In 2006, new-to-the-scene developer Hit Maker (not to be confused with the old Sega development team of the same name) released an RPG for the PSP called “Blade Dancer ~Lineage of Light~.” Despite mediocre sales, our own staff thought the game to be surprisingly enjoyable, especially considering the number of lackluster ports that were coming out on Sony’s handheld. The original RPG experience was a breath of fresh air.
One year later, Hit Maker follows up with its single-player RPG with MMO-like (read: FFXII-like) gameplay, this time taking the more traditional route. Dragoneer’s Aria is a traditional, turn-based RPG that relies more on convention than innovation, though a few gimmicks are put into place to keep the game from being entirely too stale. NIS and NIS America worked together in getting the final product out, so that it was simultaneously released in Japan and America, and then followed by releases in Europe and Australia. This game got around, but did it make any big waves? At this point, the answer is no. But does that mean you should pass it up? Read on to see what this reviewer thinks.
The plot thrusts you into the middle of an “end-of-the-world” conflict with minimal backstory. You’re a Dragoon, which is apparently a race and not just a class of fighter. You and your fellow Dragoons get together to have your annual “aren’t we lookin’ pretty?” sort of meeting, when the whole thing is interrupted by Nidhogg, some evil nihilist black dragon from the depths of hell. He kills some people, destroys an entire city, and flies away. The head of the Dragoons tells you, Valen, that Nidhogg had been sealed for a long time (of course), and is bent on destroying the world (of course), so it’s up to you to stop him (of course). Oh, and there are six elemental dragons that Nidhogg has to kill first, as they are the guardians of the world. So you’re sent to protect them.
Problem: it turns out that when Dragoons come into close contact with that dark dragon Nidhogg, they can go crazy and turn into “Dragoneers.” What’s the difference, you ask? Dragoons apparently protect dragons, whereas Dragoneers have this obsessive desire to kill dragons (and pretty much everything else). As you travel around the world, protecting dragons, fighting old comrades who have since gone insane, you get a couple of cut scenes that help establish the motivation of each character. These are one-dimensional characters, of course, but the presentation is still decent. You travel alongside Euphe, an Empath (heals you but feeling your pain, which hurts her); Mary, a wannabe pirate (she’s like twelve years old); and Ruslan, a “spirit” who is essentially an elf. While you roam the world on what is essentially one large, pre-defined quest, you exchange the usual banter about how Mary is short, Ruslan is rude, and how Valen doesn’t ever pick up on Euphe’s signals of romantic interest. Standard stuff, really.
It’s a generic save the world plot, with the “all races of our medieval fantasy world must unite” motif holding things together. This game doesn’t rely on plot to win you over, that’s for sure. However, I will say that the English translation came out pretty well, despite unnecessary changes to character names (“Geneva” became “Nikita,” “Haruto” became “Valen”).
The gameplay is, surprisingly, what kept me coming back to Dragoneer’s Aria. I wasn’t sure I could even stand to finish the game when I started, but I actually enjoyed the game enough to play it to the end (which took about 25 hours). What kept me coming back for more? The game was challenging, providing traditional RPG elements, as well as some other “unique” features.
The entire combat system works off of one gauge, which is your energy gauge. It goes up to 1000, and every 100 energy points is one “mana” point, which is the minimum point value required for pretty much anything that isn’t “attack,” “guard,” or “item.” Magic, abilities, and special “rush attacks” all require mana points. How do you gain energy? The easiest way is to attack. But a better, more effective method for receiving energy is to effectively guard. Guarding works in much the same way as Shadow Hearts’ “Judgment Ring.” Five spots appear randomly on a circle, and you have to hit them. Each one you hit decreases damage taken by an even 20%. However, if you hit even one spot on the circle that isn’t highlighted, you lose any previous ones you hit. You have a limited amount of time to hit them all, or “settle for less” with the few you did hit. This is one of the few games where effective guarding is the actual key to success. It keeps you alive, and it gets you more energy.
Keep in mind that while the game does require some level-grinding, level-grinding will never make the boss battles easy. Lots of bosses have one-hit or two-hit kill moves, so it’s smart to play your characters in such a way that, every round, someone is guarding just in case. I really enjoyed the challenging boss battles, and the rate at which you level up. The numbers look bad, especially when you start the game, because everything seems strangely stacked against you. But you level up at a quick rate, and with some knowledge of the game’s mechanics, it becomes a really enjoyable challenge.
There were a lot of extraneous parts to this game, however. Items, weapons, and equipment can by synthesized, but the synth materials to make them are not at all plentiful. Hit Maker needs to take a hint from Gust: synthesis is only fun if you have the necessary ingredients to synthesize. The menu system is totally inconvenient for the synthesis process as well. I went through the entire game without synthesizing any superior weapons, because I was well off with what I had.
There are also a number of chests in the game that can be opened only by having high-level lusce. Lusces are like FFVII’s materia, except that they grow by use, rather than simply winning a battle with the thing equipped. As a matter of fact, nearly everything you do in Dragoneer’s Aria levels by use, much like the SaGa series. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. As I was saying, though, the Lusce level up with use. However, other than the healing spells, they all start off so much weaker than standard attacks that you’ll never use them, and hence, they never level! They’re really a waste of time.
For a fully 3D RPG on a handheld, the camera functions surprisingly well. This is rare, and for that alone, I am pleased. However, the reason it functions so well is due to its limitations. Zooming is impossible, as is most vertical panning. Hence, you’re essentially left to look around from a third-person perspective above your character. On a functional level, it’s great; but for those of you who want all sorts of fancy camera gadgetry, too bad!
I also felt that the game generally handles well. However, as I said before, menu navigation is clunky. That’s not good. Also, though I thought it was fine, others who have played the game tell me that they think there’s some synchronization problem with that “guard wheel” I mentioned earlier. So, this may or may not be a problem, depending on who you talk to. Of course, I think they’re just bad at timing the thing.
Unique 2D artwork translates into really weird-looking polygonal characters. We’ve seen it over and over in PS1-era games, and here it is again. The game is fairly pretty, but some of the characters just didn’t translate well into a 3D environment. What’s worse, the motion and animation used in the cut scenes is awful. Sometimes characters move all jagged and fast, other times they move too slowly and smoothly to be considered normal human movement. I had a hard time watching some cut scenes, because the emotion in the characters’ voices didn’t match the movements at all.
Decent, if limited, soundtrack, coupled with a catchy ending theme song and J.S. Bach’s “Air” for the title screen–that’s the music for ya. The voice acting comes in two flavors: Japanese, and English. Warning: the English tastes awful.
Having very low expectations for this game helped. A lot of people told me it was awful, and a big flop compared to Blade Dancer. But with that mindset, I ended up enjoying this game quite a bit. Even with the dime-a-dozen characters and plot, it was still an enjoyable romp on the PSP. If you have some spare time and want to play something original on the handheld that’s seen one too many ports, check this game out.