The Legend of Dragoon is quite the old game, and if you didn't grow up with old school JRPGs, you may have a hard time getting into the comparatively slow gameplay of the games back then. Whether or not this one is enjoyable depends on the kind of gamer you are, as is the case with all video games; for a little help in decision-making, here's my view on it. (And I will personally punch anyone who dares so much as whisper "Final Fantasy VII..." into the void in an attempt to confine other perspectives on the game; you wouldn't believe how often this comes up in reviews and on message boards.)
This is a long and optional read; skip it if you have no intention of playing the game, if you don't care about my opinion, etc. Part of this is therapy for me because I sat through approximately forty hours of gameplay just for this shrine when replaying the game was the last thing I wanted to do. Alternatively, you can just read my praise of the game under Pros, but what I most adore about the game will definitely seep through in other parts of the shrine.
Click on the two links to reveal the sections.
encounter rate, repetitive and tedious battles, long spell animations, item bag limit, world map navigation coupled with backtracking and bad game design, lack of gameplay elements, voice acting, early-game plot
Starting with the negative points: The gameplay sucks. Is it worse than other JRPGs of its time, excluding the typically mechanically complex Final Fantasy titles? Possibly. Does it bring anything new to the genre? Not necessarily. Can it still be enjoyable? Absolutely, all the more so if you've enjoyed a wide range of PlayStation JRPGs. Let's take the battle system, the core mechanic of any JRPG: If you're familiar with the Shadow Hearts series (released for the PlayStation 2), you'll see that The Legend of Dragoon takes a similar approach to interactive battles, where each physical attack – called Addition – triggers a sequence of timed hitboxes that require the player's input (pressing X at the correct moment) for the attack to be executed. Depending on how many hits were successful, the respective percentage of damage would be dished out, with the attack ending prematurely if a box was missed. The rhythm of Additions depends on the playable character, and Additions hit harder when they've been successfully completed a certain amount of times, thus leveling up. Characters also gain new Additions (which leads to more hitboxes per attack sequence) as they themselves level up; these techniques don't vary in anything aside from amount of hits, damage and SP gain (Spirit Points; see below). You can watch a demonstration here (don't leave it running too long or you might see spoilers).
A lot of people like this system as they enjoy leveling up Additions and enjoy battles that force you to stay alert, while others struggle severely to time their hits. The thing is, there is little to no variety in these Additions, as old ones either quickly grow obsolete due to the scaling of damage and SP gain, or because you realize it may be more efficient to ignore some of the later Additions altogether; damage percentage is calculated proportionally, so if you have difficulties hitting Additions, successfully performing one with fewer hits deals more damage than having an attack end prematurely in the case of more difficult Additions, thus losing out on a lot of damage potential. Most importantly though (this coming from a player who has no trouble with Additions), late-game Additions with many hits just take way too long and draw out battles – whether it's boss battles that take a considerable amount of time in the first place or random encounters, with the encounter rate being very high. Rather than being rewarded for having reached a high level and unlocking stronger Additions, battles become repetitive and more and more tedious.
Additions are coupled to Dragoon transformations, the game's special feature and plot element: Successfully executing Additions leads to SP gain, and once a certain amount of SP is reached, the respective character can transform into a Dragoon and either unleash elemental physical attacks or evoke their dragoon/character-specific powers if they have been chosen by a Dragoon Spirit – you see, special attacks, synonymous with magic in this case, can only be executed in Dragoon form. (As you may have guessed, harder-hitting Additions typically net you less SP and vice versa.) And again the game fails because transformations aren't as game-changing as they ought to be considering the requirements and their story relevance (not to mention some more flaws in the system that I won't delve into here). Spell animations also take quite long and are unskippable. For the most part, Dragoon magic will mostly be used by the player for healing.
Next, the interface. The menu feels slightly clunky, but something that will severely impact your gameplay is the amount of items that the item bag holds, a grand total of 32, with each item being counted separately. So if you have four healing items that are exactly the same, that already makes up 1/8 of your inventory. The reason this is not something to brush over is that you will be painfully aware of this limit every time you open a treasure chest, as a considerable amount of time is spent tossing away items to make space for new ones, reactively or preemptively. It's a shame, as the game features a good amount of healing items and an even greater amount of elemental single- and multi-target magic attack items that scale off the characters' magic stat to combat the lack of magic attacks outside of Dragoon form. Repeatable items of highly useful nature also exist and do not vanish after use, though they can only be employed once per battle (speed up ally, block opponent's moves, nullify magic attacks for three turns, etc.). There's an item in the Japanese version that doubles your item bag size, but of course we don't get to have that. Perversely, you can hold 255 pieces of equipment at a time...
World map navigation is awful because random encounters are as frequent as ever while you can only travel on straight paths, without being able to quickly pass – i.e. skip – through areas (forests, wastelands, etc.) you've already visited; instead, you are forced to enter and go through the respective area in its entirety again. This coupled with the fact that disc 2 and disc 4 in particular force you to backtrack frequently (rather than teleporting you to your destination or at least out of dungeons upon completion) leads to an enormous waste of time.
Surprisingly, The Legend of Dragoon has pitifully few gameplay elements. It is extremely linear (I don't mind linearity in JRPGs because the genre encourages it to some extent, but I understand it hampers other people's joy of exploration) and features next to no sidequests (though I love the two or three that exist, which I'll mention again below and in other parts of the shrine). But hey, I adore Grandia (oh wait, I adore The Legend of Dragoon too), which is just as linear and just as void of sidequests, but at least characters have more variety there as far as battles are concerned. The Legend of Dragoon offers little room for character customization, too, and leveling is slow.
Its soundtrack isn't exactly bad, but it isn't memorable either if you ask me. Its voice acting is most definitely bad, hilariously so as it spoils the mood of most FMV sequences, which mostly occur when a dramatic reveal takes place (including the beautiful ending); curiously enough, the voices outside of FMVs – which means during battles – are mostly fine. The Legend of Dragoon is criticized for its translation that can be stiff and without emotions at times, instead stating the obvious, while being inappropriately hysterical at others ("Shut up! Talking makes you die!", "The flame puts me in the mood to 'Do it!'.", "How would you like a knuckle sandwich?", etc.), but to be honest, I haven't ever had much of an issue with its translation, for just as voice acting, it's on par with what I'm used to from JRPG classics on the PlayStation. (And I am allowed to cough "Final Fantasy VII..." at this point, which contains infamous lines that add to its charm.)
Lastly, the early-game plot: People complain that disc 1, and to some extent disc 2, feels like a typical JRPG in how it is riddled with clichés – they're probably right, though I admit I don't care as much because 1) Lavitz is an amazing character and has huge presence in the early-game, 2) you're playing an old school JRPG, 3) Rose Rose Rose. What I will agree with is that the game can have pacing issues, especially on disc 3, where the first part barely lets you play as characters infodump on you, and towards the end of disc 4, where you pretty much don't get to recover from dungeons. I shall revisit these points below.
visuals, town and dungeon design, narrative diversity, story, lore and worldbuilding, story development, characterization, female characters, Rose
Now that we got that out of the way, on to the pleasant things. The Legend of Dragoon has gorgeous visuals for its age: Some may complain about the lack of FMVs or the unnecessary FMVs in some parts, but to me, its unvoiced ingame cutscenes have a beauty of their own that cannot be conveyed the same way through voiced FMVs. Pre-rendered backgrounds, whether it's towns, dungeons or battle backgrounds, are full of detail and very diverse; how much effort went into battle backgrounds is particularly visible in the last "dungeon" of the game, which is pretty much an echo of all the areas up to that point while adding new, unique environments of its own. And if you ask me about JRPGs with immensely memorable towns design-wise, The Legend of Dragoon would be among the first to come to mind. As with dungeons, towns usually have multiple layers to them, whether it's foreground and background with different exits or buildings that can be climbed upon closer inspection.
To take two early-game examples: Almost all screens in the capital city Bale feature water – to explore the entire city and find its hidden sidequest items, you will have to figure out a way to make the boat within the city accessible so that you can explore the city while on the water. Lohan, the City of Commerce, has little space due to its population, and the arrival of new permanent merchants results in spontaneous buildings that have to fit in somewhere even if the result isn't pleasing to the eye. Its streets are narrow and houses as well as business premises sit on top of each other; what's more, all houses are connected somehow, which is visible to the player because upon entering one, you see a cross-section of the entire building even though you may not be able to enter adjacent rooms directly (because duh, privacy). In the same city, you can walk on the roofs to get a top-down view of place and reach more areas.
Next is narrative diversity. The game spans four discs, each of them containing one clearly defined chapter of the story, each of them with their own mood and plot as they take the overall story to the next stage (and reveal more about the world as well as the mysterious Rose). The chapters all have their strengths and weaknesses as far as the balance of gameplay and story exposition is concerned, and though I've stated that the game has pacing issues, I also appreciate how each chapter's pacing is different. Each disc also takes the party to a different and visually distinct region of the continent.
Chapter One serves as an introduction of most characters while containing very little of the game's grand scheme; in fact, there is little actual plot on the first disc and it is the one that feels the most like a typical and uninspired JRPG. It also takes a long time for the party to reach the first city that can be explored. While Chapter One's focus is on war, Chapter Two is quieter in how it's about bandits and political intrigue – if you want to call it that – as it builds on events set in motion in the previous chapter. Chapter Two's mood is light-hearted, which is reflected in its cities' bright and playful colours, but there is an awful lot of walking around and going through the same area over and over. New characters are introduced and more characterization and character development occurs. The mystery depends in chapter three, where the player is fed with a lot of lore and plot points and everyone is sitting around talking forever. By the end of Chapter Three, the characters' world view is shattered. In the game's final chapter, the characters each need to come to terms with the things they have learned and their own truths in order to pave the way for the future.
Then, there's narrative depth. There is so much to The Legend of Dragoon's story, lore, its world's history and how it all comes together once you reach Chapter Three on top of its characterization and the way its characters interact. Even more interesting is the way it subtly shows how legends and myths come about, for what purpose humans pass them on and how those narratives can change or differ depending on time, region and speaker, all of them retaining some part of the truth while drastically altering other elements. Though not all party members have equal presence (Kongol and Albert are pitifully underused or underwhelming, for instance), what else there is is very likeable – again, this has to be viewed in the context of JRPGs of its time. Best of all, the game successfully conveys its themes, particularly that of facing and accepting the past so as to live in the present, in both its story as well as its characters. Although all of this is the game's strongest point and ought to deserve more than this measly paragraph, I shall refrain from saying more at this point so that the rest of the shrine can speak for it!
The Legend of Dragoon, I feel, is a game that shows in an extreme way what kind of gamer I am and what I look for and value in video games: I severely dislike its gameplay (or lack thereof) and game design, do not want to replay it ever again after having gone through it twice, and would discourage people from playing it based on gameplay alone – but I love it dearly (without nostalgia goggles, since I played it in 2011 and well after my childhood) and still firmly consider it one of my favourite JRPGs because it excels at the elements I desperately look for in JRPGs, more so than in any other genre, elements that some modern games still brush over. I love it for its characters, for the way its story unfolds, for its many different women and their presence (to which I dedicate a page in a later part of the shrine), for its rich background that invites so much speculation and inspires fanwork and lengthy interpretations, and for how it leaves one with a strong yearning for a prequel.
And then there's Rose.