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PSP Fanboy review: Dragoneer's Aria

Nick Doerr
Nick Doerr|September 1, 2007 12:00 PM
Nippon Ichi hasn't had the best history on the PSP -- every game was plagued with bugs, load time problems, and an overall case of the Mediocres. Perhaps that's why they decided to take a very different approach, stylistically and gameplay wise, with Dragoneer's Aria. The game boasts an "epic" storyline of love and adventure and has what, at the surface, could be seen as fantastic graphics and an interesting twist on the turn-based RPG. Did they pull it off? Did Nippon Ichi finally get it right on the PSP? That's what our review will reveal, so go ahead and take the jump.

In a word, no. But what good is a review with one word? We'll go through the main points of the game, highlighting the bad things first and ending with what we thought was swell. There are a lot of poor design choices in this game -- the pacing, the dialogue, the graphics, the battle system, the loading, the ... well, you get the idea. So, how could one possibly enjoy playing this game if all of those elements are doling out problems? It's not that hard, really, but you've got to be more than patient which most gamers, admittedly, aren't.

Dragoneer's Aria is an RPG in every sense of the word: girly man main character, dragons, elves, spirits, and white-haired bad guys wearing black with big swords. Have you seen this formula before? You should have, since it's been in every standard fantasy RPG, ever. In this, though, you have to protect the dragons, which becomes the main task of the game. The first half entails your visiting every dragon's respective area, either watching them die and fighting a boss, fighting a boss, watching them die, or some weird combination of both or neither. After that you take it upon yourself to track down the evil black dragon, Nidhogg, in order to seal it away and protect the world. That's a very bare bones analysis of the game's plot structure, but it's really all you need to know.

First off, we've got to talk about the graphics. Why first? Because tricking people into a purchase with a pretty face is the simplest route to go and we'll warn you now: the graphics appear nice, but there's a reason. There is a ton of tearing and graphical glitches -- practically every wall and character has lines you can see through, which can be pretty annoying to look at after a few seconds. The graphics also look nice on the surface because of one of the oldest tricks in the developer's book: palette swapping. After trudging through twenty hours of the game to a less-than-stellar ending, I think I may have faced off against, at most, a dozen different kinds of enemies. Sure, a lot had different names, but they were the same damn thing, just a different color. Another thing to suffer from the supposed graphical overhaul are spell effects. They suck. Water magic? It's a blue light! Wind magic? It's a green light! Wow, what utter crap. Luckily, the battle system is so broken you won't bother using magic anyway. More on that later.

We'd be remiss if we didn't craft a ton of parallels to similar RPG's. Obvious influences stem from five sources: Magna Carta: Tears of Blood, Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy VII, Suikoden, and Romancing SaGa. Yes, it's an amalgamation of all these games and we'll explain why. Exploring the field is a lot like Magna Carta in that it's very annoying. There's no world map except in your party menu, you can see your enemies, and the character designs are fairly reminiscent to the Korean artist who did the Magna Carta characters. That last one didn't quite fit, but it's still relevant. Like Final Fantasy II, your skills level up as you use them. On the field, every character has a different "field skill" that levels as you use it (which requires Energy -- more on that later). Sadly, only two of these are useful: Dash and Mana Sea. The former lets you run and for the record, not running is very annoying (again, like Magna Carta). The latter slowly heals your party as your Energy is drained away. As they level, the effects last longer but don't grow in potency. Not sure who thought that would be a good idea.

Another area where your skills improve through use is in battle. It's time to discuss the battle system and the Energy bar. See, you have this energy bar that stores up to 1000 Energy, which converts to 10 Mana. Using any special skill takes away 100 (including the aforementioned field skills), but as you level up your magic or your "Rush Attack" skill (essentially attacking the number of times your skill level dictates, i.e. level 5 = 5 attacks), you can choose to take away 200, 300, or even 1000 as the levels allow. How do you gain Energy? Attacking grants you 50 Energy and successful guards grant you 100. But with guarding, you have a Magna Carta-esque wheel of luck where you need to successfully hit five colored ... things ... to completely block an attack. You can hit less than all five, but you'll still get hurt and still get energy. Even with four members in the party, gathering enough energy to do anything worthwhile is beyond a hassle (you'd need at least 400 energy for a single round if you want to do more than attack). Enter one characters battle skill: Mana Boost. You should use this all the time. It raises one characters Energy accumulation from 50 to 300 (450 when maxed) with a successful attack. This way you can have two characters using special skills while the other two keep the Energy bar close to full. It's the only strategy I found while playing the game to keep things moving.

You'll need to keep things moving because the battle system is slower than the death of a sun -- yes, it takes billions of years to complete a battle. We're not sure if it's because Nippon Ichi thought they could hide loading every attack animation mid-battle by having dramatic pauses or if the system was intentionally set up to elongate the game's story. In fact, everything seems to be created to stretch things out as long as possible in this game and that's very irritating. We said it before, but the battle system is so very broken because of the impossibly difficult task of gaining enough energy to appropriately level up your skills and the speed at which battle take place. I said magic was useless and it is. Why use a weak-ass wind spell when one character has a special wind skill (allocated through Dragon Orbs and called Dragon Skills) that does a ton more damage and when coupled with another element (in this case, Earth) will result in a third combo attack? It renders magic useless. Why use status effect magic at all? It just drags the battle on longer. Why use healing magic? One character has a skill that completely heals you for a measly 100 Energy. Later in the game, anyone else using a Heal magic needs at least 300 energy to heal you completely. Broken! Leveling magic is a waste, so you'll end up working your battle skills, Rush Attack, and Dragon Skills the most, since they're relatively cheap to perform.

The whole magic system is reminiscent of the Materia system from Final Fantasy VII, since you can only cast certain magics when they're equipped to your armor. However, unlike FFVII, you can never permanently learn the moves, which is really, really foolish. The magic does have shared levels, so if one character levels Heal up to, say, 23, another character can equip it and have the same level of experience. This is not so with the Dragon Orbs -- they're set to level one for every character until they use them.

The game pays homage to things like Romancing SaGa and, to a lesser extent, Ar Tonelico by having a very detailed and often overwhelming crafting system. Yes, Romancing SaGa had a crafting system and it was a lot more in-depth than many casual gamers gave it credit for ... especially Unlimited Saga, but let's not go there. You buy recipes from stores, collect items (which generally involves buying more items to create other items to create ... you get the idea), then make weapons, armor, items, and ingredients that are not only far better than standard weapons, but have elements attached to it that increase a multitude of your skills. This is actually a pretty nice system and is integrated decently, but it suffers from the usual drawbacks: finding some items is a lot harder than it should be, recipes aren't available until they're practically obsolete, and there's a ton of inventory for you to wade through. Your enjoyment is dependent on how hardcore you are into RPGs.

There isn't much else to speak of besides the experience system. It hails towards the Suikoden titles, or even Final Fantasy VIII, as you only need 500 points of experience to level up, ever. The enemies come in varying strengths and give you different amounts of experience relative to their level and your own. Fight a hard enemy? Around 200 experience. Easy enemy? Maybe 15. This forces you to keep moving forward, unless you just want some money. If you get into the crafting system, you'll need a lot of money.

This review sounded pretty negative, didn't it? The battle system is slow and the broken mechanics make leveling your magic completely useless. There is a ton of loading, the graphics seem haphazardly slapped together and armed to the teeth with palette swapping abilities. The crafting system is all right, but a little too much for casual gamers. The story is cliche, cheesy, and the cutscenes very near embarrassing to watch around others. At least Nippon Ichi, as always, included the full Japanese language voice tracks. But if you put all those together and retain a strong sense of patience, develop your own strategy and give the game some time, you might find yourself enjoying it. You'd have to be really hardcore into RPGs, though, as this game is not for everybody. You want to know the dirty truth? I actually like this game quite a bit, but since this is a review, I'm not going to feign ignorance to everything wrong with it. If you're just looking for a role-playing fix, by all means, direct your attention to Brave Story or Jeanne D'Arc. Leave Dragoneer's Aria for those who really, really want to torture themselves.

PSP Fanboy Score: 6.5