It's a classic plot. Valen is a young prince in a fantastic magical kingdom; he has just graduated from the academy and is now one of the Dragoons, one of the elite knights in charge of working with the dragons who rule the various elements of nature. However, before Valen can even begin his first day, the dragoons come under attack by a mysterious black dragon. Now Valen has to figure out a way to contact the dragons and figure out what is going on before they meet an unfortunate fate. I'm sure by now you're saying, "Oh, I've heard that plot before." In fact, you'd be right, since it's a classic RPG plot. However, the plot of Dragoneer's Aria doesn't seem to be setting out to be groundbreaking or epic. It looks to be setting out to be fun, full of likable characters and fascinating locations. However, the plot is mostly window dressing for the really interesting part of Dragoneer's Aria: the gameplay.
When you first begin playing Dragoneer's Aria, the combat system may seem rather generic, which is a fair first opinion, since, on the surface, Dragoneer's Aria is indeed very familiar. Combat plays out in a classic turn-based system, where you choose your combat options from a menu and watch them occur. However, the real area where Dragoneer's Aria shines is the deeper levels of the combat system. Once you've started playing around with it, you really see what it is capable of.
One of the more interesting aspects of Dragoneer's Aria is how the game handles magic use. While not entirely unique, it is a mix of a number of different styles used in many other kinds of RPGs, and rarely have they been mixed like they are in Dragoneer's Aria. Your characters in Dragoneer's Aria don't naturally learn magic during the game. Rather, the must find "lucre," or small magical orbs, during the course of the quest. Due to its power and rarity, lucre isn't available in stores, and so the only way to get new lucre is to find it while you're questing.
Each lucre has a different attribute, such as elemental magic, status boosts or healing abilities. Once you've found lucre, you can equip it into slots in your character's armor, thus giving your character the corresponding abilities granted by the lucre. However, while they grant powerful magic right off the bat, lucre don't begin at their full potential. Instead, each time you use a spell from the lucre, its luminescence, or magical power, increases. If this method sounds similar to the Final Fantasy 7 Materia system, that is because it undeniably is. In fact, many gamers are likely to immediately write it off as such. However, both due to better balance and the significantly greater rarity of the lucre when compared to materia, you'll find that trying to play Dragoneer's Aria like Final Fantasy 7 will only doom you.
Even once you have your lucre equipped however, magic usage isn't a simple task. Rather than the common "MP" found in most games, Dragoneer's Aria has a magic system more similar to a super bar in a fighting game than anything else. The entire party shares a mana bar, found at the top of the screen during fights. Every non-magical action you take fills up the bar a little bit more, but casting a magic spell uses up a substantial chunk of your available mana, so you've got be careful. There is no point in casting a super-powerful spell only to run out of the mana needed to cure an ailing character. Any mana collected during battle remains at that same level for the next fight, so clever players will want to keep a close eye on their mana levels to make sure they don't go into a difficult fight with an empty gas tank.
There are a number of ways to get mana during combat, but perhaps the safest is to Guard. Unlike most RPGs, Guarding in Dragoneer's Aria is an interactive affair. Taking a page from the Shadow Hearts franchise, when a guarding character is attacked, a roulette wheel appears. As it spins, a number of targets appear on the wheel, and the player must attempt to hit them all within a certain time limit. For each one he hits, the guarding is more effective, and a perfect can prevent all damage done from an enemy attack. Furthermore, successful guarding also earns you a hefty chunk of mana to spend, even if you don't manage to perform perfectly. However, this comes with the risk that if you miss one of the targets, all of the targets you already hit are lost as well, and you have to start all over. A greedy player who goes for a difficult target with little time left to spare may find himself defenseless against an enemy attack.
Early on in the game, your characters begin collecting Dragon Orbs, which are elemental crystals that are the source of a Dragon's power. Like Lucre, they give you access to powerful and useful elemental magic attacks, but there are a few differences The Dragon Orbs don't require armor slots to equip, so each character can equip one even if his armor is full of lucre. The Dragon Skills that the orb provides use magic as well, but due to their draconian nature, can also be combined together. Using a fire skill followed by a water skill, for example, creates a third lightning skill afterwards, which is a useful way to do extra damage and strike an enemy's elemental weak spot while conserving mana.
Compared to the combat, exploration in Dragoneer's Aria is less exciting, although no less fraught with possibilities. Unlike most RPGs, Dragoneer's Aria has no random encounters. Instead, every enemy appears on the map, and combat is only initiated when you come in contact with a foe. Learning when to fight and when to dodge enemies is very important, as some enemies are tougher than others, and going into a fight unprepared is suicide. Luckily, your characters have a few things they can do to make this easier. Each character in the game has a "field skill" that s/he can use when leading the party; for example, the protagonist has a Dash ability which allows him to move much faster for a brief period of time, thereby making dodging monsters a breeze. Other field abilities let you do things like trap monsters or heal your characters, but they also drain mana from you during the entire time they're active. If you overuse them, you'll find yourself with the mana you need in a difficult fight.
You have a lot of options on how to customize your characters in Dragoneer's Aria as well. Besides moving around lucre and orbs, each character also has a number of different equipment options. You can buy weapons and armor from the store, find them in chests, or even use a crafting option to make your own. However, unlike most RPGs, the most powerful equipment isn't always the best. While some equipment offers good stat bonuses, it has minimal amounts of lucre slots, or is simply inappropriate for a character with lower hit-points or weaker attack power. Furthermore, each bit of armor has a level requirement, so you can sacrifice your current armor to craft a new and more powerful bit of equipment, but if that armor is at a higher level than your character, you're going to have to wait until you can equip it.
For a PlayStation Portable title, Dragoneer's Aria looks quite good. The characters are well modeled and move very smoothly, and the area design is shaping up to be quite excellent. It isn't anything mind-blowing, but it is certainly a very nice-looking game and very easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, in the preview build I played, the audio was unfinished, but what I heard of the English dub was fairly good. It wasn't quite Final Fantasy XII quality, but it was well acted and voiced enough that, despite the fact that Nippon-Ichi is offering a choice between English and Japanese voices, you might want to actually give the dub a chance.
Some might argue that Dragoneer's Aria doesn't do anything particularly new; many of its features have appeared in one RPG or other in some form. However, much like Halo did for first-person shooters, Dragoneer's Aria takes elements of a number of role-playing games and brings many of the best together. It isn't going to break any molds, but for anyone looking for a solid and fun PSP RPG, Dragoneer's Aria is shaping up to be exactly that.
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