2020-Jun-26: Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter

I'll be honest here: when I set out to play through the entire BoF series, I had one major goal in mind: to get to Dragon Quarter. I knew it was different and I wasn't really gaining anything by playing the other four first, but I wanted to come in with full context on just how different it was. I feel the journey was enlightening, and besides if I hadn't, I'd never have known how awesome BoF4 is. So anyway, here we are...

Dragon Quarter is not a Breath of Fire game. It's not just "A different RPG with the BoF label", Dragon Quarter defies what it is to be a JRPG entirely. RPGs usually are a matter of time, of comfort, of knowing no matter how hard things get you can go back and gather resources and try again and again as you get stronger. Dragon Quater isn't like that. Dragon Quarter is tension, it's terror, it's feeling your control on not just the fights but the very progress of the game slip as your options dwindle and you draw closer to total defeat. Dragon Quarter is a slow burning psychological horror. To judge it on the expectation that it carry similarities to prior games in the series is to do it a disservice, so we'll just get it out of the way: DQ is not BoF5, and I won't talk about it as such.

Depending on who you ask, DQ takes place in either the far future, or the "Age of Machines" from the BoF3 universe. Largely it's not important, the world and plot are isolated in a vacuum. Any similarities to characters or concepts past or present is coincidental. It's a dystopian hell-hole where humanity is forced to live deep underground after the dragons destroyed the surface. Society is stratified into a strict caste system based on the purity of their lineage and their capability of linking with dragons and assuming within themselves their powers. This purity is represented as a ratio: the alphas of the alphas are 1/4, the infamous dragon quarter.

Ryu is 1/8192, at the bottom of the bottom. Appropriately enough, that's also the physical location where his story begins.

Ryu is a grunt, a dreg, a bottom-ranking mercenary ranger who's sent to do mop-up details of roaming monsters at the very bottom-most levels of the expansive underground complex. Pollution from above is pumped down, making the air toxic, everyone looks gaunt and sickly, quality of life is non-existent. It's bleak, dark, dirty, gritty, and depressing. The entire complex is a melange of brown and grey and flicking florescent lights. Witnessing this world for the first time is physically and emotionally uncomfortable.

On a routine mission, Ryu encounters the skeleton of a dragon in a research center. He hears its voice in his head and passes out. Over the next few hours Ryu begins to discover new powers in himself. Despite his laughably tiny D-Ratio, he'd managed to link with a dragon-- more appropriately: the dragon's spirit chose to link with him. These powers emerge tangibly when he encounters Nina: a sickly even lower ranked girl being kidnapped by a monster. Using his new superhuman strength to rescue her, Ryu decides to find a safe place for Nina, eventually choosing to take her all the way to the surface in the hopes that they could be safe from the horrific, broken civilization of the underground.

Again, DQ doesn't have grandiose machinations of saving the world. Like BoF3 and the party's raison d'etre being just to meet Myria, and BoF4 and the fairly small plotline of Ryu and Fou-Lu preparing for their fated day, DQ takes the small-focus plot of Ryu's quest to save Nina and see the surface. In doing so though, Ryu draws the attention of the world's powerful elite, and is helplessly drawn into their internal politics and eventually all-out battles. After all, this is a society entirely built around the possibility of linking with a dragon-- something thought to be mathematically impossible for a grunt like Ryu; yet here he is.

Along this journey you also meet Lin, who's a gun-wielding rebel who barely talks about herself. She's just as interested in saving Nina as you, though, and joins with you on the trip to the surface. Back story for all three characters is pretty short; Nina probably has the most though she's the mute hero in this one and can't tell it. You see it through flashbacks you earn by getting a higher D-Ratio.

Soon after gathering your trio, your former ranger comrades begin coming after you. Nina was a genetic experiment in using living matter to purify the air, and the powers that be want her back. Eventually you're forced to fight a squad led by your former best friend and it's here that Dragon Quarter's most iconic and horrifying mechanic reveals itself: the D-Counter.

During the fight, Ryu finally channels the power he'd been given in its entirety and transforms into a humanoid dragon. A percentage counter appears in the UI and begins ticking up quickly as you use these new-found dragon powers-- but also slowly just with the passage of time. If it hits 100% you die; there is no way to lower it. Ever. It's closer to a death clock than a counter: you trade time for power.

To put into perspective how taxing this timer is: you may reach 10% on the counter if you never use dragon powers in the entire game, but that is flat out not possible. Using them gives you a practically guaranteed win on any fight, even bosses, at the cost of anywhere from 5% to 20% depending on the difficulty of the boss and your strategy in using the powers. So worst case, you would want to use it maybe four times in the entire game. Any more without knowing what's ahead would be a major risk.

So if this timer inexorably counts up and you die at 100%, do you just softlock if it goes too high to finish? Yes and no. You can absolutely render the game unbeatable, and it's quite easy to do so on a first play. However DQ gives you two options if you've written yourself into a corner: SOL Restore and SOL Restart. SOL is short for "Scenario Overlay", but it's just a backronym for what we all know it stands for.

Restore takes portions of your accrued equipment and power and lets you reload a prior save with them. Your D-Counter returns to what it was but you keep banked experience and items. So if you beat a boss but realize you used way too much power, you can Restore and try again and keep some of your earnings from the aborted win.

However, if you realize way too late that you're spent, and your recent save is too recent to fix it, there's Restart. Restart is the same as Restore, except you start over the entire game. You keep your gear, you keep banked experience, but you start over from level 1. Fortunately DQ is heavily biased toward gear as a factor of toughness, so getting back to where you left off is faster by orders of magnitude.

The SOL system goes hand in hand with the fact that in Dragon Quarter you have limited saves. Each time you want to save, you need a token. There's about ten of them in the entire game. You can, fortunately, put down a soft save any time you want; these let you quit the game but are deleted when you reload.

These systems all combine to create a terrifying experience: you have a unknown amount of "game" left in front of you, a constantly ticking death clock, and limited saves means any death stands to cost you hours of progress. Every fight that starts tilting south brings the agonizing choice of expending your limited and precious D-Counter to get out of trouble, in exchange for further lowering your chances of overall success and eventually being forced to Restart. Conversely, every save point brings the choice of using your limited tokens to save, just in case the next step brings you face to face with a boss too strong to defeat on the first go. It's a constant game of trade-offs and guesswork with the stakes being the loss of your progress entirely.

So that's... different, and terrifying. The systems within Dragon Quarter are also quite unlike anything the BoF series had seen before. Random encounters no longer exist at all. Instead, the world is populated with a limited number of static spawns that are visible in the dark narrow corridors of the complex. These foes will chase you when you draw near, and can be attacked prescriptively by your party leader to gain initiative in combat-- and conversely can strike you to put you at a disadvantage. Battle takes place is a far more tactical system than prior titles, wherein you move your heroes around on the battle field and attack, both using AP that recharges at a set rate per turn.

Each character also has a very specific niche: Ryu is the melee fighter and tank, Nina is a caster and able to place traps on the ground that significantly reduce enemy AP when stepped on, as well as having a chance to inflict crowd control, and Lin is a ranged attacker who specializes in status effect and placement control rather than damage. A perfect synergy of these three would be placing Ryu next to a trap and using Lin to knock enemies into both the trap, and Ryu's reach.

Combos are heavily rewarded. As you utilize skills at the cost of AP, you are able to use more powerful skills in a chain. Each unique skill in a chain increases the power of the combo by 10%, and sometimes allows the use of special moves that require a specific chain of abilities. Later on, this mechanic becomes mandatory as bosses start sporting barriers that must be shattered in one single combo to do any damage to the boss.

As you have infinite AP as long as you take turns in combat, there's no resource to manage regarding magic, and therefore no healing magic. All of your healing comes from items that, while cheap, come from very sparingly placed shops through the world. Overbuying is definitely superior to under-buying lest you end up mid way between shops with no recovery items (as I did twice). However your inventory space is also extremely limited, so completely buying out shops isn't a great play either. It's all a very tightrope balancing act with what feels like major implications for failure.

So I went in determined to not use dragon powers unless I absolutely, positively had no choice. The best way to not run up the meter is to never do anything to raise it, right? That's a good strategy, but there's multiple fights in the game where the difficulty just jumps, massively, and you're practically forced to dragon up. The first of these comes about a quarter of the way into the game where you're forced into a three boss fight gauntlet, first with a room packed with twelve powerful foes, and then a high defense, high damage mech, and finally your former commanding officer who is capable of using the BoF staple skill Last Resort to grow strong enough to one-shot you. If you escape here without using meter on your first playthrough, you're likely a much better gamer than I!

I'd gotten that far with my D-Counter at 10%. I exited that series of battles at 20%, having had to use it to save my party from being splattered by the squad of goons. Up until that point I'd been feeling okay with my grasp of the game and my general power level, but that fight left me nervous, and for good reason. Shortly after I encountered a foe I could not damage, in a locked room. Another 10% down. Then he came back and merged with another monster to create an even more powerful boss. 10% there. Now I'm at 40% at the half way point. Suddenly things aren't looking so comfy.

The writing on the wall was to prepare to Restart. I embraced this as part of the game but pushed on trying to carefully budget the meter. I refused to use it for awhile after this, including coming a whisper from death during an ambush in which Nina was disabled and a swarm of goons flooded the room I was trapped in. I barely escaped, having basically only not died and lost hours of progress by sheer luck; but I saved another 10% on the counter, so I was happy.

The next boss was a major plot event, and a turn of throwing everything I had at him did nothing, so I dragoned up here too. 50%. It wasn't so much that I was at 50% that made me nervous, but that I had gained 40% of that during one sitting. But I hadn't even hit the hard part yet; that was next. This was the warning shot. I was nervous, belaboring every decision I made at this point. I suspected the finale would require a lot of the counter to get by; I began to wonder if I'd already used too much. I was suspecting I'd need to dragon every boss from here on out.

I wasn't far from wrong.

The regents were next: the elite of the underground. Not only are they super powerful bosses in their own right, but they come with a new mechanic, Absolute Defense. I'd alluded to it earlier: a barrier that absorbs all damage until a combo exceeds a certain amount. The first regent had a barrier of 200hp, and that was just under what I was doing with a full power combo. I had to rework my strategy, attacking once every two turns to build up AP, using buffs more often as well. It took me 25 turns but I slowly whittled him down while saving my precious fuel. It cost me a lot of healing items though, and hence a lot of money.

I felt okay. I took one of the regents without resorting to dragon powers. Maybe I'll make it. This had to be the beginning of the end, right?

Immediately past this boss was a point of no return, and a shop. I felt confident and was running low on cash so I held back on buying items. This would turn out to be a mistake as immediately past the shop was yet another point of no return; no going back to the store. At least I saved first; my last Save Token.

Next was Cupid, the second regent. She carried a strategy directly in counter to my own. She had a 250 damage shield, and spent most of her time shoving my attackers backward, forcing them to spend precious AP to run in to attack. I slowly, slowly chewed her down as her pushes started dealing damage and her ally started tearing apart my party. I realized I wouldn't have the healing to finish; I resorted to dragon power and.... did practically no damage due to the shield with my first volley. I panicked and blew 25% to take her down; now at 75%. It felt bad.

I considered reloading my save, but my chat rioted when I opened the menu to do so. I tried to go on, but I was completely out of healing too, leaving my only choices as Restore, use what was left of my meter to get through to the next shop, or try to tough it out. I chose the latter and was rewarded with Vexacion, the third regent boss fight before a chance to rest.

I was tapped out, unable to continue. Dragoning again would put me at close to 90%, and I had no idea how much I had left before me. I was terrified of saving and rendering my save unwinnable-- not that I had a token anyway. I was also trapped in a fight I couldn't win, and dying into a Restore imposes harsh penalties, so I just hard reloaded my save from before Cupid. This time I resolved to do better; back to 50%. I could have used dragon power to win and then Restored, but that deletes all your carried items, and I had a few powerful buff items I wanted to keep. I think I made the right choice.

Knowing how Cupid worked, I tried a different strategy. Before this I was resorting to Dragon Breath, which is woefully inadequate against the shields of the regents. Instead I used Charge: an ability that outright pays 2% off the Counter to double the damage of your attacks this turn. Three charges and a punch oneshot Cupid for the cost of 8%; a far cry better than the 25% I spent last attempt. I was at 60% now. This felt better.

I did the same thing to Vexacion; 70%. I was rewarded with a very obvious "final stretch" door and a final shop and save point, but I had no token. I had to go forward and hope I didn't die again. At this point I felt like I'd cheated the game by not Restarting. It's clearly intended to be a thing, but I hadn't. Careful management of the Counter and reloading when I used too much in a fight kept it low enough that I just deleted two of the final bosses in the game and had room to spare. It wasn't over though.

The next boss attacked me on an elevator. He split into three and if all three targeted the same person they died, no ifs ands or buts. Also you have a time limit: 20 turns to win or game over. After trying to scratch a win out on my own power for two turns I realized I wouldn't make it. I once again unleashed the beast, Charged up, and tried to AoE the trio. It only cut them down by about half, and cost me 15%. 85% now, and not much to show for it. Seeing 85% and the warning flashes of the indicator did little to set me at ease as I exited dragon form and slowly killed this boss with normal attacks. I believe I won on turn 17. Phew.

At this point I was still 400m under the ground, from a starting point of 1200m. I figured I had a third of the game to go; no way I'd make it. Fortunately, the lift I was on travels 300m on its own, leaving me close to the surface. One silent hallway later and I was standing in what looked to be a giant missile silo, with a gate far above: the surface. I'd made it; or had I? One final fight: our old childhood friend turned hunter.

He was actually easy; or seemed it. A barrier of 100 HP, not much health, but pretty powerful attacks. I swarmed him and pounded him as hard as I could, and was actually making headway into winning. I got confident, didn't watch my positioning; he took advantage. Unleashing two top tier AoE spells, he killed Lin and Nina from full in one turn, and left Ryu at 12hp. I'd come 12hp from wiping and being sent back to before Cupid. I screamed. Chat panicked too. But I lived, and was able to stabilize, scatter my team, and finish the fight. Still at 85%. I was going to make it.

The final phase of the final boss requires using dragon form to even hurt it. I knew this was the end. I charged 4 times and attacked, costing 11% in total, placing me at 96% as the boss went down. Having only used dragon powers in the most dire of situations, using all of my skill and strategy to win in the face of impossible odds when clearly I was intended to use the power, I still reached 96%.

It was the most well-deserved feeling victory I'd experienced in years. I managed to beat Dragon Quarter without Restarting or Restoring. Just one hard save reload after a massive mistake.

It's clear this final gauntlet is intended to test if you saved enough Counter. I needed almost 50% to get through it. On a replay I'd likely have better characters and gear and skills and had used even less Counter up until then so it'd be easier. But for a blind playthrough, I came very close to reaching the final boss without enough Counter to actually hurt him. That would have been a disappointing Restart for certain. I wonder how many people fell to that.

For beating the game, you get your D-Ratio raised. It's a game mechanic only as in plot you're still a grunt, a dreg. However certain cutscenes only unlock at certain ratios, and certain doors only open when you've passed certain landmarks. My playthru got me raised from 1/8192 to 1/2048. The best grade is, of course, 1/4. The grading is a factor of loot acquisition, game time, save count, and battle efficiency; Counter doesn't factor. If you finish the game with less than 90%, you left tools in your bag you could have used. You're intended to almost top out.

So after scrimping and saving for most of the game, I beat almost every final boss in the ending gauntlet by turning into a dragon and punching them into a fine red mist. Is this the intended way to play it? I think so. I think you're supposed to use the power far more often, fail, come back after using less, defeat another boss or two, fail again... and eventually win. But really? Outside of the psychological terror, the mechanic is pretty fair. If you know how to make the best use of the powers, you can win any fight in 10% or less, and you shouldn't need it at all most of the time.

I plan to play it at least two more times. I'm in the middle of a run to try to push my D-Ratio up as high as possible, then one more to experience the hidden cutscenes. Maybe I'll get more plot. It was definitely scant in the initial run. As for the end... you're forced to 100%, and beyond. As Ryu lay dying, the dragon linked with him asks him if it was worth it, then departs, leaving him alive as Nina and Lin open the hatch and set foot on the surface world as the first humans to see it in 1000 years.

It's a very sweet ending, very hopeful in a way. A good way to end the series.