Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is a pretty shocking and divisive title, and not just because the number 5 was dropped from the title, but because it looks, feels and plays nothing like the previous games in the series. In fact, it looks like crap and many people have gone on to blame this excessive departure from the prior installments as the reason for the death of the series. Gone are the gorgeous colors, deep, vivacious cultures and the feeling of a living, interconnected world of the previous games. Here, you’re trapped underground in a post apocalyptic hellhole. But enough about all that, let’s start at the beginning.
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, henceforth to be called Breath of Fire V, after all the numeral V was kept in its Japanese title, was released in November of 2002 for the PlayStation 2 in Japan and sold 140,000 copies within 2 months. Later, the game was released in North America in February of 2003 and in Europe later that year. The European version included some strange changes such as the soft save function being removed entirely so the only way to save your game is to use consumable save tokens. However, to compensate, the developers included roughly twice as many save tokens in the European version than in the other versions. Enough about all that though, let’s talk about the story.
While the previous games all seemed to take place in the same world and had many threads connecting each of them, Breath of Fire V takes place in its own continuity, wholly separate from all the other games. Though unsupported by Capcom, some fans speculate that it takes place some millennia after Breath of Fire III. The theory goes that upon Myria’s defeat the planet began to wither and the great desert expanded. The people, suddenly unable to survive, had to burrow deep underground and rely on technology to eke out a living. It’s a plausible theory, but one not supported by capcom.
The subterranean world that the people of Breath of Fire V live in is known as Shelter and the Ryu we all know and love is back. This reincarnation is a low ranger on the totem pole tasked with protecting the Shelter from monsters. During one of his missions he meets up with Nina and the adventure truly begins! Don’t get too excited though, they’re both mute and Nina looks like a 5 year old anorexic hobo. She is the impetus for the journey though, the polluted air of the underworld is killing her and Ryu is determined to bring her to the surface in order for her to breathe freely. That’s pretty much the story of the game in a nutshell.
The story and world is a huge departure, and the only inkling of the “Breath of Fire essence” that still remains are just a few names, Ryu, Nina, Ranger and dragon transformations, that’s about all there is to remind us that we are, in fact, playing a Breath of Fire game. Gone are the huge cast of characters, here you only have three controllable members, so let’s start with Ryu.
Like Breath of Fire II, Ryu is a ranger, but not a respected one. In this twisted world everyone’s social standing is determined at birth by their D-ratio and the higher the ratio, the better. Ryu’s is extraordinarily low, only 1/8192, but as you play the game there are ways to increase his ratio which allows you to access other rooms and see further scenes. As always, he can transform into a dragon, but it works very differently this time, and I’ll get into that a bit later. Nina is your typical magic user, but she’s not the hot, sexy, vivacious princess that we know and love. Instead the designers thought it would be a good idea to have her be a rag wearing, malnourished twig of a girl who, like Ryu, can’t speak. It’s like watching mimes fall in love. Continuing the theme started in Breath of Fire II of having a Woren clan party member in each game, Lin joins as a member of a anti-governmental terrorist group called Trinity. She starts off as a bit of a bitch, but eventually opens up to Ryu and Nina.
Breath of Fire V plays unlike anything else in the series. The developers have stated that The game’s rogue like game play elements and high challenge were added to differentiate it from previous entries in the series, which the creators felt were “too easy” and the level of difficulty and deviation from the norm only increased as development continued. The end result is a kind of “hybrid dungeon crawler” meets “real time strategy game”. For the first time in the series, battles aren’t random and enemies are visible before combat begins. You are now able to bait and trap foes before, and during, combat to give yourself a tactical edge. The combat system is actually really fun and is the heart, and sole reason in my opinion, to play the game. Let me explain, when a battle begins, you freely move your character about the playing field while it’s their turn. Movement costs a certain amount of AP however, as do the attacks you use once you’re in range to attack. Therefore the more you have to move to get to an enemy, the more limited your attack options become. Once you’ve reached your opponent, you can continually use attacks in one long combo until you run out of AP, and then you switch to the next character. Each of the three main playable characters has a set purpose - Ryu uses powerful melee attacks; Nina uses magic to attack multiple enemies or create powerful traps for foes to step into; and Lin can use her gun to repel, attract, or otherwise manipulate the position of your foes. Each battle is a unique puzzle to solve, so the constant combat never really gets old.
Another controversial aspect of the game lies in the Dragon Counter system. Early in the game after Ryu acquires his dragon powers a counter appears that raises from 0% to 100%. As Ryu walks around, it slowly increases, and if, god forbid, he were to use his dragon powers the counter would rise at an astronomical rate and if it ever reaches 100% the game ends and you have to start over from the beginning. This mechanic severely limits the amount of times you can use your powers, and forces you to save them for only the most drastic of situations. However, in turn, the dragon powers are far more powerful than anything seen prior.
Starting over isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. The game was designed for it. In fact, the game rewards you for killing yourself over and over again. When you restart the game, you keep all of your skills and some of your experience. Since the battle skills are more important than your level, you can easily blast through early dungeons (or just avoid most enemy encounters), so replaying doesn’t take very long. Not only that, but when you replay the game, new story elements are interjected (mostly added cut scenes), expanding the game tenfold. After you beat the game, your D-Ratio is upgraded, so you can visit previously inaccessible rooms. The game’s built around replay value, which is good, because it’s actually short for an RPG, which I greatly appreciate nowadays.
Between the battle system, the genre switch, and the dark graphical switch, it’s no wonder why most players blew Breath of Fire V off. It’s not traditional, in fact, it goes against everything you ever learned about how to play an RPG. Also, it seems that gamers these days want instant satisfaction and if they have to look at a game over screen they get frustrated and quit. However, If you are able to look past this quirk, you will actually find a very fun game.
Dragon Quarter doesn’t look terrible, I just don’t like the style or locale. I prefer the bright cheery graphics of Breath of Five II and III, not these drab brown and gray dark corridors. Everyone also looks like a holocaust survivor and the writers did a great job fleshing out the bleak atmosphere. Musically there’s a lot of techno and industrial influence, which makes sense and does a wonderful job of amplifying the feeling of hopelessness and despair that the visuals already encapsulated so well.
Believe it or not, I like Breath of Fire V and I feel it is a great game. But, it fails as an entry to the series simply because every last ounce of that Breath of Fire feeling is gone and it just feels like a disappointment when you expect it to be something else. Played on it’s own merits without prior knowledge of the series it’s one of the best and most innovative RPGs on PS2, but as a Breath of Fire, it fails hard.
Quite a few features were cut from the final version of the game, including an online mode and a fishing minigame similar to earlier titles in the series. The dragon Odjn was originally conceived to be a “cutesy” companion to Ryu and his team before becoming large and menacing, with his early design instead going to Cupid’s pet Oncotte. Various plot points that the development team deemed too “shocking” were also removed before the game was completed, including a locked room in the Biocorp Labs that contained decapitated duplicate bodies of Nina and the scientist who performed Nina’s operation at one point resembled Hitler. The creators stated that they originally wanted to include a cut scene in the game showing how the surface world became uninhabitable, but they were unable to do so.
I will admit, when I first played Breath of Fire V I hated it with a passion and I put it down for years. But then I decided to give it a second chance about 8 or 9 years ago and I’m glad I did because it really is a gem. The story, while dark and depressing, is captivating and it’s also pretty short and tight. I can appreciate that now that I’m older. Shorter games are more fun for me and It’s actually one of the main reasons why Wild Arms 4 is my favorite in that series and conversely, why I can’t stand most original PlayStation RPGs, they’re too damn long! The battle system is also extremely fun once you get the hang of it. Don’t be afraid of dying in the first few dungeons in order to start over a bit more powerful. Once you do that, the game becomes more forgiving and you won’t have to start over late in the game and redo tons of progress. It’s hard to say where I would place Breath of Fire V against its predecessors since it is so different. It’s not the best, but it’s no where near the worst.