Dragon Quarter: The Powerless Fantasy

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Dragon Quarter’s self-awareness as a videogame is among its more minor subtexts, but it is still definitely there. This may be a city, but it is also underground. That sky is painted onto the rocks, much in the same way that that sky as a digital object is a pre-rendered 2D background, a static image meant to convey an illusion.

Historical Context

As a narrative text/semantic object/what-have-you Dragon Quarter is relatively simple, but as a metatext it becomes a much more complex subject. It is an object of an era of videogames like Ico, Metal Gear Solid 2, and Final Fantasy VII especially whose narrative content, visual/aural aesthetics, tone, and design decisions acted as meta-commentary on their place within the context of their own franchises, genre, and history. Given this, I find it appropriate to begin by reflecting on Breath of Fire itself, and its place within the history of JRPGs.

Centering Final Fantasy VII As A Historical Event

Before we proceed, perhaps it would be worthy to be skeptical of simply accepting the commercial narrative that Final Fantasy VII was the most important JPRG ever released. After all, Squaresoft wasn’t the only company putting out JRPGs at the time, right? Well, no, they weren’t, but the fact of the matter is that during this time, they were by far the dominant voice, especially in the west.

During this period of time, Atlus’ flagship franchise Shin Megami Tensei did not have a title on the PS1 (except for remakes of the previous games) while Atlus established the Persona sub-series and began artistic experimentation and commercialization of their own, which would eventually lead them to something barely recognizable as SMT by the time Persona 3 and Persona 4 began to make big splashes. Enix, the publishers of Dragon Quest, limited their console JRPG publishing to games by tri-Ace, who made an impact of their own with the cult favorites Star Ocean: The Second Story and Valkyrie Profile.

Most importantly, Dragon Quest, the commercial king of the JRPG before Final Fantasy VII, the dominant voice of the genre throughout the 8- and 16-bit era, and easily the series Breath of Fire most closely resembled in its 16-bit infancy, remained dormant for almost the entirety of the PS1's lifespan. When Enix finally did publish Dragon Quest VII in 2000, it had both missed, and chose to entirely ignore that wave of experimentation. While well-received in its time, it has become probably the least popular Dragon Quest game overall. As a result, the center shifted from Dragon Quest (from which the older Final Fantasy games themselves were obviously derived) towards Final Fantasy, mostly because in an era of voices both loud and quiet speaking in favor of change, the oldest and most influential voice in the proverbial room chose to remain silent.

Onto The Subject At Hand

Until the release of Dragon Quarter, Breath of Fire was a primarily traditional series of JRPGs, whose first game arrived in 1993, arriving during a period of transformation for the JRPG. It was as basic as the genre could come, with simple turn-based combat, and a story that more served the function of transporting you around towards fantastical places rather than propelling you into conflict with the cardboard-cutout villain, or exploring any social or philosophical themes. The main gimmick of the game was that the main character, Ryu, is from a tribe of people who can transform into dragons, which you can do in battle. It’s pretty cool. As Tim Rogers once quipped in his review of Dragon Quarter for the now-defunct Action Button:

In hindsight, we realize that Breath of Fire’s core concept at the outset of development might have been to make an RPG for the loads of people who were disappointed the Dragon Quest had been going for seven years and only ever shown the public two genuine dragons.

A sequel of slightly darker tone, Breath of Fire II, released the next year, is often regarded as the series’ strongest outing, and came the same year that Square’s Final Fantasy VI signaled a coming change for the genre with its industrial-age aesthetic and emphasis on characters and melodrama. The release of Final Fantasy VII solidified this as a commercial and artistic trend, and as a result, while Breath of Fire III was received politely, it was describe by most contemporary reviews as straightforward, old-school, and plain, criticisms that the series had already faced, and that only became exacerbated in a post-Final Fantasy VII world.

Breath of Fire IV was filled with these kinds of tedious minigames.

While Breath of Fire III still sold well enough to warrant a sequel, by the time Breath of Fire IV was released it was clear that some kind of identity crisis had set in. Perhaps responding to the shifts occurring in the genre at the time, BoFIV stripped away many of the complex systems featured in BoFIII, (which appealed to a hardcore RPG fanbase,) and in their place the game was stacked to the brim with mini-games, perhaps thinking that Chocobo Racing was the key to Final Fantasy VII’s success.

I note the developmental conservatism of Breath of Fire as a series because, even now, the true-blue fans of the Breath of Fire series tend to be the kind of people who disliked the aesthetic, tonal, mechanical, and especially narrative shifts that Final Fantasy VII brought about within JRPGs, the kind of people who would call Cloud or Squall “emo” and who, when discussing JRPGs in the 5th and 6th console generation tend to champion series more dedicated to color and whimsy like Lunar, Grandia, Wild Arms (which, despite its “western” aesthetic is still basically a fantasy-set, turn-based RPG series, just with trenchcoats and cool hats) and indeed Breath of Fire. To quote the Youtuber Breath of Fire superfan Razorfist (who is not known by any other name, and who you should not try to find if you have a low tolerance for racism, sexism, and transphobia,)

. . . I’ll take Ryu and company . . . over five-minute pre-rendered Playstation cutscenes . . . featuring a protagonist with more hair spikes than personality traits, sobbing over the death of a girl he hadn’t had time to introduce himself to yet.

While it would be unfair to characterize the series entire fanbase this way, the true champions of Breath of Fire tend to reflect similar attitudes, and while changes in artstyle and gameplay simplification brought about by Breath of Fire IV made that fanbase skeptical, what came next would absolutely infuriate them.

Dragon Quarter

Whatever happened during the development of Breath of Fire IV, the development team went in a completely different direction for the series fifth entry, Dragon Quarter. The result is a game that replaces bright, happy characters with near-mute ones, living under the oppression of a strict caste system and the lack of natural sunlight. A game that replaces turn-based simplicity with a complex balance of movement, combo strings of attacks with various properties, and sometimes brutal difficulty. A game that replaces the typical orchestral JRPG music with something like a mix of the Soul Reaver and MGS2 soundtracks with industrial percussion and synth layers featuring modern tonalities. Most importantly of all, Dragon Quarter is a game that takes arguably the most enticing aspect of the role-playing game: the high-fantasy universe full of interesting places to go, colorful people to meet, and the leisurely pace and narrative construction to see it all, and replaces it with a 12-hour average playtime, the oppressive, small, rocky corridors of an underground setting, a HUD number that reminds you how close you are to dying, and a HUD number that reminds you how close you are to escaping this post-apocalyptic hell.

As a result, Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter was, for most of the decade following its release, one of the most hated videogames ever released. This owes to the fans of the Breath of Fire series resounding rejection of the game, and the relative obscurity of the series itself which makes this game unknown to all but the JRPG nerds like myself who live and breathe for this genre, and those aforementioned true-blue Breath of Fire fans. It also owes to exactly the quality that makes it a great videogame: its willingness to trade the conservative values that would’ve made for a more “solid,” stable JRPG experience for the unique artistic vision of those who worked on it, a vision that has never been emulated.

But Dragon Quarter, despite its aesthetic and tonal shifts away from its own classical roots, is by no means an attempt to artlessly cash in on a trend. While Final Fantasy VII and Square’s subsequent games were an assertion of the value of developing and designing a game with a story at the center of the experience, and using that story to assert ideas about politics economics, and philosophy, Dragon Quarter was a statement in return that similarly intelligent engagements of political ideas could be built into games of minimal narrative that still focused primarily on gamers’ engagement with mechanics.

Thesis

The primary idea that Dragon Quarter engages through its play is, quite simply, being poor, and the stress that comes with being poor. Born poor, into a political system that ensures that you live poor, and without a miracle, die poor. And to demonstrate how Dragon Quarter engages that, I want to dissect the various, somewhat disparate elements of the game that create that feeling. As such, what follows are analyses of how the game makes the player characters poor and maintains their poverty, as well as elements of the game that create and exacerbate stress in gamers.

D-Ratio

The aforementioned caste system in Dragon Quarter is based on the idea of the “D-Ratio,” a concept in the game’s fiction wherein the number itself is intended to represent how likely a person may be to “link” with the dead dragon Odjn, and become its host.

Those most likely to link with the dragon are thus considered very powerful, and are the leaders of society who live closest to the surface, with the cleanest air. The most powerful among them are the Regents, some of whom have D-Ratios as high as ¼ (The titular “Dragon Quarter”) and among their ranks are people as powerful as to be able to see into the future, like the regent Hortencia.

Those with lower D-ratios are forced to live deeper underground where the air is severely polluted, such as: Ryu, 1/8192, a ranger who works to defend the lower sectors from monster attacks. Lin, whose D-Ratio has been erased from government record after she joined the resistance faction, Trinity. And Nina, whose D-Ratio is never mentioned, but is believed to be even lower than Ryu, such that she lived in the deepest slums of Shelter (the name of the game’s underground setting) before the game began. We learn later that she is the result of experimentation to create living creatures that can purify the air of the lower levels, presumably to make living more hospitable even deeper into the planet.

By establishing this, the game establishes analogies not just to legally authorized castes that have existed historically, but [also] creates a metaphorical relation to class as a construct in real life, particularly as it relates to urban environs, where the rich live literally on top of the poor. To quote my upcoming book on Final Fantasy VII, a game which features a similar subtext of class and verticality:

[This] is not unfamiliar in a world filled with our own corporate skyscrapers and penthouse apartment buildings (from which these images of verticality are derived) where those with wealth and power dictate the earth and its conditions to those living in small houses, in cramped apartment complexes, and on the street.

The Setup

This is the plot of Dragon Quarter: Up. Lin sabotages an operation where Ryu and his partner Bosch were intended to escort a train with a top-secret package up to the Regents, causing the train and Ryu to fall to the deeper levels of Shelter. Ryu then finds out that that secret package was Nina, a small, frail, obviously sickly girl. They later meet with Lin, who informs Ryu of Nina’s condition, and the Regents’ intention to experiment on her further, likely causing her death. Out of moral fortitude, Ryu then decides to join Lin in helping Nina first get to Trinity headquarters by climbing through Shelter while being chased by Ryu’s former allies in the Rangers. Trinity then reveals that they had largely the same intentions as the Regents, while Ryu and Lin figure out that the only chance for Nina to live is if, somehow, they can make it to the surface. And so they climb.

Characters rarely speak in Dragon Quest because, as Rogers also noted, there isn’t much to say. There is only the singular focus on survival.

Game Save System

The intensity of that strong, primary focus on single-minded ascent ends up being one of the ways in which the game stresses the player. Because characters rarely speak and gameplay is rarely interrupted, Dragon Quarter is of a much more intense pace than someone sitting down to play a JRPG is likely expecting. This is most of why the game is so short, so that this intense, stressful experience is not stretched to the point of ennui. But because the game has such an intense pace, it rarely invites the player to take a break themselves in the way that other JRPGs do.

The game save system in Dragon Quarter emphasizes this pace in a few critical ways.

  1. You cannot have more than one save file of Dragon Quarter on a memory card at a time. This prevents the playstyle many JRPG fans employ in which they keep multiple saves of a JRPG, which came to prominence to curtail the risk of ending up in unwinnable situations, which were possible in JRPGs given grievous player error. (Example: leaving a vehicle in an inaccessible part of the world map, which happened to a friend once in Final Fantasy VIII) This increases the risk of everything you do in Dragon Quarter because, it is totally possible to create numerous unwinnable situations in Dragon Quarter (another reason the game is so short is to curtail the frustration of this.)
  2. As a corollary, you cannot copy a save file of Dragon Quarter from one memory card to another. I have never seen any other game do this.
  3. You cannot save unless you have a Save Token. As a result of this, on a practical level, you can’t really save unless you have two Save Tokens, because if you use your last one, you can’t save again until you get another one, and the appearance of Save Tokens is only guaranteed on a few occasions, with the rest being relegated to random drops. The limiting of saves is actually even more intense than in the early Resident Evil titles as a result.

This created a very distinct memory for me: I was living with my parents at the time but was slowly transitioning to that point other middle-class kids my age were, where you still live with your parents, but buy most of your own food, pay for your own gas, etc. I was working at Arby’s during my first playthrough of the game. We got slammed on dinner rush and had a late closing shift that took 2 hours longer than it was supposed to. While we were sweeping, mopping, etc, one of my coworkers, this high-school kid, just blurted out “can we just clock out already?” and our frustrated shift manager said “You don’t clock out until I say you can clock out. Don’t ask again until I say you can.” Lo and behold, two hours later, here I am, sitting in front of a TV, playing this super intense videogame, and realizing I want to go to bed but can’t, and I just remember chuckling and thinking “can’t clock out until it says I can, eh?” That experience of shift work, the absolute subservience to something to where my body is a tool for the machine to run, was reflected pretty deeply.

Treasure Gathering

The treasure chest is the big pleasure center for many JRPGs. The chests themselves tend to be lovingly crafted models, with gold plating and various carvings. And within, those chests are objects guaranteed to be instant gratification: new weapons, new armor, absurd sums of money, etc. Dragon Quarter, without getting rid of “treasure chests” in concept, subverts this heavily and the purpose of money and chests in Dragon Quarter ends up being re-contextualized by aesthetic and context.

This is the very first weapon shop in the game. While some of the game’s NG+ elements make these items more affordable on a replay, their effect on a first playthrough is striking.

To start with: the amount of money you make off of battles and by searching around is quite simply very, very small. Very often you arrive in a new town and, while there is a weapon shop, what you find there is prohibitively expensive. While not uncommon in Dragon Quest this sort of situation, meant to encourage level grinding, was becoming extremely uncommon with the wave of commercialization happening in the genre as a result of Final Fantasy VII, and Dragon Quarter’s employment of it is pretty “intentful,” if not intended. (As well, that game designers were willing to put in an-almost useless element of their game just to make a point is worthy of commendation. Its an early example of a kind of philosophy that’s still quite rare, the only examples I can think of being examples from Blendo games like the orange-peeling used to build a scene in Thirty Flights of Loving.)

Instead of gamers finding treasure inside of beautifully adorned chests, what they find is unidentified items hidden inside generic containers you smash open. There are chests as well, but they are also generic and utilitarian. And even if the items are useless junk, you have to take that item to be appraised to find out exactly what they are and how much they are worth, and sometimes you take a loss just by choosing to have the item appraised. Even when you don’t, your profit margin is usually slim. That said, when you’re lucky, you find a new weapon or piece of armor that you’ll find useful.

The design of chests in BoFV: DQ is purely utilitarian, and though you’ll still be drawn to them, they’re intentfully without some of the luster that you might expect from different games.

The games artstyle rarely ever chooses to make this a satisfying bit of consumer therapy because the amount of work put into beautifying the weapons simply isn’t comparable to, say, a Final Fantasy IX where every new weapon is more beautifully adorned and crafted than the last, which. This and the item appraisal system work to drain what is usually an instant pleasure interaction of any feeling other than survival instinct. That, plus the unadorned and unceremonious presentation of chests/crates themselves heavily subverts the purpose of chests themselves.

Resistance and Resource Drain

I feel like I and others overstate the difficulty of Dragon Quarter, which relates to a larger discursive problem with how “difficult” games are described, and that’s something that deserves some sort of explosive 6-thousand word essay of its own. Point being, there’s no time for it here, but I do need to make a crucial distinction: D1/4 being “hard” because it is resistant to gamers. It is consciously built to work against gamers’ expectations of the genre, and most of its design decisions prevent gamers from playing D1/4 the way they play any other JRPG, in ways described above such as the implementation of resource management and the save system.

Explaining this battle system could take a long time, but suffice to say its most persistent element is balancing the AP you need to attack vs. the AP you need to move around the battlefield.

As well, the battle system and the encounter design itself reinforce this resistance. The battle system itself is incredibly complex, especially since each playable character operates on a different strategic level and implements the game movement and combo systems in different ways, as well as a result of its use of fluid movement on the battlefield in a way that is wholly unique from both the “football lineup” of traditional turn-based games and the grid-based movements of most Tactical JRPGs.

Most importantly, unlike in most JRPGs, which delineate bosses and regular enemies through pacing, with regular enemies being defeated easily in swift battles, and with bosses absorbing more punishment and requiring more complex strategy, Dragon Quarter has two paces of battles: slow, and slower. A regular battle in Dragon Quarter sometimes feels like a boss fight from a different game in terms of pace and opportunity to form complex strategies. They can take 2–3 minutes where an encounter of similar “importance” could take seconds in, say, Xenogears. And boss battles that would take 5–7 minutes in a different RPG can be 10–20 minute affairs. The end game had bosses I remember ranging from 30–45 minutes. These battles could be shorter, as most of them come down to enemies becoming increasingly cable of absorbing tons and tons of damage as the game goes on, but the length of them, and the mental exhaustion they create, is there to emphasize the way the game is consciously embodying the idea of play as work, as labor.

The battles are long because enemies take a lot of punishment, and you can also take a lot of punishment, but to take all that punishment, you have to heal, which means you have to use your stockpile of items and stare at the bag as it starts to empty. This means that, on a tactical level, most encounters aren’t really “difficult” they’re just draining. Draining of your resources, and draining of your own personal stamina.

Resource Management and Implementation of Magic

For the first hour or two of the game, the characters you control have no access to magic, and thus, the game instills the habit that you need to pour most of your money into healing items. This is reinforced through the aforementioned lack of funds: throughout most of the game, all you can really afford are healing items. And the healing items take up limited inventory space, which you may want to reserve for better armor and weapons you may scavenge along the way.

The game also strictly limits how many healing items you can carry by limiting it to 10 copies of an item per “slot.” You can carry multiple 10-item stacks of the same item, but you have to balance that against your need to pick up new weapons.

This particular decision is actually the thing I name most often in describing why the game makes you feel poor, and I’d call it by far the most important: it makes you focus all of your money on the absolute bare essential thing that you need to survive. In a JRPG universe: healing items are essentially your food and medicine all in one go. As such, since the game has no focus on shelter, it is forcing you to focus exclusively on using the very little money you earn to serve the party’s remaining basic needs to be mended and fed.

It’s important that the game trains you into this habit because, unlike in most JRPGs, you don’t have the benefit of a dedicated healer character, for a number of reasons. Nina, the party mage, only has access to offensive magic. Primarily, it serves to reinforce the way that the game initially trained you to play, and prevents one from using healing magic to subvert the need for healing items, and thus subverting the need to focus their money on purchasing healing items. As well, it creates a party of characters with a singular purpose: attack. There is no real space to play defensively in Dragon Quarter, and that single-minded focus on one goal reflects the games minimalism: Survive. Attack. Up.

D-Counter

Last but not least is the D-Counter. The D-Counter is very simple. It is a percentage. When that percentage reaches 100, the game is over. The D-Counter slowly rises over the course of the game as the party ascends to the surface, increases especially quickly when Ryu uses his dragon form. Using the dragon form trivializes the battles you face. It is built to be imbalanced, and the games arduous encounter design is a continuous bait to use it. Here’s a secret for those of you considering playing Dragon Quarter: you really don’t ever need to use the dragon form. (The willingness to create a practically useless mechanic reappears here, again, still a very rare thing.)

Synthesis

Each of these elements works together to create a game wherein gamers experience not just the material aspect of poverty, but also the pace of it, the intense need to quickly figure something out, the dwindling of wealth and resources faster than you expected, and faster than you can handle. And while the game captures that tone perfectly, the sacrifices it makes on a textual level to achieve that tone can sometimes hamstring the games ability to make a coherent point with the feeling it creates.

Blemishes

There are a lot of problems inherent to Dragon Quarter’s minimalist approach to narrative, but let’s cut to most important one, the one that brings the game’s credibility most deeply into question: the whole idea of the “Dragon Form As Built In Cheat Code” itself ends up being the first in a long list of ideas that end up reinforcing meritocracy. “You can use this and cheat to win, but it’ll cost you. Or you can work hard and get to the top honestly.” It doesn’t help that the game seems to assert that the only reason no one has ever gotten to the surface is that only a few people have ever tried, and no one else has the courage. Instead of creating a systemic critique that displays why people are ok with not trying to reach the surface, (despite having the perfect narrative elements in place to do so,) the game seems to take their silence and inaction as tacit admissions of guilt. In short: it blames the victims.

And while meritocracy may, in some ways, be a valid response to the game’s totally invalid caste system (people should be judged on their merit as opposed to their birthright, no?), the game ends up displaying a far less coherent or decisive leftism than its contemporaries like Final Fantasy VII or Metal Gear Solid 2 that were, through an insistent application of text, managing to tackle much more complex systems of oppression than Dragon Quarter’s systems and minimalist narrative could ever hope to achieve, which leaves the game feeling tonally coherent much more so than it is thematically coherent.

This acknowledgment of the game’s rhetorical slips into meritocracy are important because meritocracy, as a rhetoric, re-contextualizes the entire purpose of making the player feel poor. In meritocratic rhetoric, poor people are poor because they don’t work hard enough to become wealthy, and that with hard work and determination, anyone can become successful. Aside from meritocracy being an absolutely fallacious political rhetoric, as has been demonstrated by the sort of poverty Dragon Quarter makes its primary subject, it simply doesn’t function here, thematically, because so many other elements of the text: the cruelty of the Regents, the D-Ratio caste system, all of those elements work to contradict that meritocracy itself.

FIN

Ultimately, Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is a game whose values lie in its imperfection, but sadly, the game has not had enough impact for the ideas it brought to the table to prove historically important to its genre. That said, appreciating a game that achieves something important, even without sticking the landing is exactly what ZEAL is for. I sincerely hope that you give Dragon Quarter a try someday. The game is still pretty cheap to find copies of in strikingly good condition. Mine was got for $30 and the game wasn’t even unwrapped. It isn’t perfect, but it is still pretty great, and a game I hope with a little bit of revisionism manages to capture the place in history that it deserves.

— Austin C. Howe, Olympia, WA, November, 2015

Austin C. Howe is the host of Critical Switch. They have written for Memory Insufficient, The Ontological Geek, and Five out of Ten Magazine, and for their blog, Haptic Feedback. You can find them on Twitter here and support their independent work here.