Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter

Just when you thought all RPG sequels were the same... along comes an RPG sequel that couldn't be more different if it tried.

Dragon Quarter is a complex, tightly woven RPG that breaks new ground with its dark, industrial story and fantastically profound battle system. But before you get too excited, dear gamer, read on�all that fiery goodness comes with a stern warning attached.

Subterranean Homesick Ryus
The first key to enjoying the latest installment in the Breath of Fire series is to realize right off the bat that it is nothing at all like any of its predecessors�think of it more as a mutant cross-breeding between Final Fantasy Tactics, Dark Cloud, and Way of the Samurai. It shirks the previous games� traditional town/map/tower RPG structure in favor of one giant underground dungeon broken up by short stints in minimalist, utilitarian, industrial �towns.� The plot moves fast, the characters are few, the graphics are dirty, and there�s really only one super-hyper-omega-crazy attack to speak of�and even its use is severely limited by the mechanics of the gameplay. Dragon Quarter is nowhere near as brash or bold as Final Fantasy X, nor as drawn-out and hyper-epic as Xenosaga, but it�s a unique and special animal in its own brilliantly frustrating way.

Breath of Fire�s battle system is astonishing�it�s surprisingly tactical and deeply strategic. When you run into enemies, you�re given a top-down representation of the room layout you�re in. Each character has a given number of Action Points (AP) that they can use as they see fit, either to move about, chain together long combo attacks, or store up for the next turn to unleash even more powerful combos. While you have only three characters (swordsman Ryu, magician Nina, and status-altering gunslinger Lin), they play off one another in ingenious ways. Battles often come across as fantasy chess matches, where herding enemies into pockets and corners becomes just as important as casting Ultimate Omega Flare. The game rewards you well (with bonus experience) for smartly played skirmishes, and it forces you to be as conservative as possible with your healing and power-up items. Inventory slots are very limited, and the next town is often a long, long, long ways away. In other words, plan well or die.

Cycle of the Dragon
Actually, you�ll probably die anyway�repeatedly, in fact, and by design. Dragon Quarter is structured so that you have to start over three or four times before your characters are good enough to win (yes, from the beginning). For you see, dear gamer, not too far into the game, your main character acquires a certain Dragon-themed super-power. Unfortunately, that power comes with a Spawn-like �countdown� that will, once expired, kill you dead. As in, Game Over dead. What�s more, there is no way to reverse the effects. The countdown is accelerated while Ryu is in Dragon form (severely curbing your desire to use it), but the darn thing goes up even when you�re just walking in normal form, putting a lot of pressure on you to be as efficient and fast as possible. And even if your accursed inner Dragon doesn�t kill you, poor planning and a lack of cash could just as easily do you in, forcing you to begin again with hard lessons learned and new tactics in mind. The forced repetition is easily the most frustrating part of the game, but if you can wrap your head around it, it proves to be one of the most rewarding�on your next playthrough, you�ll find new areas, and new cut-scenes show you what�s really going on in the game�s dark, complex, post-cyberapocalyptic plot. Plus, subsequent playthroughs aren�t as tedious as you�d imagine since all of your items and skills carry over as well as any Party XP you�ve accumulated, meaning you can get back to where you left off fairly quickly.

Recurring Characters
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is a small, focused, and pioneering RPG that�s quite unlike anything you�ve played before on the PS2. You�ll find yourself hopelessly addicted to the wonderful combat and deep reward structure, but it�s likely that the whole �must restart several times� aspect will be a deal-breaker for many. And if you were looking forward to another Breath of Fire quest in the traditional sense, well, sorry. You�ll just have to relive Ryu�s other past lives on the Game Boy Advance.