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Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (PlayStation 2) artwork

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (PlayStation 2) review

"You make the best plan, you execute it…and you still wind up dead. Something of a bitch, isn’t it?"

Whether you believe in Hell or not, there’s no denying it sounds like an unpleasant place.

Fire lashes out, peels away your skin and incinerates your innards; a flame that no water can quench. Screams and shrieks and whines and wails, echoing all around you, drilling past the flesh, past the bone, into your mind. Torment beyond imagination, pain beyond comprehension, suffering without relent. On and on, throughout eternity, ‘til the end of time.

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is a lot like Hell.

Hell is about repetition.

Most RPGs start you off slow; give you a gentle learning curve. The first few bosses are easy to take care of, minimal effort, just enough for you to get a grasp on how the system works. They hold your hand until you're ready, and then start to bring in the tough battles, challenging you only when you’re ready to be challenged.

Dragon Quarter is not like that. Dragon Quarter is going to test you from the first fight against the first enemy in the first dungeon. Before you even make it to the first boss, you’ll likely be tired, winded, running out of potions and down to your last few chunks of HP. You will get your ass kicked and you will have to start all over. ALL OVER.

But that’s how Dragon Quarter works. You see, every battle in Dragon Quarter gives you two kinds of experience points when you win: Regular and Team. Regular experience works how experience regularly works; it goes into each character, raises levels and stats. The team experience, though, is separate from that; think of it as an experience bank. Every time you beat an enemy, it fills up, bit by bit. You can empty it at any time, add it to your regular experience and make your team stronger…but that would be a dumb idea. Because when you die-and you are going to die-the team experience will be the only thing you can bring with you.

Allow me to break this down.

Every time you die in Dragon Quarter, you’re given three options:

1) Start from the last save point, the normal way. Pretty useless; if you get your ass kicked once, you’re going to get your ass kicked twice.
2) Pull back the hand of time a little bit and go back a few steps down your path, with a sizeable chunk of your experience and items intact.
3) Start completely over, with only your team experience, items, and half of your money intact.

Hell is about frustration.

You’ll start over…and over…and’d lose count if the game didn’t do it for you. If you’re wise, you’ll pool your team experience, distributing it among your characters wisely, make them a little stronger each time, getting a little farther each time. There will be times when you just stop, just press pause and stop the game, so you can just think. Think about what different path you should go down this time. Think about what enemies you should avoid this time and which you should engage. Think about which items you should keep, which ones you should store, which ones you should throw away. Every decision you make has an effect, every chance you take could come back to you, every little thing you do adds to the whole.

Your reward? Minimal. Extra cutscenes give you extra scenes, facets of the plot that weren't shown on the first go round. Better than nothing...but not much better.

But you know what? It might not even matter. Go ahead, strain you brain, think and think and think until you don’t have anything left to think about. Anticipate, calculate…it can only do you so much good. Dragon Quarter is an evolving game.

You can go to a place that had a horde of enemies the last time you came through…and nothing might be there. You could turn down what was once an empty hallway and find a very large, very angry, very powerful mutant cow staring at you.

On one hand, it keeps things from getting monotonous. On the other hand, it keeps things from getting easy. There are things you can plan for and things you’ll never see coming, forcing you to not just think ahead, but adapt to every variable. Dragon Quarter never makes it simple for you.

Hell is about pain.

You’ll need a quick mind both in battle and out of it; you’ll come across monsters that you simply cannot beat, that bring much more strength to bear than any of the dungeon's other enemies. You can distract them; throw some meat and run off while they dine. You can throw some explosives; maybe weaken them for an easier kill. Or you could just take it head on, face it like a man, and die. Your choice.

But it doesn’t matter whether you’re facing a common enemy or a boss-sized bruiser, battle is never a simple affair. Combat is a mixture of real-time and turned based; you attack in order of fastest to slowest, attacks are chosen from a list and executed by pressing certain buttons, but each character can move around freely on his turn…if he has enough AP.

You drop AP when you move and attack, and the gauge resets every time. It may sound simple, but it’s a microcosm of the main game’s decision making; you have to consider each attack you make. Do you take a short walk up to the nearest baddie and pepper him with five weak strikes, or do you stay where you are and conserve your AP, letting your enemy come to you and take some of his damage, using the AP you conserved from not moving to unleash a devastating barrage? You’re starting to run low on HP, too…but you only have a few potions left, and it doesn’t look like you’ll be reaching the next save point for a good while. Either use them now and heal up or don’t use them and risk getting annihilated in the next turn. And that enemy on the far corner, the ugly bat looking thing…he hasn’t done much, he might be up to something. Maybe you should make a preemptive strike and take him out.

You make the best plan, you execute it…and you still wind up dead. Something of a bitch, isn’t it?

Be under no illusions: Dragon Quarter wants you to hate it. It wants you to stomp your feet, to toss the controller into the wall, to scream until your lungs get sore. It wants you to go insane.

It knows that insanity will drive you right back to it.

Only an insane man would want to beat a game for the pure challenge, for the thrill of making the impossible possible. Only an insane man would walk straight into death, plan for it, anticipate it, desire it. Dragon Quarter is a pleasurable pain, it’s an experience that no other game in this generation can compare to: A hardcore game that punishes the player, masochism in the form of a CD…a challenge.

~The Divine Comedy

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Staff review by Zack Little (December 12, 2005)

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