You are free to sever the chains of fate that bind you…
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. For some help in decision-making, here’s my view on it. It is largely spoiler-free, with very vague spoilers clearly announced.
(And I will personally punch anyone who dares so much as whisper
“Final Fantasy VII…” into the void in a narrow-minded attempt to confine different and nuanced perspectives on the game, as is the case with at least every other review and post on message boards. FFVII is phenomenal, but not the be-all and end-all of PS1 JRPGs, much less of the genre.)
For reference, my replay took approximately 40 hours, and if I recall correctly, I only skipped one optional boss, so I estimate the average playtime to be around 40–50 hours (refer to howlongtobeat.com for more data).
Note that the following read is not required to understand the shrine. You can also just read my praise of the game under The Good. Either way, what I most adore about the game will definitely seep through in other parts of the shrine.
repetitive and tedious battles, high encounter rate, long spell animations, inventory limit, backtracking, lack of gameplay elements, linearity, voice acting, pacing issues
To start with: 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 JRPGs on the PlayStation.
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 for the attack to be executed. This means pressing X at the right moment.
- Depending on the amount of successful hits, the respective percentage of damage is dished out. If a trigger was missed, the attack ends prematurely.
- The rhythm of Additions depends on the playable character and the respective attack.
- Additions level up to hit harder after having been successfully completed a certain amount of times.
- Characters gain new Additions as they themselves level up. Newly learned additions are usually trickier and feature more hitboxes per attack sequence.
- Aside from input, these techniques only vary in the amount of hits, damage and Spirit point (SP) gain (see below).
- Here is a video of Additions in action. (Don’t leave it running for longer than 3 minutes and don’t hover over the timeline or you might see spoilers.)
Many players like this system as they enjoy leveling up Additions and enjoy battles that force you to stay alert, while others struggle severely with the timing of 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 a more difficult Addition that has more total damage, but ends prematurely due to missed triggers.
Most importantly, late-game Additions with many hits just take way too long and draw out battles. This applies equally to boss battles that take a considerable amount of time in the first place, and to random encounters, in a game with a high encounter rate. Rather than being rewarded for reaching a high level and unlocking stronger Additions, battles become repetitive and more and more tedious. I am saying all of this as a player who has no trouble with Additions, and who enjoys hitting them on their own.
Additions are coupled to Dragoon transformations, the game’s special feature and one of its primary story elements. 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. 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 fewer SP and vice versa.) And again the game fails because transformations aren’t as game-changing as they ought to be considering the mechanical requirements and their story relevance (not to mention some more flaws in the system that I will delve into on a later page). 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, something that will severely impact your gameplay is the absurdly low inventory capacity, a grand total of 32, with each item being counted separately. This means that if you have four healing items that are exactly the same, that already makes up 1/8 of your inventory. This is not something to brush over as you will be painfully aware of this limit every time you open a treasure chest: 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 (raise speed, block moves, nullify magic attacks for three turns, etc.). There’s an item in the Japanese version of the game that doubles your item bag size, but uh, it’s exclusive. 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, unable 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. In addition, Disc 2 and 4 in particular force you to backtrack frequently, rather than teleporting you to your destination or at least out of dungeons upon completion. The two combined results in an enormous waste of time.
Surprisingly, there are pitifully few gameplay elements. The game offers little room for character customization, while leveling is slow. It is extremely linear and features next to no sidequests. I do not mind the linearity, as the typically story-heavy JRPG genre encourages it to some extent, but it may hamper some people’s joy of exploration. As for the two or three sidequests that do exist: I love them, and one is even an all-time favourite of mine in all of the genre. I shall mention them again below and in other parts of the shrine. (By the way, in its extreme linearity and hardly present sidequests, this game resembles another old-school PlayStation JRPG: Grandia. They both also have excellent storytelling.)
Its soundtrack isn’t exactly bad, but forgettable. Its voice acting is most definitely bad, hilariously so as it nearly spoils the mood of key FMV sequences. These sequences are already very few in number, and are mostly reserved for dramatic moments. Curiously enough, the voices outside of FMVs, i.e. during battles, are mostly fine.
The game is also rightly criticized for its (more than occasionally) stiff and clunky translation that lacks emotion or states the obvious at times while being inappropriately hysterical at others, e.g.
“Shut up! Talking makes you die!”,
“The flame puts me in the mood to ‘Do it!’.”,
“How would you like a knuckle sandwich?”. Honestly though, while I fully agree that the translation is regrettable, I do not take as much issue with it in retrospect. That is to say, just like its voice acting, it’s on par with what I’m used to from various localized JRPG classics on the PlayStation (looking at you, too, FFVII).
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 may be right, though I admittedly don’t care as much because:
- Lavitz is an amazing character and has huge presence in the early game.
- You’re playing an old-school JRPG.
- The presence of clichés is not a meaningful criteria on its own for the assessment of any piece of fiction, just as linearity alone does not define the quality of a JRPG.
- Rose Rose Rose.
What I do agree with is that the game has pacing issues, especially on Disc 3, whose 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.
In any case, all of the gameplay’s shortcomings mean that the game has aged badly in this regard, and there’s little value in playing it to experience its gameplay specifically.
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 game has gorgeous visuals for its age (as in, it was gorgeous even compared to games on the same console). 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. And if you ask me about JRPGs with immensely memorable town designs, 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.
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 in the city accessible so that you can use it to explore the city by 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, the interior is displayed as 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 places and to 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 advance the overall story to the next stage, all the while revealing more about the world as well as its mysteries. 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 has its distinct pacing. Each disc also takes the party to a different and visually distinct region of the continent.
The following is a breakdown of the chapter structures. It contains very vague spoilers (basic JRPG fare), so skip the third and fourth points if you prefer!
- 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 perhaps even uninspired JRPG. (It isn’t.) 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 more quiet 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. Its 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 end of Chapter Two marks a turning point, carrying over to Chapter Three. The quest becomes morge urgent, the mysteries deepen, and there’s an increase in story exposition and characterization. (This also means that everyone is sitting around talking forever.) By the end of it, things look very different.
- 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. The game is so very rich in story, lore and its world’s history, and it is a marvel how it all comes together once you reach Chapter Three. Even more fascinating is the way it subtly explores 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 even as elements are drastically altered. The Legend of Dragoon has a vivid world not easily forgotten, and remains among my favourite to this day.
On top of that, the game shines in its characterization and the way its characters interact. Though not every member of the cast has equal presence and development, what is there is likeable. What is true is that each has a compelling reason to be on this specific journey alongside Dart.
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 these measly paragraphs, I shall refrain from saying more at this point so that the rest of the shrine can speak for itself.
The Legend of Dragoon is a game that shows in an extreme way what kind of gamer I am and what I look for and value. 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 might even discourage people from playing it based on gameplay alone. But I love it dearly (without nostalgia goggles, as I first 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 many (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 just the right amount of space for an intangible yearning to nestle into your heart.
And then there’s Rose.