded. This works wonderfully to create a feeling of tension when playing. Most games allow players to try again with no repercussions, but Dragon Quarter causes players to feel like something is at stake if they lose, adding a sense of urgency to the game.
However, this leads up to the one large complaint I have with the system: holding off key parts of the plot until players have started over several times causes problems. It can alienate some players from the get-go by showing no confidence in the their ability to succeed. It also punishes those who complete the game without having to restart by showing them a story which appears to be sloppily constructed.
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter would be my pick for the best RPG ever made. It was created by someone who understood that JRPGs needed to undergo a drastic change to become relevant again. If JRPGs continue to be lambasted as severely as DQ was for trying to make radical changes to the genre, we’re probably going to see a bunch of uninspired anime JRPGs and Final Fantasy 7 wannabes until no one cares about them anymore. Think about that when the next ‘Dragon Quarter‘ of the genre gets released. Or, better yet, just play it and see for yourself what JRPGs are capable of when they try harder to break the mold.