"...it is refreshing to see a game that ends strongly despite a shaky start rather than one that starts strongly but loses steam toward the end. "
"Haters [are] gonna hate" is a piece of current-day vernacular that makes most people groan. Mentioning The Legend of Dragoon to RPG fans also induces groans. Well, I'm going to make you doubly groan because "haters [are] gonna hate" is precisely how I feel about The Legend of Dragoon. I can understand why people disliked it, but I rather liked it back when it first came out and I thoroughly enjoyed it once more today. The Legend of Dragoon is one of the most underrated RPGs in the Playstation era.
The most underrated aspect of the game is easily Dennis Martin's music. I still think people rag on the music because it doesn't sound the way fantasy RPG music is supposed to sound. I also wonder if some Japanophiles merely rag on the music because Dennis Martin is a "baka gaijin" American composer. These are precisely the reasons I like the music. I like that his compositions are unorthodox for a typical fantasy RPG and play with the funkier and more futuristic-sounding musical genres that I normally don't hear in this context. The sound quality isn't quite as crisp as the music in modern gaming formats, but it still sounds good to me.
The story is highly underrated as well. Sure it has a bumpy localization with sketchy voice acting, a somewhat slow text speed, a typical spiky-haired hero with a righteous streak, and a pace like most other JRPG adventures, but patient and persistent gamers are well rewarded by disk 3. That's when the story really opens up, we learn more about the past of Endiness (the game's world), and the coolest character in the game becomes a million times cooler. The first time I played the game, I couldn't help but blurt out, "Why did you take so long to get good?!"
So while disks 1 and 2 are a bit of a slog, disks 3 and 4 are great, and it's refreshing to see a game that ends strongly despite a shaky start rather than one that starts strongly but loses steam toward the end. Thanks to vocal crops of gamers being driven by recency effect, a great beginning and middle may not always matter if the ending is unsatisfying. So those who make it to the end of The Legend of Dragoon will leave satisfied and not complain about the end ruining the whole experience for them.
What may ruin the experience now is the dated graphics. This was one of the most visually stunning games on the Playstation, but the polygon character models now show their age. With the PS3's texture smoothing on, they look bearable, but the color palette on the overworld looks a little washed out. This game, like the Squaresoft cohorts it draws influence from, looks sharper on the PSP or Vita. The prerendered backgrounds and CG FMV still look fine on either platform, if a little lo-res by today's standards.
The game may look better on the PSP but it controls better on the PS3. The game requires use of the L2 and R2 buttons for overworld navigation and the PSP lacks these buttons. One control scheme allows the analog nub to control all movement and L2 and R2 are then mapped to the D-pad, but holding down the circle button to dash (even with the analog nub) is a little awkward. Other than that, the issues I have with the gameplay are the same issues I had when the game first came out. For example, the turn-based battle system runs on combos (called Additions) based on timed button presses and the timing is notoriously finicky. The required hair-trigger precision can be frustrating during the more merciless boss battles. Merely thinking about the Grand Jewel boss battle makes me bristle to this day. On the plus side, defending during battle restores HP, so it's not the useless command it winds up being in most RPGs outside of Megami Tensei.
Navigating the overworld is pretty easy since progression is linear enough, but if backtracking leads you through a hostile area you've already cleared, you can't skip it. Fortunately, dungeons aren't too painful to navigate, although some can try gamers' patience. For example, identical backdrops are used for some corridors in Hellena prison, so gamers may find themselves going around in circles. Another notorious dungeon is disk 2's ghost ship. Despite the ship's visible encounters, the encounter rate is much higher than anywhere with random encounters. I found it a good place to level up my Additions, though. Some of the most involved and confusing layouts are actually some of the game's towns. I enjoyed exploring them, though, and the optional pointers that mark entrances and exits are helpful.
The menu interface is pretty straightforward, but some design choices are a bit odd. For example, it's possible to hold 255 individual pieces of equipment, but only 32 consumable items total, so resource allocation is paramount. On the plus side, healing items restore a percentage of HP rather than a set number so even healing items from the first dungeon that restore 50% HP are still useful during disk 4.
Another way to look at these "complaints" is that the game actually forces gamers to think a little differently than they would for a garden variety JRPG. Legend of Dragoon is not a "gimme" game that can be played on auto-pilot, and I like it for that reason. As with the first time I played the game, once I accepted its idiosyncrasies I grew to enjoy it. The game may seem like a Final Fantasy clone on the surface, but it's a unique entity on the inside.
Revisiting The Legend of Dragoon gave me more joy this year than many recent RPGs have and I think it was $5.99 well spent. I know the taste of nostalgia can sometimes be unpleasant, but I encourage folks to give the game another shot now that they're older and wiser. Maybe they'll like it better now and walk away thinking this game really isn't so bad after all.