The Playstation 1 is quite possibly the greatest console in terms of role-playing games; you have your Final Fantasy, Grandia, Chrono Cross, and a number of other innovative games in the genre that, at the time of their release, pushed the boundaries of console RPGs. The Legend of Dragoon may not be as innovative as any of those titles, but it borrows many of the elements introduced in other games, throwing them into a blender and making a “great Playstation RPG” smoothie that’s hard to resist. Mmm, frothy.
Story matters above all, of course, and The Legend of Dragoon largely delivers on this front. The story isn’t perfect, mind you, with a few instances of convenient timing and a twist or two that you’ll see coming from a mile away, but there’s also a Xenogears kind of vibe (in a good way) once it gets going. Fortunately, the story here unfolds much more organically than in Xenogears, fleshing out the world and providing enough information to allow you to follow along. That doesn’t mean that the plot doesn’t have its more convoluted moments, though—only that you’re slowly provided enough details to keep up once the complexity eventually kicks in.
Characters tend to be the backbone of a game like this, and they, too, largely deliver with a few caveats. While later on you’re given the option to form a party out of a number of different characters, the characters you’re given in the beginning are largely one-dimensional. Lavitz is the “do no wrong” knight, Shana is portrayed as the damsel in distress, and Dart is the conflicted young hero. This is only a minor complaint since you’re given the opportunity to play as Rose—easily the most interesting character in the entire game both in terms of being awesome and important to the story—fairly early on, and the later characters end up being much more interesting and realistic than Lavitz and Shana ever manage to be.
Gameplay actually manages to be pretty varied. While there’s a bit of the typical RPG formula (go to a town, have someone explain all the town’s problems that coincidentally happen to be impeding your progress, fix everyone’s problems, move on), you’ll also have sections where you’ll have to avoid enemies, engage in dialogue inside of battles, and even party it up at one point. This kind of stuff doesn’t make up a significant portion of the game, but it’s spread throughout enough to keep things consistently fresh and interesting.
Only rarely do you have to physically avoid enemies, because most areas throw random battles at you. They pop up a little too frequently, but you’re never forced to grind; The Legend of Dragoon is designed to give you enough experience in the main story to allow you to progress, so there’s never a need to run around fighting random enemies for hours on end just to be able to move on. Grinding being unnecessary spares the game a lot of tedium that tends to go along with many console RPG games. This, in turn, makes the random battles much less annoying.
Also helping to keep the random battles from becoming an irritation are Additions. The way they work is that you select an Addition outside of battle, and once you attack, a large blue square appears that becomes rapidly smaller while spinning. There’s a stationary square in the middle of the screen while this is happening, and what you have to do is press the X button when the two overlap. Since this is a difficult concept to explain, here’s a video:
Occasionally, an enemy will attempt to counter your Addition. When this happens, the square turns red and you have to press the circle button when the two overlap, instead. This is easy in the beginning, but the combinations, as evidenced in the above video, become more and more complex as you go on. The Legend of Dragoon does a very good job of easing you into it, however, so you’ll likely get the timing down without too much trouble after a bit of practice. One last thing: Additions can be leveled up by using them enough times, which is how they help to keep random battles from being too annoying. Rather than going, “Ugh, not another fight,” you’ll most likely end up going, “Sweet, a chance to level up that new Addition I just unlocked!”
Later on you get “dragoon spirits,” which basically means that attacking gains “spirit points” (more when you successfully use Additions) that can be used to transform into your stronger “Dragoon” form. When you transform into a Dragoon, you gain wings and can use magic spells. This is often overkill since equipping your characters correctly can make a large number of the fights easy, but the spell animations are varied and intricate enough to be worth a watch, and it never hurts to have a backup plan for the game’s harder fights.
There are a number of miscellaneous things the game does that seem to be designed around reducing player frustration. For one, defending not only halves damage, but also restores 10% of the character’s HP (hit points, life, whatever you want to call it). Another frustration-reducing fact is that the game’s healing items restore percentage values of your characters’ maximum HP rather than set amounts, meaning that becoming stronger doesn’t leave you with a bunch of useless items that are incapable of actually healing you. A third thing the game does is provide you with a little arrow over your head that shows you when you’re about to hit a random battle; blue means that you’re good, yellow means “one’s coming up soon,” and red means that any step could trigger a random battle. This arrow can be turned off, as well. Fourth, all characters, even unused ones, get experience from battles. This keeps you from having to level everyone up individually, though unused characters won’t have their Additions leveled up so there’s still an advantage to using your favorite characters over the others. The whole game seems perfectly balanced in this regard.
The Legend of Dragoon is also pretty. Like… really, really pretty. A huge amount of effort went into the graphics, and it shows; everything is colorful and detailed and visually interesting, and it only becomes more and more so as the game progresses and you unlock new spells and fight more interesting enemies. When dialogue starts before or after combat (with the in-battle character models present), their mouths actually move. This is just one of many little details that stand out; graphically speaking, this could very well be the most detailed Playstation 1 game out there. Just look at the screenshots to see what I mean.
When it comes to the music, there are some really good themes, with others that are completely uninteresting and that you’ll quickly forget. Continuing the trend of borrowing from other games, the music seems to jump from style to style, frequently resembling the soundtracks of other games. Some themes are eerily reminiscent of Final Fantasy 8 and 9, others sound like they came straight out of Parasite Eve, and still others would be completely at home in Jade Cocoon. It goes on and on like that, and there’s no denying that the soundtrack is diverse and largely interesting. Still, despite the obvious talent that went into it, many of the themes (particularly the area themes that you’ll be exposed to more than the others) don’t measure up. You’ll enjoy going to the menu screen, however, because the trippy theme that starts playing when you do is totally awesome.
Here’s what you should do: