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By: Andrew Long
It was so very tempting to come down like a ton of bricks on this game. Often, microwaving the CDs in frustration seemed like a good idea, because the game's inconsistency is maddening. Much of the time, the visuals are stunning, but occasionally things look dreadful. The game world's history is the very model of depth, a solid foundation upon which a great story could have been built. Lamentably, the rest of the plot is a cliche wrapped in a lame twist smothered in predictability, with just a hint of plodding character development tossed in for good measure. The music is great, provided you only listen to two or three of the tracks, and enjoy watching end credits while one of these few decent pieces is playing. The list goes on. In the end, while Legend of Dragoon has a few things working for it, the game ultimately comes across as a rushed product, despite its alleged three years of development.
So enter the main character. Out of nowhere, you're Dart, the red-armoured stalwart and pride of Neet, who returns home to find his village decimated and his childhood friend Shana somewhere amidst the smoking rubble. Yikes! Having failed to turn up much in his fifteen-year search for the Black Monster, it seems as good an idea as any to pay a visit to the evil emperor responsible for the present carnage and uncover the details of his nefarious scheme, a trail that's easy enough to follow thanks to the sinister meanderings of a pseudo-Sephiroth named... wait for it... Lloyd. Yes, the bastion of evil that Dart has to follow endlessly about is named Lloyd. This should serve as an immediate warning sign, since virtually any other name would have sounded more imposing, or at least a little less dopey.
Villainous nomenclature aside, Dart sets out on his journey, and is almost immediately beset by a wide array of animals, plants, and various other things with contrary dispositions. Handily enough, a master fighter was hanging out in the ruins of Neet, so before a fight is even necessary, players should have the basics of Legend of Dragoon's battle system under their belt. This is a good thing, because over the course of four discs, the plot wavers and wanders and fails to get to the point so frequently that the combat sequences are the only thing holding it all together. To its credit, Sony has done a marvellous job of putting together a battle system here. Fighting in this game is never a matter of simply pressing X; rather, players must press X with some degree of skill and synchronization, because otherwise the attacks, known as additions, do pitifully low damage. Additions achieve two effects: one, they take the emphasis off showy graphics in battle, and two, they force the player to pay attention to what's going on.
It gets better, though. In addition to this well-conceived system, characters eventually receive the ability to morph into Dragoons, with a flashy little sequence which can mercifully be turned off. This adds another wrinkle to things, because dragoons can only attack or use magic; therefore, if characters start getting low on HP and all three are Dragoons, it spells trouble. There's also another excellent feature: the cursor. In dungeons, it switches between green, yellow, and red, indicating how close a player is to being caught in a fight, and in battle it corresponds how close monsters are to dying. This greatly reduces the irritation of random battles, and is also helpful in battle, since there is an unfortunate lack of "scan" magic.
In the end, there are only a couple of minor faults with the battle system. For one, magic requires painful button mashing to be effective, and secondly, experience accumulates at a depressingly slow rate. It probably makes no relative difference when compared with experience gain in other games, but it still seems somehow slower because of the greatly reduced scale on which experience is obtained.
Unfortunately, there's other components of the game which exist on a greatly reduced scale as well. One of these is the number of items players can carry, which is limited to a paltry 32. While this does add to the overall effectiveness of the battle system in terms of limiting possession of curative items, it's also a pain because spell items are counted in this total, which ends up forcing the player to endure a tiresome balancing act of throwing things away in favour of finding out what's inside treasure chests.
Speaking of painful, the world map looks absolutely awful. Other games might take the cake for pure ugliness in this regard, but Legend of Dragoon comes close, with physical features looking as though they've been dumped unceremoniously from outer space to comprise the surrounding landscape. Additionally, because it's in full 3D, it chugs like an overworked mule, with jagged aliasing cheerfully gouging the screen with every turn Dart makes. In the background, instead of the sky, there's a stylized version of the map, which is handily low in detail and more or less useless, even when viewed alone. Finally, travel is only possible on fixed courses, constituting more of the connect-the-dots goodness inaugurated by Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest. This is most assuredly a bad thing.
Which brings us to the menu screens. Loading times here are intolerable, verging on the wait times inflicted by Final Fantasy VIII. Part of the problem is that some genius at Sony decided the menu should have its very own music. As an added bonus, this music is lousy, which doesn't noticeably heighten the quality of what is a fairly run-of-the-mill menu screen. The only other difficulty lies in the poorly translated names and effects, which can sometimes cause head-scratching. Other than that, it's functional, if barely.
The menu theme is just one of many disastrous attempts at music made by Legend of Dragoon's composer, who seems to operate on the theory that jamming enough notes into a song will sooner or later make it sound good. The only pieces approaching passable are those from the Crystal Palace, a few of the battle themes, and the end credit theme, which is actually quite enjoyable to listen to. The rest is truly awful, often meandering through the scale in desperate search of tune and pleasantness and failing utterly in the quest to find them. Syncopation is used to bad effect, much of the percussion sounds like squelching, and as an added affront, the boss theme sounds suspiciously like Final Fantasy VII's, and comes out worse in the bargain. And then there's the voice acting. Featuring some of the cheesiest dialogue, replete with horrific lip-synching (especially in the closing cinematic, where it looks as though nobody bothered, resulting in Revenge-of-Mothra-esque lip flapping) and disgraceful elocution, this is bargain-bin American voiceover at its worst, and does the game no good whatsoever. It even infiltrates the battle system, where characters call out the names to their additions if completed successfully. After hearing "Double Punch!", "More and More!" "Gust of Wind... Dance!" and so many others 80 times and more, it becomes difficult to resist the temptation to mute the volume.
If ever a game was generic, it's this one. Anyone who has ever played an RPG will immediately feel familiar with the setting, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, they'll also be able to pick out exactly what's going to happen to and as a result of each character in the game, at least up to a point. The plot does twist and turn, but each of these developments is stolen from another game or movie, so nothing is ever too surprising. The gameplay is what really sets Legend of Dragoon apart from other titles. Its mix of skill and strategy is a welcome change from the button-hammering antics required in most games, and that in itself is a big innovation. Not big enough to outweigh the game's generic nature, but big.
As previously noted, Legend of Dragoon has a rich back story, filled with an intriguing mythology and a diverse cast of characters and events spanning 11,000 years and the entire world of Endiness. With this setting, the game's developers should have been able to craft a compelling story. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, somebody watched a bit too much Star Wars, played a few too many RPGs, and decided to steal ideas from both piecemeal. The result is a plot that lurches from tired twist to tired twist like a drunken sailor, carelessly chinked together with almost no meaningful character development, and sporting a couple of holes you could drive a truck through. Every cliche in existence is here: the storybook romance, the loyal friend, his loyal replacement, the big tough guy, the gruff veteran, a couple of stern, worldly women (with hearts of gold), and of course the comic relief. Add a good dose of careless inattention to detail (such as skipping between there being 108 and 107 races in the space of two sentences), stir, and you've got a terrible plot.
It's actually rather amazing that any of the story got through at all, considering how abysmal the localization effort is. With hundreds of errors and scores of weakly translated passages such as "week spot" and "mega powerful magic", Legend of Dragoon lends the impression that it was translated directly out of a dictionary, with no care given to little things like spelling, grammar, or making conversations sound realistic. Words are randomly highlit in red, regardless of whether they bear actual importance or not, and little explanation is given of the game's one and only real sidequest, the collection of Stardust, which just shows up in the menu and sits there innocuously for half the game, daring you to guess what the devil it's there for.
So with something as uninspiring as collecting dust as its only stab at non-linearity, there's really not too much reason to play through Legend of Dragoon any more than once. Besides being far too long for its own good, the game possesses little beyond the battle system to warrant playing through it again, and the plot is by no means so engrossing that it creates any desire in me to re-experience it. Inevitably, it's difficult to avoid the game becoming a fairly expensive paperweight.
At least it would have been a pretty paperweight, though. Right down to the CD art, no expense was spared in making Legend of Dragoon look good. The backgrounds are all exquisitely detailed, and the animation of water is beautiful. There are also gorgeous cutscenes interspersed extremely sparingly throughout the four CDs, which help lend the sense of grandness to the back story, as that is generally where they appear. The only blot on an otherwise spotless effort is the world map, which is terribly ugly.
Though some puzzles in Legend of Dragoon are tricky to solve, the game is by no means difficult. For some reason, whenever a boss threatened to kill me, something went in my favour, allowing a quick healing and reviving. Dying results largely as a result of carelessness, and there is no reason this game should pose much of a challenge to anyone beyond the novice RPGamer. That said, it does take forever and a half to finish; because of sluggish loading times and the interminable plot, expect to spend upwards of 45 hours completing this behemoth.
It's really rather sad. With so much going for it, Legend of Dragoon should have been the pinnacle of gaming that Sony hyped it to be. Unfortunately, careless attention to detail, a sense that somehow, longer is better, awful loading times and a sluggish pace, all complemented by some of the worst music ever to show up in an RPG, and the end result is something less than magnificent. In fact, because the game is so slow, it gives an acute awareness of the passage of time. Minutes turn to hours, and before too long, the only thing worth caring about is when the next disc will be finished, which is definitely not what the main selling point of a game should be.
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