Deep in the bargain bin, you’ll find some forgotten experiments from the early days of the PlayStation 2, namely genre exercises from the likes of RPG big names such as FromSoftware, Konami, and SquareSoft. These games are largely lost to time, perhaps thanks in part to the relatively slow unit sales for the system in its first year. Buried amongst its peers, Capcom’s Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter stands as a titan championing these strange ideals, boldly deconstructing the RPG while still remaining firmly within the confines of what one can be.
In contrast to its more conventional fantasy predecessors, Dragon Quarter dabbles with science-fiction and even horror. It takes place about a kilometer underground in a bunker society of people who fled the surface after an ecological disaster. Instead of traveling through lush biomes and quaint little towns, the setting is almost oppressively sterile, guiding you through metal-plated warehouses and abandoned dormitories. These desolate hallways are staunchly guarded by a governmental police force (“rangers”) who mostly deal with rogue genetically modified animals, who are bred for food. At the game’s start, Ryu, a low-ranking grunt, is sent to deal with a rising counter organization that seeks to undermine the rangers in an attempt to upheave the presiding caste system which segregates not only the rangers but all of society into arbitrary socioeconomic spheres based on their predicted lifetime merit, measured as a fraction called a “d-ratio.”
Despite Ryu’s abysmal d-ratio, he manages to link his consciousness to a dragon. We come to learn the ratios represent the likelihood that a person might be able to do this, and society structured itself around this concept because of a prophecy in which a hero might champion humanity to the service again with the unwieldy power bestowed by the dragon. Pairing with the dragon rapidly siphons Ryu’s life expectancy, though, represented by the “d-counter” on the HUD. The d-counter constantly raises, and when Ryu uses his extremely powerful new abilities, it climbs exponentially, portending his inevitable death. The game then becomes a race for Ryu and his two companions to make it to the surface alive, in hopes of saving his new friend Nina who needs clean air to survive.
In essence, Dragon Quarter is a dungeon-crawler with occasional pit stops to stock up on weapons and items. Combat is turn-based, but more closely resembles a strategy RPG in many ways. You have limited movement and actions for each turn, measured by the same gauge, and attacks are positional and able to be chained into arcane combos, some of which reveal hidden properties when deployed. There’s a level of risk-and-reward with most actions—you can play fast and loose with your inventory or reserve your precious resources for desperate times, of which there will be many. On your first run, every battle feels incredibly high stakes; not only are resources scarce, making healing a tenuous privilege, but saving is only allowed through obtainable tokens which are random drops throughout the dungeon. You could potentially lose quite a bit of progress if you’re not careful, and coupled with the d-counter, the chances of getting a game over are much higher than usual.
And game over I did—once as a party wipe early in the game, and again on the final battle, after capping my d-counter. The game isn’t so cruel as to make these game overs meaningless, though. Dragon Quarter features a unique system that recontextualizes the “New Game Plus” feature popular in RPGs, allowing you to start over from the beginning of the game or your last save with some added perks—pooled bonus experience points that can be allocated as you see fit, along with your money and weapons. Along with this, depending on your actions during your playthrough, you may activate bonus cutscenes through the game’s Scenario Overlay System, which occur at certain points of the game and further flesh out the game’s story, which is already quite cryptic and mystical. Years before Hades and Nier, Dragon Quarter combined the idea of storytelling through repeated failure and the power of replaying a game with added context to great effect, gesturing towards an adventure where the journey lay mostly in a cycle as opposed to a race to a finish line.
All these systems and story beats seem to couple together to tell a simple story with grander concerns. At the heart of Dragon Quarter is something of a bet—an exercise of free will versus determination playing out again and again. Despite his d-ratio, Ryu manages to pair with the dragon and make his way from the very bottom of the bunker, where only beggars and petty thieves manage to survive, to the top, a palatial, well-lit paradise. The verticality here is a pretty obvious metaphor for income inequality, but soon it also becomes clear how dire every measurement in Dragon Quarter truly is. In stripping away the veneer of beauty and spectacle from the typically adventuresome RPG, what we’re left with is a series of calculations and combatting numbers. Every person’s worth is determined for them, with no potential to rise despite the inaccuracy of its evaluation. The oppressive nature of time looms just overhead, grimly reminding the player how slight their time in this world is. It’s also a punishment for abusing the raw power you’re capable of unleashing, which can topple any boss in the game in a single move.
Dragon Quarter seems to walk a tightrope where the comfort and luxuriousness of a lovingly designed world, like the ones expressed in the series’ previous entries, lie to the left, while a glorified calculator that responds hastily to any response with immediate answers lies to the right. The game, however, boldly resists having its characters be mere statistics—instead, they rally against the systems restrictive of them and seek that fantasy world to return to, a world without calculations but with a bright sun that can warm your skin, that can refresh with its equalizing power. It’s a cold game with an adolescent heart, a game that yearns for something better than the society created for them. It imagines a world that could be better.
You don’t have to travel far to find old GameFAQs threads of oldhead RPG fans complaining about the game. Its themes are, in many ways, quite confrontational of the type of person drawn to a RPG to begin with—it directly insults the fantasies endemic to the genre, and casts away its own history to throw Ryu and Nina, its mainstay protagonists, into unfamiliar, demystified roles. Ryu’s not a chosen hero here; he’s an average boy propelled by sheer will. Nina, similarly, isn’t a princess. She’s a citizen deemed of such ill-worth she’s used as a prototype for a genetic experiment. These are disenfranchised, powerless people who struggle miserably against their lot in life, and the game goes to great lengths to make you feel poor, ostracized, and aberrant. There are no inns to rest in in this game. You have to heal yourself with your own resources, hoping you have enough to go around. By the end of the game, it’s entirely possible to softlock yourself, expending all your resources and most of your d-counter just before the finish line. In my case, I wasn’t even able to flee to a previous save; the damage had been done, and after being stripped of my items, there was no hope but to return to the very beginning. It’s frankly an insult, a slap in the face after all the effort put forth to get as far as I did, but expresses the type of meritocratic ideal espoused by the setting: you’re just not good enough. It’s the feeling of yearning for something you can never have. It’s a frustrating lie that is easily internalized.
Despite this, in seeing through the illusion the game’s antagonists spin about our fixed capacity, it’s possible to rise above and operate outside of it. You can go back and toil your way through again. You can learn why things exist the way they do. You can escape isolation and feel the sun’s beams anew. Liberation is not only possible in Dragon Quarter—it’s inevitable.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire