"It's a game that has a story to tell. And hidden within the plot's ever-present twists and turns, it tries to give you something new. It craves to wow you, and it tries so hard to impress because it so wants to put itself on the map."
Arguably, the 32-bit era saw the greatest concentration of RPGs after the rather noteworthy Final Fantasy VII wowed a whole new generation of gamers. This opened the metaphorical floodgates to a veritable slew of role-playing games to be released on the Playstation. Many were their number, and much was the rejoicing.
But there was a price; with the genre now viewed greedily by every half-bit game developer out there, the market quickly became over-saturated with mediocre and rushed efforts vying to capitalise on this newly awakened cash cow. To stand out in the genre, RPGs had to have something that nothing else had, some hook that would help them poke their heads up amongst the throngs of pretenders. Some way of putting them on the map.
And in a lot of ways, The Legend of Dragoon accomplishes that.
Protagonist Dart may not be one of them, however. The young sword-wielding mercenary mould in which his muscular frame fits so snugly has certainly been seen a good hundred times before. From his spiked-backed brown hair to his crimson medieval armour setup, he looks and feels exactly like any other heroic fellow that has filled his manly shoes before (or indeed, after) his arrival.
Making his way through the sunlight-choked forest that borders his adopted home village of Seles, our young hero is set to take his first break from a several year long campaign to find the Black Monster, a twisted and dark enigma responsible for destroying his true home village of Neet when Dart was but a lad. With his search proving fruitless, he looks forward to revisiting childhood friends and adoptive family, so it probably comes as a bit of shock when he bumps into a gathering of soldiers who just finished ransacking the place.
Understandably bereaved, Dart makes a crazed rush through the gnarled undergrowth in the direction of Seles, the smoke from the now-burning village already in clear view. In his panic and haste, he rushes right in to the path of what seems to be a ninety-foot-tall praying mantis.
The game is quick to tell you that the gargantuan insect is, in fact, Feyrbarnd the Green Tusked Dragon. But it's clearly the biggest praying mantis ever -- making it a much more fearsome foe!
Saved by a mysterious black-clad warrior, Dart is left to ponder why such a small backwater village warranted such an overblown attack. With a little questioning, his rescuer informs him that the invading forces were from Sandora, the neighbouring section of the Endiness continent where Legend of Dragoon takes place. Locked in a bitter civil war with Serdio, where Seles is located, it seems like the Sandora forces have swept across hostile lands with one solitary purpose in mind. Led by an enigmatic cloaked figure, these soldiers have scoured the land for a lone girl, and in Seles they have found her.
Strict RPG laws insist that anyone kidnapped within the opening section of the game have strong emotional ties with the lead. Enter Shana: the young girl Dart grew up with and looks upon as his little sister -- shockingly, she's also the very person whisked away in such an uncouth fashion.
Perhaps setting off to rescue the damsel in distress doesn't much sound like the adventuresome set-up I alluded to within my opening words, but one of the things Legend of Dragoon does so well is sets itself in a rich and believable environment. The clichés and expected characters and events are all guilty of making an appearance here, but the fact that they do so in an artificially created universe that practically oozes depth makes it a little special. There's a history to the places you traverse and a dimension to the villages you visit that is rare to behold.
No more so obvious than when Dart reaches the now-razed Seles, and is forced to kill off any straggling soldiers that still remain within. Old friends lay slaughtered and dying at his feet as he carves into those that wronged him with a feral intensity. Cutting through each wave of aggressors will only reveal another revolution; be it his old home ablaze with fire, or to capture the dying words of a familiar face. With the threat vanquished in his burning village, Dart travels to the enemy stronghold of Hellena prison, seeking to single-handily attain vengeance and recapture Shana.
And those he slaughters can take pride in the fact that their deaths at least involve the player more than that of most nameless cannonfodder. Dart can slice and dice the unwary, but he needs help from you in doing so. Stepping away from the more tried-and-tested choose-an-attack-and-watch method commonly employed, Legend of Dragoon makes the player engage in timed button presses that replicate the strikes and slashes that take part on screen in a system monikered as 'additions'. The harder the attack, the quicker the tempo and more difficult it is to finish the combination. Invigoratingly, this system is almost like a mini-game in its own right. It's Parrapa the Rapper-esque in its frantic key combonations, but instead of enduring inane rapping puppies, you get to disembowel threatening hostiles.
Not always content to simply stand around and get stabbed, bashed and poked, enemies will even offer up frequent counterattacks that interrupt the flow of the attempted addition. You will need to correct the pattern with differing button-presses if you don't want your foe to charge past your attack and unleash one of their own!
You even have the chance to level your additions up, helping you hit the various nasties that vie to prosecute you with a pinch more vigour -- which is certainly handy seeing as the game rewards you with as little experience and currency as it can possibly get away with! Legend of Dragoon takes away your ability to turn your cast into world-eating juggernauts by ensuring that the bulk of your levelling up occurs from the set boss fights. Dart will not grow much in stature by eliminating the faceless thugs that inhabit the dark and inhospitable Hellena, even when he is joined by Lavitz, a captured knight from the Serdian capital, Bale. But when the pair finally take on the obese and loudmouthed warden, Fruegel, things change. Disposing of the warhammer-wielding fatty will not only ensure your escape from the oppressive prison, but the victory will garner you more experience than the combined total for every half-bit goon that random encounters throw your way will.
Sorry, Mr. & Mrs. Powerleveler. Your services here are not required.
It is not till a while after you brave Hellena Prison that the greatest attempt at innovation makes an appearance. While Dart's meagre party pitches in to defend the fortified town of Hoax, they find themselves overwhelmed by superior numbers, struggling bravely to overcome the odds. Things start to look particularly bleak when Dart is effortlessly bested by a Giganto, a giant-like race long thought to be extinct, employed within the enemy forces. With Dart grounded by a man-sized axe wielded effortlessly by his mammoth foe, it seems only a miracle could possibly save our young hero!
It's time for one of those strict RPG laws again! If you believe enough, miracles do happen!
For it is within these dire circumstances that Dart first utilises his Dragoon ability. Upon activation, Dart taps into a forgotten power, and serves avatar for the long-extinct dragons of old, allowing him to magnify his strength several times over. Metallic wings sprout from the back of magically-enhanced armour, while his sword ignites into a blazing inferno, corresponding with the element of the dragoon power he holds. The suddenly even more formidable Dart can now not only soar through the air gracefully to deliver spectacular and devastating combos, but also commands a slew of magical spells that the cast in Legend of Dragoon can only replicate through consumable items when not abusing their nifty dragoon powers.
Dart is chosen to wield the Red-Eye Dragoon spirit, giving him total control over the element of fire, but he doesn't get to play magical demigod alone. Rose, the obligatory goth chick whom you stumble across in Hoax, will command the Dark Dragoon, while loyal Lavitz somehow gets lumbered with the hippy-sounding Jade Dragoon, master of all things windy. By the end of the game, you will have collected the full set of seven dragoons, all clad in the appropriate coloured clothes that represent their respective dragoon elements-- just in case the person playing is too bloody stupid to tell them apart any other way.
Under the onslaught of powers beyond their comprehension, the beaten foes retreat from Hoax with their tails beneath their legs. With such an important chapter completed, you know you will shortly be supplied with the RPG eye-candy in the form of a plot-expansive CGI scene. You do, and it is glorious.
The cut-scenes that tell the more epic portions of the plot will simply blow you away, easily surpassing anything you are likely to see on a 32-bit machine. As awesome as it is to be spoilt rotten visually, it does draw attention to the fact that a lot of the in-game graphics are kind of shoddy in places. Let's examine a grassy field that your party find themselves hiding in after being ambushed by a group of enemy archers: everything looks serene right up to the horse happily munching away at grass within its enclosed paddock to the fallen leaves that the wind swirls around the screen sleepily. Then in strolls your character sprites, and your eye is drawn to the fact that they could have been better. When such care has been taken to ensure the world looks as visually stunning as it is historically deep, you have to wonder why the same care wasn't exhibited everywhere else. Dart & Co. don't look particularly ugly, they are simply plain looking people stood against a beautiful pre-rendered backdrop. It's not flattering, and it's as big of a shame as the other littering of problems, such as the poor localisation that has characters sometimes spew gibberish or the overall relative ease of the game.
The fact is, The Legend of Dragoon could have had it all. It could have been the benchmark for other games of its ilk to aspire to, but a number of hiccups that have no reason to exist make it not so. But the fact that it is something different and something that works on so many levels conspire to overshadow these flaws, and, for the most part, they do it. This is a game you'll want to beat because you can believe in it. You'll slaughter foes because it's fun to do, and you'll invest in the world because it a hell of a lot better than the one you live in. Do you get your home town assaulted by ninety-foot praying mantises? Heck no!
It's a game that has a story to tell. And hidden within the plot's ever-present twists and turns, it tries to give you something new. It craves to wow you, and it tries so hard to impress because it so wants to put itself on the map.
And in a lot of ways, moreso than most, The Legend of Dragoon accomplishes that.
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