The words that come to mind when thinking of Legend of Dragoon are "too little too late," or rather "too little too long." While it's admirable in its heroic simplicity, it's monotone, extremely linear, and poorly translated.
The adventure starts out well enough: Dart, a young swordsman, is on his way from a failed quest to defeat a monster from his childhood. But when he sees his home village in embers and is told that Shana, his childhood sweetheart, has been kidnapped by a marauding force of Sandora soldiers, he has no choice but to embark on a new journey, one that will span time and fate and the deepest depths of the human soul.
Unfortunately, as the game continues - and Legend of Dragoon is a fairly long RPG - it becomes more and more obvious that the plot follows a predictable waltzing pattern of event-dungeon-town, and that this pattern is followed out of habit rather than to accomplish some specific goal.
The fact is offset by LoD's powerful presentation. The game has a titanic reserve of graphical power, and when given the chance to exercise that power to its fullest, it can produce astounding results. I'm not one to gush, but some of the pre-rendered backgrounds are drop-dead gorgeous. The level of detail is amazingly high, and when the backgrounds span any measure of space - rooftop panoramas and such - the sheer aesthetic appeal is startling.
Which is not to say that the graphics are all-around perfect. The polygonal models are definitely not up to par. While the characters themselves animate with a modicum of realism, monster design is atrocious. A lot of the foes are small and extremely blocky. The magic spells rely heavily on transparencies, smoke, lighting, and particle effects, and while Legend of Dragoon pulls them off very nicely, when the spells resort to polygons those polygons are - again - blocky and simplistic.
Running water and lava look very impressive both in and out of combat, but clouds look like wet cotton, and the battle backgrounds - even some of the dungeons - are bleak and dark, constricted, washed out, and low on detail.
LoD's characters are plot devices rather than real people. Each is an excuse to visit a new locale and challenge a new set of cardboard villains. Other than their utilitarian purpose, the characters have little or no appeal. First of all, they never seem to be comfortable speaking in English. Things they say are badly mangled and mistranslated ("Are you not hurt?"), and they usually turn out to be simple reiterations of the plot, as if the player has to be lead by the hand and reminded of things.
The quality of the translation never improves, and the dialog always remains a baboon heart in an otherwise more or less human body. Second of all, the characters' personalities are archetypes, easily classifiable and very predictable. Third of all, the tone oscillates between dour and humorous, but these themes are ineptly combined. There is always something that spoils the mood of any given event, largely due to the two comic relief characters in your party.
Furthermore, at three different points in the game a central hero or villains drops out of the flow of events - only to be replaced by his or her exact double, possessing the same attacks and statistics, differing only in name and appearance.
Of course, following even the dullest bunch of adventurers on a poignant and interesting quest has its merits. Legend of Dragoon follows an old pattern: it is a long, four-disk exercise in "collect all the enumerated magic treasures before the villain destroys the world." LoD substitutes "Sacred Moon Objects" for magic treasures, one per disk. Because of this predictable periodicity, thirty hours into the game the plot is still in its opening phase, but the player is far less eager to continue.
As soon as the Moon Objects are collected, the game essentially starts over with a new plot and central villain, though with only one disk to go, things start to happen a lot faster. Which is exactly as it should have been happening for the past three disks.
LoD's battle engine suffers because it offers the player almost no customization. For each character, the player can set the attack sequence to be used in combat, but these "additions" are nothing more and nothing less than standard attacks: the only difference is the amount of damage they deal and the number of "timed inputs" they require.
Magic isn't really available to the player until the specific character acquires his or her dragon spirit and gains the ability to become a dragoon. At this point the character can begin leveling up in order to receive his repertoire of four identical spells (for example, Dart gains four fire-based attack spells). Again, difference in appearance, not effect.
There is a large array of items - including elemental attacks in three levels of power and eight elements, but there is a thirty-two item limit. You can't even use up the excesses when you get a few items too many - you have to discard immediately. On the other hand, you can carry up to 256 pieces of armor - boots, helmets, breastplates - but for each character only one item that really matters (accessories, which confer actual bonuses) can be equipped. The rest only offer progressively higher attack and defense ratings.
With a battle engine like that, there is only one sort of strategy to be made: hold back when your HP is low, and commit yourself fully when an opportunity presents. By following this hack'n'heal cycle, you can defeat any foe. Of course, it is fun for the first few hours, when it appears as if you are defeating the bosses because of your own merit, rather than some item's bonus, but eventually it sinks in that the game doesn't - cannot offer any significant challenge, because otherwise it would be impossible to beat.
The other incentives to play, outside of the non-existent challenge, are few. Yes, additions can be leveled up through repeated use, which is really necessary if you want to win, but it's a slow and monotone process. Mini-games are virtually non-existent, and not at all rewarding.
Status attacks are surprisingly irritating in LoD, even more so than in most games. Carrying status recovery items isn't very practical in view of the tiny inventory and the overall rarity of status-dealing foes, but when a status is inflicted upon you, it sticks around for a while.
A lot of the characters are weak or unbalanced. For example, the archers in your party cannot do additions, and thus deal about one-fifth the damage of the other characters. Rose, in dragoon form, has a straight flush of weak or useless spells. Overall, all women are frail, even as dragoons. While the men are susceptible to magic, that is a trifling weakness in contrast with the women's frailty.
LoD nicely simulates ambiance sounds - birdsong, streams - but it botches action sounds. Footsteps to attacking enemies to creaky boats - everything sounds like wet whips and minced rubber. The voice acting on the additions (not to be confused with the good, but not at all lip-synched voice acting on the spectacular FMVs) ranges from tolerable to irritating (Cool Boogie!!!) to subdued and muffled (Divine Dragoon Cannon...) And while there are a few well-done, interesting tracks - the town themes, for one (I like the rolling piano melodies), a lot of dungeon music is played for ambiance at best.
Concerning the widespread opinion that LoD plagiarizes other RPGs, I'm not one to judge. What I can say, however, is that many times I was struck with a severe feeling of deja vu: FFVII (the Death Frontier), Grandia (the ghost ship FMV), even Sonic & Knuckles (the "rock spiral" teleport on the way to Kadessa).
As can be seen from the body of my review, I do not advocate buying Legend of Dragoon, at least not outright. Rent it first.