When Capcom entered the RPG market with Breath of Fire in 1994, many American RPG fans were skeptical. The arcade powerhouse responsible for such genre defining games as Street Fighter II and Megaman was sailing into uncharted waters. As history would have it, Breath of Fire would become a hit, spawning a series of games that would span two console generations and recently had a glorious rebirth on the Game Boy Advance. The fifth game in the legacy, Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter, marks the series premier on Sony’s PlayStation 2 and may be a significant shift from what fans have come to expect. Recently released in Japan, Capcom is dropping the numeral and bringing the adventure stateside this March as Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter.
Every Breath of Fire since time immemorial has chronicled the adventures of the hero Ryu, a swordsman imbued with the power to assume the form of a dragon, and Nina, vivacious winged wand-wielding mage. Even though the series has spawned a number of sequels, every Breath of Fire was a retelling of a similar tale rather than episodes of an ongoing story. This formula doesn’t change much in Dragon Quarter, but tells the legend in a way that’s never been done before. Foregoing the lush medieval settings of past games, Dragon Quarter is set in a stark world of futuristic ruin. A great calamity caused the downfall of civilization on the surface of the planet, driving mankind into the bowels of the earth. With the world in ruin, creatures and mutants of all shapes and sizes roam above, constantly encroaching on the last vestiges of humanity beneath the crust. Dragon Quarter paints a picture of a harsh world where mankind struggles to regain its lost heritage on the surface. In this world where arcana and machina go hand in hand, the horrific manifestations of genetic manipulation haunt these forgotten children of mankind. It is in this realm that the young ranger Ryu=1/8192 (yup, that's his name), TRINITY agent Rin and the mysterious Nina fight against all odds to reach the surface and their destiny.
Using the power of the PS2, Dragon Quarter is exclusively rendered in real-time polygons with cel-shaded character models. The character design is noticeably different from previous games, reflecting a distinctly cyber-punk flavor with a touch of Tim Burton. The character Rin also bares a striking resemblance to Gum from Jet Grind Radio sans rocket skates. As a journey to the surface, the majority of the game will be set underground and from what we’ve seen so far, Capcom has done a superb job of reproducing the look and feel of a subterranean industrial complex with cavernous enclosures. It is unknown how much of the game, if any, will take place outdoors, but indoor environments are noticeably dark with subtle use of diffuse lighting. This artistic change is dramatic but represents a refreshing change of atmosphere for the series.
Final Fantasy Tactics composer, Hitoshi Sakimoto, will be scoring this latest Breath of Fire with a little help from none other than Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Cross, Xenosaga). While Mitsuda’s role on this score was merely directorial, the collaboration has resulted in an undeniably epic soundtrack. Dragon Quarter will feature an array of grand orchestrations, piano medleys and industrial rhythms that accentuate Ryu’s ruined world. Sadly, the game will not feature any voice acting but will feature a theme song sang by Japanese pop sensation, Onitsuka Chihiro. Hopefully Capcom will keep the vocals untouched when the game is localized as they did with Breath of Fire IV for the PlayStation.
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter will introduce several new gameplay concepts and innovations that are new to the series. First there is the SOL system or "Scenario Overlay" which influences how this particular story is told. Players will have to play through the game several times in order to see all of the plot and gain access to all the dungeons, character abilities and items. Since all previously gained skills, items and experience are carried over with each replay, starting a new game is hardly a chore. Those versed in their RPG lore will remember a similar system was used in the SNES classic Chrono Trigger. Having new cinemas and areas to explore with each replay can go a long way to enriching the experience. Also new to the series is PETS (Positive Encounter and Tactics System) which allows players to set traps for enemies before engaging in combat. Random encounters in this installment are a thing of the past as pesky monsters are visible and can now be avoided with deft precision of the Dual Shock 2. Actual battle in Dragon Quarter will be an amalgam of real-time and turn-based mechanics using the Ability Point System or APS. Similar to a strategy RPG, each character in Dragon Quarter will use Ability Points (AP) to maneuver around the battlefield as well as execute attacks. These attacks can be strung together in sequence based upon each move’s AP cost and how many AP a character has remaining ala Xenogears. The degree of freedom and complexity in combat is a welcome change from the tedium of menu flipping and should go a long way to keeping gamers entranced throughout Dragon Quarter’s numerous replays.
Of course, what would a Breath of Fire game be without a shape-shifting hero? In Dragon Quarter, Ryu will be able to harness the power to transform into a dragon, but his ability will have to be used judiciously. The D-Level system will monitor how many transformations Ryu has undergone and will penalize the player if his power is overused. While we believe this will be story-related, the fact that one of the hallmark aspects of the series has been reigned-in is a tad disappointing. Ultimately, how well this aspect is integrated into the tale will determine if this potentially crippling gimmick pays off.
Dragon Quarter promises to usher in a new era for the Breath of Fire series. The game takes a decidedly unique twist from the tried-and-true RPG formula by taking a historically medieval tale and thrusting it into a decaying post-apocalyptic world. From the ingenious combat system to refreshingly unconventional character design, Dragon Quarter may also set a milestone for RPG replayability. Fans and skeptics alike should certainly take a look at Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter when it hits retail shelves this March.
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