Capcom's long-running Breath of Fire series of role-playing games takes a bold step in a new direction in Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, the fifth installment in the series. While its predecessors have been about as straightforward as console RPGs get, Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter features an original tactical combat system and numerous gameplay twists that will surprise players well accustomed to the standard RPG blueprint. The story is surprisingly good as well and has thematic ties to the other Breath of Fire games, but it's set in Dragon Quarter's own unique subterranean world. It's true that Dragon Quarter can be punishing at times and that its unusual combat system can still get very repetitive, but the game offers plenty of challenge, replay value, and impressive graphics and sound, making Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter another very strong role-playing game for the PS2. And it's especially well suited for those players who still like the genre but are no longer willing to settle for the same old console RPG formula that's been done to death over the last decade.
You'll help Ryu guide Nina to safety through countless dungeon corridors, all fraught with danger.
Like all previous Breath of Fire games, this one focuses on a blue-haired young character named Ryu, who, it turns out, can harness the power of a dragon. Ryu works as a ranger, sort of a patrolling guardsman, in Deep Earth. Down in Deep Earth, people in society are born with a unique number called their D-ratio, a measure of their latent abilities as well as a status symbol--those with high D-ratios are society's upper class. Ryu's D-ratio seems much too low for him to get ahead in the world, but early on in the game, a brush with an ancient dragon awakens in Ryu some unknown and terrifying power. Soon Ryu finds himself protecting a wispy and mysterious girl named Nina and also traveling alongside a tough sharpshooter named Lin, and the three of them will face many perils during their difficult adventure as they head for the world's surface. The game's story unfolds via cutscenes done in the game's 3D engine, and these really showcase Dragon Quarter's expressive characters while giving you a constant incentive to press onward, to find out what happens next to the seemingly ill-fated trio.
The gameplay itself is mostly a third-person-perspective dungeon crawl, which will have Ryu and his companions fighting their way through countless levels of claustrophobic mazes populated by lots of different types of monsters. Ryu (or whichever character you have in the lead) runs quickly and can often outrun his foes before they engage him in battle. There are no random encounters in Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, so you'll pretty much always see your opponents in the field prior to any combat taking place. Being a ranger, Ryu turns out to be skilled in the use of traps and other bait and can hurl things like bombs and dynamite at groups of foes to soften them up before engaging them head-on. Meat can also be used as bait, to draw out individual opponents or to distract them. Ryu can also slash at an enemy to take the initiative in battle. However, if the enemy makes contact with him first, then that enemy will get to attack beforehand. The game calls all this the "positive encounter and tactics system," or PETS. It's not so complicated that it deserves an acronym, but it's definitely more engaging than the nonstop random battles that are epidemic in console RPGs.
The turn-based tactical combat system encourages you to take the initiative and act swiftly.
The turn-based combat system uses the same graphics as the dungeon-crawling portions of the game but presents the action from a higher-up isometric vantage point. You'll see all your characters on the field and all the monsters in the immediate vicinity, and you all will take turns attacking each other based on the speed ratings of the combatants involved. Each character's actions per turn are governed by the number of action points (AP) he or she has, and moving about the battlefield and attacking use up AP. You can conserve some of your AP to unleash a particularly devastating combination attack in a subsequent round, but strangely, using items takes no AP whatsoever. So for instance, if you need to heal all your characters during Ryu's turn when he's only got 1 AP left, you can. This generally isn't a big deal, since healing items often are in preciously short supply and the combat is all about swiftly eliminating foes before they can get at you.
Late in the game, however, the combat unfortunately devolves into the sorts of slugfests typical of RPGs, where enemies have tons of health, and each time they hit you, you're brought to death's door and must spend part of the next round healing back up. By then, the combat seems less tactical and more focused on how high of an experience level your characters are at and how good their weapons are. Combat also generally doesn't reward you for flanking a foe or attacking it from behind. It's not like Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter's combat system will appeal more to those who prefer strategy games over RPGs.