The Legend of Dragoon cover

The Legend of Dragoon is an RPG that had seemly everything going for it: Three plus years in development, 100 plus men development team working on its creation, a massive add campaign, and a multimillion dollar budget coming out of the deep financial pockets of Sony itself. With all of this behind it, what could possibly go wrong? Apparently a lot!

Sony’s first mistake was to proclaim Dragoon as the definite Final Fantasy VII killer, that combined with an incredible advertising campaign in magazines and TV, setting tremendously high expectations on customers for the product. Of course, RPG veterans knew what to expect, after all, a lot of other titles have tried to sell us that Final Fantasy VII killer moniker before (Shadow Madness anyone?)

Whether an RPG enters greatness or not, really depends mainly in three categories; Story, Music, and Artwork. Of all of those, story matters the most, after all, what makes FFVI a great game even after 10 years? It’s certainly not the graphics anymore; the story however is every bit as good today as it was 10 years ago. The technical aspects of the graphics eventually become outdated but the story, artwork and Musical compositions are forever and this is exactly what The Legend of Dragoon lacks…it does not have a soul as it primarily relies heavily on aesthetics, rather than on substance.

While games like FFVII are developed with the idea of creating an experience for the player, while playing the Legend of Dragoon I had the feeling that the game instead had been developed with the idea of emulating FFVII’s financial success by presenting a game with a similar look and high production values.

The Legend of Dragoon Featured High Budget Graphics and FMV

Graphically, the Legend of Dragoon is as good looking as an RPG can look on the 10 year old PS1. It follows the same visual pattern of the PS1 Final Fantasies (the series which the game tries to emulate), the towns and caves are done in pre-rendered backgrounds, while the characters, the monsters, the battle environments and the over world map are in full 3-D. Not surprisingly (considering the large budget) the game looks technically more advanced than FFVII and in some ways FFVIII. The water effects in the pre-rendered backgrounds are unmatched, except by those seen in FFXI and in Chrono Cross.

legend of dragoon world screenshot
The Legend of Dragoon had a large art budget

The key word here however is “advanced” not better. FFVII and FFVIII look better because of one simple reason: Artwork. One only has to witness the horrible character and monster design, to realize that Sony while having the technology and money to match Square’s Graphical quality, is still a level below Square and others in what artistic design in an RPG is concerned.

Like the rest of the game, the character design here is somewhat cliched, take for example the main hero Dart. Dart is a carbon copy of FFVII’s Cloud, except that he has dirty blond hair instead of bleach blond. Shana, one of Dart’s love interests, was meant to have a pretty character design, for some reason it is pretty but not likable. The villain Lloyd is a carbon copy of Sephiroth’s design complete with silver hair (although his hair is considerably shorter) however, Lloyd while one of the better characters in the game still pales in comparison to FFVII’s legendary foe.

In the end, the whole crew seemed to me like cheap imitations of casts in other RPGs namely Final Fantasy VII. Fortunately, for what it counts, Rose at least (the other love interest) had a beautiful design that is both distinctive and original, two traits that the rest of the game seems to lack.

As stated before the polygonal characters look all around smoother than those seen in FFVII and FFVIII but because of their corny design, they don’t really look as good or are as likable.

The town and dungeon environments, consist of pre-rendered backgrounds, that look somewhat sharper than those in FFVII-VIII. The amazing water effects found in them being the highlight, yet for all that it does right, like with the characters the artistic design in here takes a nose dive. The towns seemed boring and uninspired in their design (with the exception of one or two town at the latter part of the game), in fact the best way to illustrate this is in the puny castles found in the game.

Play Final Fantasy IX and witness the majestic magnificent of Alexandria’s Castle, now compared that to the “puny-ness” of Fletz or Serdio’s castle in the Legend of Dragoon and you will see what I am talking about. It is almost as if the art crew in charged of the game had no grand visions that they could put into the game. With the possible exception of the Crystal Palace and a few other locales, everything else in here seems so stale and lifeless.

The battle back grounds which are done in full 3-D like in the PS1 Final Fantasies, are decent as they depict perfectly whatever environment you find yourself fighting in. The fully polygonal 3-D over-world map however is very lackluster, the colors are bland and there isn’t much vegetation on them, and while you can rotate the camera 360 degrees while on the map, you can’t move freely, instead a doted line marks your path. Star Ocean 2’s world map looked better to me.

The graphics during the battles match anything seen in the Final Fantasy series and the Dragoon Spells are impressive looking, the monsters and bosses look good but their design is terrible.

Finally this brings us to the FMVs which are some of the best the PS1 has ever see. It puts most of Squaresoft’s stuff before Chrono Cross and FFIX to shame. Unfortunately, they don’t happen very often and when they do most of the time they are uninspired and pointless.

The Legend of Dragoon’s Soundtrack was Mediocre

Musically, one word describes the soundtrack: Mundane. The music most of the time isn’t terrible, but when it’s not terrible it’s incredibly mediocre. The battle music has a crappy pop-techno feel that feels cheap and completely out of place in the medieval setting of the game. The composers (Dennis Martin and Takeo Miratsu) saved their best two tracks for the end, because the song that plays at the ending scenes is good and the song with vocals during the credits is very good.

This however does not make up for the bad to average music that I had to endure for the fifty hours that it took me to reach the end, if anything it frustrates me that the composers actually had it in them to create a decent soundtrack but instead chose to slack off. Shame on them.

The sound effects are your standard fare, with the usual spell explosions, sword clashes etc. done well. The voice acting however is some of the worst I’ve ever heard, all the characters sound like feeling less robots, this perhaps happened because the translation was terrible and thus the dialog read horribly, but I would rather put the blame on the incredibly untalented cast.

Calling the voice actors, “actors” is an insult to acting. As all these “actors” do is, read the lines without actually acting them. All of that multi million dollar budget I guess must have gone into the visual department…

Dragoon’s Gameplay Lacked Real Innovation

Gameplay wise, the legend of Dragoon plays exactly like a PS1 Final Fantasy minus the freedom to explore the over world map. You can control characters with both the D-pad and the analog stick. The menus are well done, and even though you are limited to only carry 32 items in your party, you will see that the difficulty level of this game is relatively low, so there won’t be much of a need for healing items even in those 20-30 minute long boss battles.

There are many chests containing items and weapons on the backgrounds, but besides the stardust side-quest there isn’t much in the way of minigames or side-quests. There are about three optional bosses near the end of the game, that while not yielding any super items for defeating them, yield good EXP points to level up.

The way the battles are fought is where the Legend of Dragoon actually differs somewhat from most games in the genre. Don’t get me wrong, they pretty much shamefully copied FFVII battle system into their game (Just like they tried to do with the rest of the game) but they added two very important elements to the whole dance. The first being the choice of transforming into a dragoon and the second being the addition of “Additions”. Dishing out punishment, specially if you perform additions successfully, earns the characters SP to fill the Dragoon meter.

legend of dragoon ps1 combat gameplay screenshot
The combat system in The Legend of Dragoon was largely copied from Final Fantasy.

Once the meter is full you can transform in a dragoon and utilized powerful magical spells depending on the dragon level. I really had no problem with this mechanic, for it added some strategy and flavor to the boss battles. However I must say that I was greatly annoyed by the length of some of these dragoon spells, constantly using their magic attacks is part of the reason while most boss battles took so long to finish.

The additions are like combos that the characters can perform, provided that you have the timing and reflexes to press the ‘X’ right when the square that appears on the screen turns white. Keep in mind that you only have like a split second to hit the button at the right time. Of course most of the latter additions, have multiple hits that you must string together by timing and memorizing the pattern in which the square turns white.

There is one variable to this…sometimes out of nowhere the enemy counters and the square turns red, in that case you have to hit the ‘O’ button at the right time to avoid getting damaged and to keep the string of hits alive. Each addition can be leveled up to level 5, to reach the highest level you must successfully complete each addition you want to master about 80 times.

While this process sounds tedious, and for some players it will be, powering up your additions is the only way you will encounter success during the latter boss battles in the game. Speaking for myself in here, I never ran into any frustrating moment with the additions by the time I reached the last boss my most used trio of characters (you can only have 3 characters in the battle screen at a time) had all their additions mastered.

I think the additions kept the otherwise sleep inducing battles from inducing any sleep because if you weren’t awake during them you would get your butt kicked by failing to complete the additions. The gameplay here is really average fare as there is nothing innovative going for it.

The Legend of Dragoon’s Story Was Too Long and Cliched

This finally brings us to the Story of the game; this is what makes or breaks an RPG. The Legend of Dragoon has an epic plot, keep in mind epic means long not good. You play as Dart, a warrior who returns to his village only to find it in flames and to discover that his childhood friend Shana has been kidnaped by the forces of imperial Sandora. So he sets out to save her while keeping in mind his own personal quest to find the “Black Monster” that killed his parents and destroyed his original village when he was a kid.

Of course, there is an entire background story to this that is explained on the instruction booklet. Which is cliched beyond belief: 10,000 years ago the Divine Tree created the world and every race on it, including the Humans and Winglies. The Winglies ruled and enslaved the humans, the humans then utilized the power of the dragons by utilizing Dragoon spirits and waged war with the winglies and successfully freed themselves from their control.

Now, at the start of the game every thing is nice and peaceful, but an irresistible power is brewing behind the scenes, and naturally is up to Dart and the eventual party that will join him to stop it.

Where have we heard this before? To start the story isn’t that bad, games like Grandia 2 have made great stories out of cliched themes, but the problem with the Legend of Dragoon’s plot isn’t so much the story as it is the characters.

They have no personality, except Meru and Rose (sometimes) all the characters read the same, Dart was like the kind of character you don’t hate, but you also don’t like, he is on the middle of things. Shana, I didn’t care much about her either until it became clear to me that the game was forcing Dart’s character to love her, at that point I began to despise her because…

Rose was the most likable and distinguished character in the whole thing and at one point she shows some feelings for Dart and yet, everyone tells Dart to love Shana instead.

To tell you the truth if Dart didn’t admit to Shana that he loved her at the beginning of the game, when Shana declares her love for him first, then why would he change his mind towards the end? This sounds a lot like Squall’s and Rinoa’s predicament in FFVIII, only that Dart is not a jerk and I actually liked Rinoa.

Sony tried to make an Aeris out of Shana, and they forgot that Aeris wasn’t really forced into Cloud, instead Cloud was allowed to properly fall for her and that Aeris is one of the most lovable characters in RPG history ever. Shana simply is not lovable.

Rose makes more sense for Dart, simply because players will like her more than Shana. The rest of the crew is uninspired really, like Dart, they are simply stale and lifeless. This can be blamed in part to the localization because they all read the same, but also because the plot was so awfully predictable and cliched.

A strong villain was needed to partially save this tale, and Lloyd answered the call unfortunately the only thing he had that would certify him as the right man for the job was having Silver Hair, and apparently that was enough for Sony’s writers to use him for the part. He (alike every villain that has come before him) is a mysterious man who works behind the scenes in an effort to presumably destroy the world. Unfortunately Lloyd is neither scary nor even some one who one could learn to dislike.

Without a strong crew of characters, you can have a wonderful story and yet no one would care to see it to the end. Unfortunately Dragoon lacks both the strong characters and the wonderful story, 3 years on the making and a multi-million dollar budget apparently were not enough to create a mildly compelling tale.

The story is cliched at its worst, there is a ghost ship (Frandia), there is a tournament (Star Ocean 2 and Xenogears) and the whole dragoon concept feels to me like it was taken straight from the Power Rangers tv series for kids. The problem with the game is that while borrows a lot from other RPGs it never does anything to go the extra mile that it would take to make better any of the elements it stole.

I would be lying if I told you that there were not some twists and turns, because there were, but when they happened I didn’t care for most of them weren’t surprising, and like I said before, I felt indifference towards my party of characters.

Most disturbing in the tale is the many plot holes, for example in one part of the game is learned that Character “B” is the chosen one to become a god to destroy the world, and that is why Character “B” is so important. But then Character “C” without a reasonable or rational explanation decides that he can become the god, so Character “B” once seemly vital importance to the plot, is now meaningless, rendering the entire story….well meaningless.

In the end this feels a like a quickly put together story, it had some potential but the developers screwed it up, think of it as that 9 year old boy who watches anime all day and thinks he can write a great story, because he has great ideas (that he stole from the anime shows, no less) but doesn’t know how to put them together with out making them sound corny.

It really seems that Sony had the entire checklist on how to make a FF clone 101 down. Spiky Haired hero? Check. Love interest that is persecuted by an evil empire? Check. Silver haired villain? Check. Wise martial artist old man? Check. Cool gimmick to take hold of younger audiences (dragoons)? Check. And the checklist goes on and on, maybe this won’t be a problem to new comers to the genre but for seasoned vets this game’s plot will feel like pointless waste of time, as nothing out of the strictly cliched ever happens in it.

To finish things on the story, the spelling mistakes on the dialog run rampant throughout the game, the one that I remember the most being “the ‘vally’ of gravity” (the correct word was valley by the way). This is really embarrassing; that a rich corporation like Sony can’t at least properly translate an RPG is beyond me.

In the end the Legend of Dragoon turns out to be exactly what Sony had envisioned from it’s conception, a game inspired by FFVII’s commercial success rather than on its greatness as a game, in other words a game with the highest production values but with out a heart or a soul.

The Legend of Dragoon’s Rating: Mediocre

Gameplay: 7.0 — Typical traditional RPG gameplay, the overworld exploration takes a big hit thanks to the lack of complete freedom of movement, but the Additions, low level of difficulty, and slightly strategic combat, keep the gameplay from becoming completely stale. (Note: when in the fourth disc you get the option to go anywhere in the game world, you are forced to switch CDs every time you have to return to a previously visited town, this becomes somewhat of a tedious chore for those who want to do some backtracking.)

Graphics: 8.5 — The visuals are top notch but the artistry stinks, the FMVs are great looking also but they are uninspired and at times are there just for the sake of being there.

Music: 4.0 — After hearing the wonderful last two songs, I began to wonder why in god blazes does the rest of the soundtrack sounds so amateurish and bland.

Story: 4.0 — Cliched, cliched and more cliched, horrible translation and grammatical errors punctuate the predictable plot holed tale.

Addictiveness: 3.0 — Finishing it once is enough for anyone to be convinced of it’s mediocrity, that’s if you get to the end credits, most will probably will be bored to the death before the first disc ends. The only reason I kept playing to the was because I had to review it.

Overall: 6.5 — The words “Mundane” and “Mediocre” describe the game perfectly. Instead of being a contender, The Legend of Dragoon ends up being more like a pretender.

(We also took a look back at The Legend of Dragoon in our Throwback Bit Thursdays feature recently.)

Metacritic rated Legend of Dragoon a 74.

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