Upon seeing Legend of Dragoon's initial screenshots, trailers, large production staff, and four-disc length, many got excited. It seemed that Sony was creating an epic RPG to rival the scale and presentation of Square's best efforts. While this was undoubtedly what Sony had in mind, intent and outcome are rarely coincident.

Revolutionary "pans" and "zooms," possible only in FMV

   The art in Legend of Dragoon is, at first glance, fairly impressive. The background renders are high-quality, and the opening FMV is very well-done. Unfortunately, no principle beyond technical excellence seems to have been followed during Legend of Dragoon's three-year design cycle--least of all common sense; the second CG sequence in the game is a loving recreation of a scrolling bitmap. Why the designers could not have created an image and then scrolled across it using the in-game engine is unknown, but the scene is especially galling because the image is a pan across ancient heiroglyphs depicting an ancient war. If you must have a CG sequence at this point, why not dramatize the war itself? This art is also exceedingly rare; the scrolling bitmap was, besides the opening FMV, the only instance of CG movies I found on the entirety of disc one. It's not until late in disc two that genuinely interesting movies start to show up, and even then they're so poorly thought-out that it's impossible to tell what's going on. FMV is not, of course, the most important thing about any game. But when a game like Legend of Dragoon is being sold under the guise of an RPG rife with mindblowing CG, I expect a little more than this.

   The backgrounds also suffer this syndrome of valuing technical achievement over interesting or useful design. Legend of Dragoon's towns are so poorly constructed that the game is the only time I've ever briefly felt the need to map a city on paper. Seven, eight, nine entrances will be clustered together with no two doors looking different. It's frequently not at all obvious where some entrances even are without the annoying indicator arrows. Furthermore, towns and dungeons alike seem strangely lifeless. I'd be hard put to remember exactly what any town in particular looked like except Dornau the flower city, and then only the exteriors.

String of hurls
The head cone connected to the / neck cone

   And I've only been talking about half of the picture. The other half is the polygonal models, which are sub-FF7 in quality. Which would be acceptable (if not good), were Legend of Dragoon released two years or even one year ago. But it's mid-2000, the hardware is five years old, and I expect programmers to be able to get more out of the PSX hardware than this. Final Fantasy VIII, Wild Arms 2, Front Mission 3--take your pick of recent RPGs, any of them is likely to have better character and enemy models than Legend of Dragoon. The joints break, the shading is poor, the textures are bland, and each character seems to have exactly one polygon devoted to his or her face. It's amusing in a numbing sort of way to see Albert's four-polygon, full-length cape flutter in the wind, or watch a serpentine enemy move around jerkily as if it were a row of canisters on a string. And to add insult to injury, these almost painful battle graphics take a good 15 seconds to load.

   Speaking of battles, Legend of Dragoon's system is button-mashing at its finest. If you thought RPGs which required you to do nothing more than press the X button were annoying, wait until you're asked to press the X button several times per attack, with the correct timing. The Additions system turns even the quickest battles into several-minute affairs since, to deal a respectable amount of damage, each character must go through a half-minute sequence of timed attacks. It's not an innovation in battle so much as it's the FFVIII/Mario RPG/Vagrant Story system gone horribly wrong.

 One mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi ...
Is it over yet?

   Even the powerful Dragoon forms require timed attacks. On the other hand, you could use Dragoon Magic--the only time in the game in which your characters have any sort of special attack. The slightest form of Dragoon Magic has all the pomp associated with recent Final Fantasy games' summon spells; if the makers of Legend of Dragoon had to steal elements from those estimable games, couldn't they have chosen something other than the most-complained-about aspects? But even this isn't addressing the real flaw in Legend of Dragoon's battle system.

   In any role-playing game, your characters will lose health. Typically, the best way to regain this lost health is healing magic. But as mentioned previously, it takes a lot of work to be able to use any kind of magic--and not every character has a healing spell. What to do in the meantime? Guard. Yes, rather than quick and dirty healing spells, Legend of Dragoon would have you guard each and every turn in order to regain a mere 10% of the character's health. The enemy can still attack, though, and frequently does attack the guarding character, so that 10% usually ends up as 2-5%. You'll find yourself investing far more than you ever have in healing items, which don't help as much as they could due to the extremely limited space for items. The result of this gameplay imbalance is that boss fights can take up to half an hour, with the majority of time spent doing nothing but guarding. Even during dungeons, every now and then you'll want to spend a good ten minutes guarding against a single foe to regain all the lost HP. And if you think ten minutes is a long time, it's even longer while listening to the battle music.

   At least the rest of the music is, for Legend of Dragoon, a high point. Taken on its own, though, it's uninspiring and forgettable, conveying no real feeling other than the feeling of listening to music. Some of it is downright pointless, like the separate menu screen music which adds several additional, unnecessary seconds of load time. For the most part, the best one can say about the score is that it's not as irritating as the rest of the game.

Dart a
Dart and company forget the law of gravity

   Which brings us to the rest of the game: specifically, the characters, translation, and plot. A more slow-witted cast of heroes has rarely been assembled; it seemed at times that their cluelessness was supposed to be funny (as in the log-felling sequence, in which your party decides to "catch" a tree as it falls off a cliff) but it just made me shake my head and hope the next playable character wouldn't be quite as asinine. For a hero to stand out, it takes a little bit of brains in addition to strength and a courageous, adventuring spirit. You'll think so too after the fifteenth time Dart helpfully repeats what he's just been told in the form of a question, to make absolutely certain the player understands what's going on.

   As for the individual characters--well, it's difficult to identify anything that marks any character as an individual. Everyone speaks in the same colorless tones, nobody questions just why all these random people just happen to be travelling together. They're not people, they're clichés. Dart is your plucky hero straight from central casting. Shana is the humorless, virtuous schoolgirl destined to become Dart's love interest whether or not either of them shows any actual affection for one another. Meru is a clone of so many other free-spirited unfunny comic relief characters with a secret past. Albert is fighting royalty totally unlike Edgar, Edge, Edward, Marle, Cecilia, Nina, or Lenna. Kongol is a giant who--brace yourself--is slow-witted and physically powerful. And Rose ... well, in any other game, Rose would have been a cipher compared to the other heroes. Here, she stands out as the player's viewpoint; constantly prodding Dart and company on to the next challenge, shaking her head in disgust when the latest harebrained stunt goes awry, slapping Lavitz for his backwards, misogynist views. (Not to spoil the story, but I liked her even more when I found out what her real mission was.)

 Kongol's a slow giant-man.  What's Lavitz's excuse?
Tut, such a trifle translation.

   More and more these days, you hear of games being "localized" rather than "translated." There's more of an effort now to make sure the game reads well for an American audience, and U.S. offices pay quite a bit of attention to American dialect and slang where appropriate. Legend of Dragoon, on the other hand, was not localized. It was translated. Every line of vapid dialogue and ridiculous phrasing has been preserved so carefully, you'd swear it was done by a beta version of Translingo. In the event of a sequel, it might be best if Sony let go some of their 100-plus graphics staff to make room for a couple of copy editors.

   Or possibly a couple of scenario writers. Original scripting would serve the game better than the Final Fantasy VII, Power Rangers, and Xenogears fanfics all melded together to form Legend of Dragoon's plot. The villain of the game is a black-clad, white-haired, trenchcoat-clad, sole survivor of an ancient conquered race who seeks to gain enough power to change the world to his own liking; the story largely consists of Cloud's Dart's party pursuing him all over the world before he can reach the power item he needs. Along the way, they'll encounter inactive stone Weapons Virages created during that legendary conflict which will arise and give your party trouble. Before the quest is over, Dart must find out the truth about why his village burned down several years ago. And so on.

   Even if you enjoy RPGs, it's probably better to give your favorite game another run-through than waste time on this derivative, shallow swill. No amount of FMV could really justify slogging through an unbalanced, tedious battle system to get to the trite, hackneyed bits of plot acted out by bland and uninspired characters. If you've 60 hours of your life that you're just desperate to fill, the GIA suggests you use the time to do odd jobs until enough money is earned to buy a copy of a worthwhile game.

Review by Nich Maragos, GIA.
The Legend of Dragoon
Developer SCEI
Publisher Sony
Genre Traditionial RPG
Medium CD (4)
Platform PlayStation
Release Date  12.02.99
First Legend of Dragoon screens
82 screenshots (spoilers)
Character collage
North American box art