Square's Final Fantasy series has been a huge success both artistically and commercially, garnering high praise from most critics and setting new records with its voluminous sales figures. Legend of Dragoon is Sony's attempt to compete with Square's flagship series, and, at first glance, it seems to share quite a bit in common with the recent Final Fantasy games. Ultimately, however, its clunky execution causes it to be little more than a slightly above-average RPG.
In Legend of Dragoon, you play as Dart, a spiky-haired sword-wielding warrior. When Dart was a child, his village of birth was destroyed in a dastardly attack, and he was taken in and raised in the village of Seles, a small town in Seldio. One day, while enjoying a peaceful day in a forest near Seles, Dart sees a group of mysterious armed knights riding towards the village. Fearing the worst, he rushes back to Seles, only to find that it has been burned to the ground. Even worse, Dart's childhood sweetheart Shana has been kidnapped in the raid.
As Dart interviews the survivors of the calamity, he discovers that the villains who abducted her believe that she holds some sort of incredible power latent within her. He also learns that she has been taken to the nearby Hellina prison base, where she is being held. So the hotheaded Dart immediately heads out to the base to attempt to rescue Shana.
Upon his arrival at the Hellina base, Dart finds that security is tight, but he is able to make his way to where Shana is being held. With the help of a spear-wielding warrior named Lovitz, Dart is able to free Shana and escape from the prison base. However, they don't leave undetected, and the three youths end up on the run from the evil knights.
This chase takes the intrepid trio to new lands, and the scope of Dart's quest grows steadily as he goes on. Although Legend of Dragoon's storyline generally does enough to keep the player reasonably interested, it fails to stand out from that of the majority of RPGs available today. From an event-based standpoint, the plot never rivets you to your Playstation, and it blatantly steals ideas from other highly successful RPGs (for much of the game, a hotheaded spiky-haired protagonist is pitted against a refined silver-haired villain). Character development isn't ignored, but it's pretty inadequate overall, with only Dart and Shana receiving appropriate levels of attention.
In terms of gameplay, Legend of Dragoon relies mainly on tried-and-true traditional RPG mechanics. Battles are turn-based, though a character's speed will determine how often they can perform an action in combat. Characters can use regular weapon attacks, items, and magic to decimate their foes or help each other. In some dungeons, battles are encountered randomly, while in others, you can see your foes before they attack.
Legend of Dragoon does bring something new to the game mechanics table, though. The most important original feature is the Additional system. Remember how you could do double damage with Squall's gunblade in Final Fantasy VIII by pushing a button at the correct time while he was attacking? Legend of Dragoon's Additional system revolves around this concept, but takes it to higher levels of complexity.
Every time a playable character makes an attack in Legend of Dragoon, a red wireframe appears on the screen. By pushing the attack button at the correct times, you can have the character continue his or her attack up to the limits of the Additional that is currently selected for that character, instead of stopping after one attack. Additionals become stronger through successful use, and new Additionals are learned for each character as the game goes on.
However, enemies can counter some of the more complex Additionals. When an enemy is about to counter an Additional, the onscreen wireframe will turn blue. In order to continue the Additional and avoid taking damage, players have to press the cancel button at the correct time.
Legend of Dragoon also brings in the Dragoon system, which allows your characters to temporarily transform into winged warriors called Dragoons. This system works somewhat similarly to the Limit Breaks used in Final Fantasy VII in that a bar is filled up as a character successfully executes attacks on enemies. When the bar fills up, the character then has the option to change into a Dragoon when his or her next turn arrives.
Once in Dragoon form, characters can either execute a Dragoon attack, which is somewhat similar to an Additional but much easier to execute, or use magic. Magic can only be used in Dragoon form; characters don't have any access to it in human form. Dragoon levels are built up as the game progresses, and characters can stay in Dragoon form one turn for each Dragoon level they have filled up on the meter.
Although Legend of Dragoon's gameplay innovations are ambitious, they meet with dubious results. The Additional system proves to be quite a nuisance. Doing double damage in Final Fantasy VIII was a nice bonus; successful execution of Additionals is a necessity in Legend of Dragoon, making the system considerably less enjoyable. On top of that, execution of the Additionals requires ridiculously precise timing (much more so than in FFVIII), making them extremely irritating to learn.
Even after players get the hang of it, the Additional system still proves to be irksome because it forces players to constantly concentrate, even during routine battles. This prevents players from giving themselves a mental break while playing Legend of Dragoon, causing the game to become tiresome much more quickly than most other RPGs.
The Dragoon system does put more strategy into the battles, since magic can only be used in Dragoon form, but this limitation is ultimately more annoying than anything else. In addition, items cannot be used while in Dragoon form. So, for example, if you're a level 4 Dragoon and you make the transformation during a battle, you can't use an item to heal yourself for 4 rounds. As any RPG veteran knows, 4 rounds can easily mean the difference between success and failure in a battle.
In addition, Legend of Dragoon's general execution leaves a lot to be desired. Commands are carried out sluggishly, especially in combat. Battles drag on mercilessly, because player characters and enemies alike take so long to perform their attacks. Enemies gain initiative in combat with annoying frequency, slowing down the already lengthy battles. Spell effects are excessively drawn out in their animation, too. CD loading is both frequent and lengthy.
Legend of Dragoon is also guilty of starting off on the wrong foot. The first few hours of play in this game are perhaps the most tedious that I can remember in a recent RPG. During this time period, Legend of Dragoon is slow, uninteresting, and highly unbalanced in its difficulty. It does get significantly better after this initial fiasco, but many players may give up long before they get to the worthwhile parts of the game.
Fortunately, Legend of Dragoon's control is much better than its gameplay. You can move your onscreen characters in 8 directions, and a dash button enables them to move quickly through the area maps. Control is pretty responsive, though your characters do often get stuck on objects in the backgrounds. The menus are organized, too, but it would have been nice if some kind of cursor memory was incorporated into them.
Legend of Dragoon is at its strongest in the visual department. Like Square's last 2 Final Fantasy games, Legend of Dragoon features polygonal characters on prerendered area maps. The area maps look beautiful in their detail and lush color; they rank with those of any of the top prerendered RPGs that have been released to date. As a matter of fact, Legend of Dragoon's area maps contain perhaps the highest degree of background animation yet seen in a prerendered RPG.
In addition, Legend of Dragoon contains a healthy dose of excellent CG FMV. The graphics in the movies are drawn extremely well, and the animation is fluid. Graininess is relatively minimal.
However, Legend of Dragoon really struggles with its polygonal graphics. In both battle scenes and non-CG cut scenes, characters are blocky, especially up close. Their animation, while passable, is somewhat clumsy. The battle scene backgrounds are even worse in their blockiness, and have trouble remaining cohesive as the camera pans around. The enemy design is very disappointing; enemies are very lacking in detail and carry no discernible degree of panache in their appearance. On the plus side, the spell effects, despite being excessively time-consuming, are impressive and occasionally even border on spectacular.
Unfortunately, Legend of Dragoon also fails to distinguish itself in the sound department. Sound effects are somewhat muffled throughout the game; while they aren't bad, they're nowhere near the best that RPGs have to offer. The electronically-influenced soundtrack is also subpar; it's mostly extremely pedestrian, but sometimes gets downright irritating.
The sound department does carry some bright spots, though. Most of the battle themes are reasonably catchy, and some of the boss themes are actually pretty good. Also, voice acting accompanies battles and some of the CG movies. Although it isn't as impressive as that of some of the other top RPGs released, it is solidly done.
Legend of Dragoon doesn't come close to the epics that it attempts to imitate, but on its own, it's a reasonably solid traditional RPG. Rent it first, if you can, but it's a game worth giving a chance to.