The Legend of Dragoon is Sony's first effort to produce an RPG (Role Playing Game, for the uninitiated) in-house, and has widely been perceived as a challenge to SquareSoft, the company behind the popular Final Fantasy series. Considering that Square has about a ten year headstart on Sony, it's quite impressive. That is to say, Dragoon is good, but a bit unpolished.
The game is set in a world where every few millennia, new species emerge from the Divine Tree. Dragons, the 105th race, were once lords of land, sea, and sky, but in the modern age, are known only through myth. Humans, the 106th race, awed by the might and magical power of the dragons, revered them as minor deities. Despite sharing the world with these dangerous and unpredictable beasts, humanity gradually spread across the land and built a vast empire. The age of man was interrupted by the appearance of a 107th race, the Winglies, magical beings resembling devils, who enslaved every surface-dwelling creature they encountered, ruling the land from floating castles. The gods, appalled by the brutality of the Winglie overlords, gave humans seven stones imbued with draconic magic. The Dragoons, human warriors able to merge with dragon souls, launched an assault against the oppressors. The Dragon Campaign was so savage that by the end, earthly and airborne cities alike were in ruins, the Winglies were believed extinct, and the surviving dragons were sealed in hibernation by Wingly magic.
Some eleven thousand years later, all of this history has passed into legend. As the story opens, humans are pursuing their favorite pasttime, namely slaughtering each other. The kingdom of Serdio has been divided by civil war. King Albert, the rightful heir, rules over the Duchy of Basil, while his uncle, the self-styled Emperor Doel, controls Sandora. Though there was an uneasy peace for many years, the two are now being played off against each other by an omnipresent black-robed man who clearly has a hidden agenda. Caught in the middle is the outlying village of Seles, which is burned to the ground in the first five minutes of the story, as a Sandoran brigade sweeps through and carries off a young woman.
Unfortunately for the Sandorans, Shana, the abductee, is the childhood sweetheart of Dart, an impetuous young warrior who spent the latter half of his youth in Seles. Dart's first village was destroyed, and his family killed, by a mysterious Black Monster, and he has devoted his life to tracking it down and killing it, all the while carrying around a strange red gem given to him by his father.
In his travels, Dart has become quite a talented swordsman. Still, he's no match for the dragon that comes rampaging through the forest as he's making his way home. Luckily, he's snatched out of harm's way by a warrior woman, who keeps mum about herself, but does inform him of the events at Seles. Dart sneaks into Hellena Prison, where he meets up with the greatest knight of Basil, Lavitz. The daring duo becomes a trio when they spring Shana, who turns out to be pretty handy with a bow, and they escape to Basil. Shortly thereafter, the inscrutable warrioress, Rose, puts in another appearance, now sporting dragon wings, and reveals that Dart's heirloom is a Dragoon Spirit.
An astute player will be surprised by none of this, nor by the fact that Lavitz and Shana turn out to be Dragoons as well. Fate is a standard plot device for RPGs. But keep your eyes open, there's plenty of mystery around. What tragedy is the tightlipped Rose brooding over? What (and where) is the Black Monster, and was its attack on the home of the keeper of the Red Dragoon Spirit a coincidence? What is the black-robed man really after? Why was Shana kidnapped in the first place, before anyone knew she was a Dragoon? The more questions get answered, the more questions are raised, as the scope of the conflict escalates beyond mere nations to engulf the entire world.
Square fans have accused Sony of lifting plot elements from Square. This is rather like accusing fantasy authors of imitating Tolkien. You can't write an RPG like this without using elements that have been used before. The story in Dragoon not only turns old ideas to new uses, it also adds ideas that Square has not used, such as the progression of new species, and the alienation of the hero from his own race (a major theme of the X-Men franchise). Also, certain technical aspects are quite novel, even when they clearly share some traits with previous games. The combat system elaborates on the "trigger" idea that was nascent in Final Fantasy 8, rewarding attentive players for timing their characters' attacks and pressing a button at the right moment.
Dragoon's combat is fairly simple. Spell casting is kept to a minimum; the game focuses more on physical combat. (Humans have no intrinsic magic. You can only cast spells using special items, or while transformed into a Dragoon; and since you can only carry a limited number of items, you can't expect to have too many item-based spells at your disposal.) Whether this is good is a matter of taste. The simplicity may make it a good introduction to RPGs in general, but it also makes the battles feel repetitive.
Every character has clear strengths and weaknesses, and you need to play them appropriately. For example, Lavitz, the heavy hitter in your early party, is rather slow. Shana's arrows are weak, but almost twice as fast as Lavitz's spear. Also of note is the fact that Dragoon does not use the "active time" battle system -- you can take as long as you want to decide what to do, and the enemy will patiently wait for you. Of course, since you'll almost always end up doing one thing (attacking!) this isn't as much of a boon as it may sound to players who've suffered panic attacks when trying to remember which sort of spell is appropriate to cast on the beast currently savaging their characters.
The game does have a number of failings. Potential players who are not familiar with this genre should be warned that it suffers from the "hack'n'slash syndrome": you have to spend a fair bit of time randomly killing things to build up levels and collect money. I have yet to find an RPG that did not have this problem to some degree. Dragoon has about the same amount as other popular titles.
There are a number of mildly irritating features of the menu interactions. For example, if you're carrying three of something, they appear as three separate entries in your list. Since you can only carry a limited number of items, it's not too hard to count things, but still, why not simplify the display?
The most serious flaw is that the story, which is excellent in abstract, suffers because of the poor quality of much of the writing. Translations of Japanese idiom into English often sound stilted, or even outright silly. Also, the presence of voice acting in the combat scenes, intriguing at first, gets old, since characters end up repeating the same phrases over and over. Another complaint in the sound department is that the soundtrack does not live up to the standard set by Square's Nobuo Uematsu. It's not bad, but RPG fans have come to expect good music -- the brooding theme of Final Fantasy 7's Sephiroth is almost as memorable as Darth Vader's Imperial March.
Though the audio is a mixed bag, the visuals are excellent. Sony chose to stick with polygon-based graphics, rather than the bitmap system which Square has used for recent titles. Although the mapped graphics are smoother and more detailed in some respects, the polygons still have the advantage of looking more three-dimensional, and the art team for Dragoon has done a good job of making smooth joints between surfaces, adding details, and generally making everything pretty to look at.
To sum up, this is a good, fun game. Veteran players may have a few gripes, but should be satisfied overall. New players will not be swamped by the complexities, unlike some recent releases. And everyone will be looking forward to seeing whether Sony can build on their experience with Dragoon and produce an even better game for the new PlayStation 2.
R Michael Harman is New Media Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons.