When dragons are mentioned in an article about gaming, two assumptions are typically made. The first one, which is not always true, is that the game is a role-playing game. The second one, which is far more accurate, is that the game will be swords-and-sorcery fare, regardless of its genre, and will be so steeped in high fantasy that it's fresh out of J.R.R. Tolkien's latest novel. Thus, it should be no surprise that Dragoneer's Aria for the PSP, with a picture of a dragon emblazoned on its cover, is the very epitome of an old-school RPG dish.
Unfortunately, the soup of the day is "generic."
Dragoneer's Aria takes place in an unassuming enough setting. Aeons ago, the Black Dragon Nidhogg killed the Holy Dragon Grinlek, an act which split the Holy Dragon's soul into six dragons with just as many elemental affinities and colors as there are flavors of Skittles. Protecting these assorted dragons are the Dragoons of Granadis, warriors trained exclusively for the task. The game puts you in the shoes of Valen Kesslar, a Dragoon-in-training who is possibly the most effeminate-looking male in American and Japanese RPG history.
Valen is en route to his graduation ceremony when, after the requisite thousand years, Nidhogg gets a wake-up call and decides to show the entire kingdom what dragons are like when they get morning breath. In the process, he smashes the crystalline gates that link the kingdom to the dragons they are sworn to protect. Since Valen is the plucky greenhorn, it naturally falls to him to restore peace to the land, re-link the gates and defeat the vile Black Dragon.
No man is an island, and along the way, he has a handful of compatriots to help him. Rounding out the crew are Euphe, a soft-spoken Empath with the power to heal others at the cost of her own life energy (a mechanic I would love to see implemented into other games); Mary, a pirate with a gun bigger than she is; and Ruslan, the battle-weary, human-hating stereotypical elf. If you haven't noticed by now, storytelling isn't necessarily the strong point of Dragoneer's Aria.
It doesn't get much better, either. Early on in the game, you're introduced to lusces, gem-like items that you can put into your equipment to give you spells to cast in battle. If your brain just started screaming the word "materia" over and over to you, then you aren't alone. Sadly, the game doesn't have the customizability that even Final Fantasy VII has. While you can give various materia lusces to any of your characters, all they affect is spell-casting capability. Stats are predominantly fixed based on level and equipment. The lusces do level up, however, as do the other wide variety of skills at your disposal. In fact, a fair number of treasure chests demand that you have particular lusces leveled up to a certain point before they even open.
Much of Dragoneer's Aria has a sense of mandatory level-building, as simply moving through one area to the next will leave you facing a swarm of monsters powerful enough to undo your entire team with a stray thought, demanding that you reload from your most recent save and fight more random encounters. While we're on the topic, don't be misled by the screenshots that tell a different story; while it is true you see the black, floating eyeballs that are enemies on the field map, you have no way of telling which monsters they represent and an even smaller chance of evading them. In fact, having truly random battles might make the play a bit more endearing to those seeking old-fashioned gameplay.
It's a shame that the battles are so unsuited to the difficulty curve of the game. While many of the older Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest titles emphasized building levels and money for upcoming challenges, the fights moved at a brisk pace, finishing in less than a minute's time. Dragoneer's Aria, on the other hand, insists on loading separate pre-animated scenes for every attack, spell, damage count and enemy death. What results is a jerky, headache-inducing sequence that can take over 10 minutes and rarely ends in shorter than three, even against the simplest enemies.
In addition, the battles are designed to promote strategy and careful pacing. Every spell, special skill and ability in the game is activated with mana, which is kept in a single stock of 10 points for your entire party at any time. Guarding attacks successfully will get you a full mana point, while attacking with a plain vanilla strike will boost it half a point. Aside from this and the unpleasantly uncommon item, there is no other way of boosting your mana short of finding a one-use spot on the field map.
Fortunately, the best mechanic in the game — a bit of a diamond in the rough — is the guarding system. When an enemy attacks a guarding character, a circle similar to a roulette wheel appears with five spots marked in red. Hit the spinning cursor on those spots, and the damage your character takes is reduced by 20% for each spot you tagged. If you miss one, however, the counter resets and you have to start over. It adds a fair bit of skill into your defense, as with properly timed button presses, you can completely nullify some or all of an enemy's attacks.
In addition, there is a small bit of item-crafting outside of battle, but it's almost thrown in as an afterthought and an excuse to pad out the item databases in-game with more trash that the game wanted people to keep from just blindly throwing at vendors. Crafting is as follows: You buy a recipe at a shop, get the requisite items, select the crafting command ... and you're done. That's it. No sub-games, no chance of failure, no excitement whatsoever.
Graphically, Dragoneer's Aria just skims the watermark for PSP games. While it is by no means hard on the eyes, the animations are choppy, and the game doesn't really look much more advanced than a first-generation PS2 title. In addition, almost the entire game is cluttered up with menus and statistics, meaning that even if you enjoy the graphics, you'll be seeing a lot of them as if you were staring through window shutters. Musically, the game follows the same slightly above-average level; while there's nothing to write home about, the tunes are nice and well-suited for a game situated in a fantasy world. The voice acting, on the other hand, is traditional Japanese RPG fare, which means it ranges from "inoffensive" to "someone's actually paying these people?" It doesn't much help that the dialogue is fairly wooden in pacing and tone, giving the voice actors little to work with — not that they work with it particularly well in the first place.
All in all, Dragoneer's Aria played up too greatly on its strengths and didn't try to fix its flaws. There are many good ideas in the game, but unless you have a taste for mandatory level-grinding (or perhaps you need a game to play while you're waiting for your instance parties in World of Warcraft to get together), then it doesn't bring enough to the RPG-saturated market. Rent before you buy, and don't be afraid to pass up the game if you have to choose only one PSP RPG to have this year.
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