When gamers are in the mood to have their minds messed with, they'll usually pick something obvious for the job. But there are different ways to rattle the gamer's head, and Capcom's entertaining (albeit short) new RPG outing definitely isn't your standard dungeon crawler. It has one or two eyebrow-raisers up its otherwise conventional sleeve. On this week's "Extended Play," we clamber up from the confines of Deep Earth for a fresh "Breath of Fire."
| Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter|
ESRB rating: Teen
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Out of the silent planet
"Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter" is set in a future world that's a bit of a downer... literally. Our human protagonists live in a sprawling underground world of corridors, rooms, vast caves, and tunnel networks where you never sees the light of day. Ryu is a young member of a military guard unit, whose days consist of banal patrol duties. His potential for anything but a menial life prior to this point has been almost nil, as his D-ratio (his societal ranking) is abysmally low. Then one day he discovers his own latent, mysterious dragon power. Ryu eventually hooks up with two fellow adventurers and together they must face the usual RPG assortment of challenges and battles as they make the fateful trek higher and higher toward the surface. But familiar dungeon-crawling country aside, this is no cookie-cutter RPG.
A piece of the action (points)
One thing that keeps "Dragon Quarter" from run-of-the-mill status is its interesting twist on combat. While still turn-based, the game doesn't merely put characters down on some out-of-reality battle grid to trade blows. Instead, each character's action points are used as you see fit. Characters have a visible range of movement. Within this range you can run to pick up items on the ground, conduct melee or magical attacks, set traps with food or explosives, move to flank the enemy, or move longer distances to engage (or separate from) nearby foes. As you move your character about, the action points expended will automatically be reflected in the onscreen gauge. If a proposed course of movement and attack turns out to exceed your available points, you can always cancel the overall move and try a more efficient method. In a general way, it's rather like playing a graphic-intensive virtual version of many available tabletop combat games.
The gameplay also gives the player options for flexibility and tactical creativity. Characters you'd rather not see in front-line combat, for example, can pull way back out of the enemy's melee range. The viability of certain attack types is visible onscreen as an "area of effect" cursor, which helps a great deal when planning your course of action. Using this directional indicator, it's possible to spend a few action points to align yourself with two enemies and then skewer them both with the same attack -- literally killing two flame bats with one stone! The area-of-effect scheme works with bigger and badder weapons, too. Some battles can be avoided or predetermined in your favor by skillful use of traps, incendiaries, and other weapons at a distance, before the melee fighting even starts.
Even when you've run low on extra weapons or traps you can at least be sure to get in the first lick by flanking your foe and giving him a good, preemptive kick in the butt. This will also give you one additional strike turn in combat. Eventually, the challenge becomes not merely surviving, but making victory as efficient as possible by getting in the most first strike damage. It's a clever alternative to the random battle headache found in many other RPGs.
We have all been here before
But if the battle system is pleasantly strange, there's yet another unique aspect to the game that some will find just plain weird. Once you've played "Dragon Quarter," you may discover that you... well, haven't played it. Most likely you may have accumulated some respectable experience, upped your D-ratio, logged one or two saves through the use of somewhat scarce save tokens, and then lost your party to a battle that went awry. You'll have lost some playing time and the game itself will encourage you to restart. Only this time around, both in the game and in the cinematics, you'll discover that you're privy to events that were veiled from your eyes before. You'll also be able to access areas you couldn't before!
This sort of thing happens not just once, but multiple times. Call it forced replay if you like, but it's definitely unusual. It's also a little confusing. The game's restart options are pretty ambiguous. Even the game's documentation on this is deficient. You'll likely end up experimenting whether you wish to or not. It will seriously trouble the extremely meticulous, anal type of player who thinks it should be possible to do and see everything perfectly the first time. Others will be intrigued and will be on the lookout for suspicious gaps in the cinematics or areas they are unable to access the first time around.
School's out for summer
"Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter" gives the player a world that begs questions and an approach that only magnifies them. The attractive visuals ride the line between dark and cartoony, with expressive characters. It's all tied together with its unique combat and restart schemes, which will either inspire you or drive you mad. The fighting could be deeper, as there's no reward for flanking an opponent, but overall this is an engaging and well-done game that will particularly appeal to RPG gamers ready for a little bit of recess from the old school.