Monday Spotlight – The Legend of Dragoon

Each and every Monday I take an in-depth look at one video game topic. This can be anything related to games and the industry, from individual titles and consoles to developers and prominent figures, and everything else in-between. All related topics are fair game and I will offer some history, commentary and insight for each. Check back each Monday for a new spotlight, and click here for past entries.

I was a huge Final Fantasy fan during the PlayStation 1 era and the early years of the PlayStation 2. I still do enjoy the series, and list a number of entries amongst my favourite games of all time, but the prospect of a new FF does not excite me as it once did.

I first experienced the series with Final Fantasy VIII in early 2000. I sunk over one hundred hours into that adventure, maximizing my stats and attempting to complete every side mission and gather every collectible, and have since replayed it three or four times. I quickly sought out a platinum/greatest hits copy of FFVII and wasted no time in losing myself in the world of Cloud and Gaia.

The wait for Final Fantasy IX, which would be released the following spring, was excruciating. It took a year from its original Japanese release, and four months removed from its US debut before it finally reached European shores. It was well worth the wait, and in the space of fourteen months I had been spoiled rotten by three classic RPGs; three games that I hold close to my heart.

However, there was only so many times I could play-through FFVII-IX. As much as I loved Metal Gear Solid, Syphon Filter, NBA Live etc., what I was really pining for was a new, epic, cut scene and side quest heavy RPG.  Final Fantasy X seemed a lifetime away; a distant promise of more Square goodness on a console that I couldn't yet comprehend. FFX wouldn’t be released until May 2002 – smack bang in the middle of my first year, university exams. As you can probably imagine, it wasn't the most effective of study aids.

I tried a number of different RPGs in an attempt to fill the void. I imported Final Fantasy V, VI and Tactics, all at great expense, as they had not yet been released in PAL territories. I greatly enjoyed all three, but they seemed to be over in flash: 30-40 hours instead of the 60-100 I had come to expect. I also tried other RPGs such as Chrono Cross, Xenogears (both imported), Grandia and Saga Frontier 2, to name but a few. They are all excellent games, but they just weren’t quite what I was looking for.

In 2001, my prayers were answered by the great Chocobo in the sky, in the form a brand new RPG: The Legend of Dragoon. An unabashed FF clone, it seemed to tick all the boxes. From its cut scenes to the music and visuals, it aped Square’s modern classics and looked to replicate their success. It was a poor man’s Final Fantasy, and I couldn’t have been happier.

Sony’s RPG was the result of three and a half years of development by a one hundred strong team. It was first released in Japan in late 1999 and would follow six months later in the US, and another six months down the line in Europe. It follows the story of Dart and a small group of Dragoons: warriors with the ability to sprout wings and unlock hidden powers. What starts out as one man’s desire for revenge quickly transforms into something much bigger, as its takes its fill of countless genre cliches.

Gameplay is spread between a linear world map, the field map and battle mode. Towns are 2D pre-rendered backgrounds with the characters shown in 3D, much like FF. These diverse and beautiful settings range from rural vistas to bustling metropolises and are full of tiny details. Ten years removed from my last playthrough, these visuals are what I best recall about my journey with Dart and co.

The battle system is turn-based and would be instantly familiar to most gamers. A challenging precision mode, known as Additions, requires some deft button mashing and differentiated it slightly from its illustrious competition. In true RPG fashion, there are items a-plenty and a large emphasis is placed on levelling-up your characters and strengthening their Dragoon form – a must for a game which was more challenging than most other contemporary, console RPGs.

Much like FFVII, The Legend of Dragoon received a great deal of attention for its eye-popping cut scenes, which pushed the PS1 to its limits and necessitated it being spread over four discs. The extended intro was a visual tour-de-force and the scenes scattered throughout the game were every bit the equal of the celebrated work of Squaresoft. According to Wikipedia, cut scene duties were handled by Polyphony Digital – the capable team behind Gran Turismo.

The Legend of Dragoon drew mixed reviews from critics and failed to set the charts alight. The graphics and cut scenes were rightfully championed, but it was criticized for failing to establish a defining feature. The Additions combat mechanic was deemed too difficult and the Dragoon transformation was widely regarded as adding little to the experience. Critics also bemoaned the incessant random encounters that had long plagued the genre.

There would be no sequel; no lucrative RPG franchise as Sony had hoped. However, over the years, The Legend of Dragoon has gained momentum as an under-rated gem and has amassed a substantial following of RPG enthusiasts, gathering support for a prequel, sequel or remake.  Due to its relative scarcity, original copies now command a decent price, usually around £50 for a PAL copy, though it can also be accessed from the Japanese PSN store.

Back in 2001, The Legend of Dragoon was everything I was looking for in an RPG, minus the FF moniker. The back cover blurb won me over in one, succinct sentence: "Play for 80 hours over 4 discs and get the epic RPG that you’ve been waiting for”. It played-up to all of my narrow-minded expectations of a JRPG, including a bloated run-time and multiple discs; the true sign of quality for any PS1 RPG. In my twisted logic, if an RPG wasn't spread across at least three discs, then it wasn't worth playing! I remember scoffing at the single disc outing that was SaGa Frontier 2, before bothering to play it.

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. If that is the case, then a game as derivative as The Legend of Dragoon tells us much about the appeal and quality of the PS1 Final Fantasy games. Although it didn’t enjoy the same critical and financial success as the games it tried so hard to replicate, it stands as one of the best RPG’s of its generation, or at least that's how I remember it. In truth, I have only played The Legend of Dragoon once, back in 2001. If I played it today I'm not sure that I would look upon it quite as fondly, and for that reason I'm unlikely to ever touch it again. I'm happy holding on to the memory of a most welcome Final Fantasy clone, preserved by rose tinted glasses and forever spared the ravages of time.


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