I’m something of a retro game connoisseur, especially when it comes to role-playing games. But even I have blind spots. For the past month or so, I’ve been working though Legend of Dragoon, a game with the reputation of being a me-too copycat of other, better RPGs of the era, but which nonetheless has a huge cult following. To this day, you can find people on message boards asking for a sequel that will likely never come.
I played this game nearly to completion back when it was released. But given that it’s been so long, and that I never finished it, I thought it’d be fun to go back through and see how it had aged. The answer was evident pretty quickly.
The game is a mess.
Let’s start with the best first. The graphics in Dragoon are top notch and easily stand toe-to-toe with their contemporaries (your Final Fantasies and such). The field sprites are surprisingly detailed, though it’s still a PS1 game, so don’t expect to be blown away. The battle animations are likewise decent, and technically more impressive than Final Fantasy VII, though they lack the flair to be infinitely rewatchable. Most of the backgrounds are pre-rendered, and while this technique is decidedly passé in the modern era, I still enjoy it quite a bit.
Where the game stumbles is in its Full-Motion Video. These were basically a requirement for PSX RPGs, but the Sony studio had nowhere near the CGI aptitude of golden age Squaresoft. The cutscenes are choppy, busy and ugly, and the addition of horrible voice acting is incredibly distracting.
At the end of the day, the visuals are Legend of Dragoon’s best feature. But even for all its technical achievement, the graphics lack the soul that made other games of this era shine.
Legend of Dragoon sports a fairly bog-standard PS1-era combat system. Three characters on your side, one to three on the other. Characters take turns attacking, using items, defending or running. That’s about it. In fact, as far as available options go, Legend of Dragoon actually pales in comparison to many of its peers. Any magic available to characters is locked behind limited Dragoon transformations, and the vast majority of these skills are simply elemental damage, with a few exceptions that heal or provide protection to your party.
Now, let’s be fair. Even in Final Fantasies where your spell list is stuffed full of options, a good 50-75% of them are rarely or never used. But even so, there’s a distinct shallowness to the battles in LoD.
The most talked-about feature is still the most fun, and that’s the presence of “additions,” damage-boosting rhythm mini-games that pop up every time a character attacks. While it does incentivize (some might say force) the player to pay attention to even the most straightforward battles, even these became fairly rote when you perform the exact same maneuver for the hundredth time.
There are a few other interesting twists, such as the ability for the Defend action to heal characters. Even this provides little tactical depth, though. In the early game, it’s absurdly overpowered, as it allows you to simply Defend each turn to fully heal your characters even in the toughest of boss battles. Later on, enemy attacks become far too fast and powerful for Defend to be effective, which makes it essentially useless.
Annoyances abound. The UI is lackluster, the absurdly small item limit constantly gets in the way, especially as you begin to collect non-consumable “repeatable” items which are useful enough in some battles not to discard, but generally just take up space. The game loves to force you to return to lower level areas, seemingly for no reason other than to pad the run time. Several long, unskippable story sections consist of running back and forth in wide areas, seeking out NPCs.
There are some silver linings. The level design is strong and the developers have included some interesting Quality of Life enhancements such as a random battle indicator. But even at its best moment, the game is never really a joy–it’s mostly just tolerable.
Abysmal. The music was composed primarily by a western composer I’ve never heard of, with no prior experience in video game composition, and it shows. Here’s the menu music, an example of a song you’ll be hearing a LOT of:
It’s lazy, boring and tonally mismatched with the rest of the game, which describes most of the other songs as well. At best, I’ll say that a couple of the town themes are catchy. But aside from that, the music is so unmemorable that I fail to have anything meaningful to say about it. Put on literally any other PSX RPG soundtrack while playing this and you’ll have a better experience.
Bad, bad, bad. It’s trite from the get-go: the big, bad empire is burning villages, imprisoning people, yadda yadda yadda. Though it’s even worse than standard RPG fare, because there’s no political cohesiveness. No one in the world seems to care the the Empire exists, so there’s no rebellion; it’s literally just a handful of people roaming around getting into fights with the government.
And those people–the game’s cast–are no saving grace. The game is incredibly earnest about them, convinced that you’ll absolutely fall in love with them. You won’t. Part of it is just the horrific dialogue, but the design itself is nothing you haven’t seen before. Old (kinda perverted) Martial Arts Master. Slow-Witted Big Strong Guy. Boring, No-Personality Protagonist. Annoying Anime Girl.
And it’s worth talking about Shanna, the main female protagonist. The game’s treatment of Shanna is sexist as fuck, even for Y2K. Even beyond sexism, the game has no idea what to do with her characterization. Half of her lines imply some sort of weird will-they-won’t-they thing with Dart, the main character. The other half assume that the two are basically already married. It means that Shanna comes off as an insufferable nag with extreme memory loss. She has no other traits.
Dart, for his part, has no chemistry with Shanna. His only relationship with her is to scream “I WILL PROTECT YOU!!!” at random intervals. To say Shanna is objectified is an understatement; she might as well be Dart’s priceless family heirloom for all the interaction they have.
None of the rest of the script is any better. The dialogue is written like poorly translated anime from the 80s, complete with multiple exclamation points!!! After every single sentence!!! I haven’t created a full concordance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more lines of dialogue ending in a bang than a period. Menu entries and item descriptions are often written in arcane Engrish better suited to Zero Wing than a big-budget, AAA role-playing game.
Shana: Ahh… ahhh… Ah…?
Diaz (Zieg): It’s been a while. Rose? Dart?
Rose (Dragon Campaign): Ahh! Zieg! Zieg!!
Rose: Oh, it cannot be!!
The story itself is completely incomprehensible. It is full of incredible twists, though, such as the main villain secretely being the protagonist’s father. Real innovative stuff. Oh, at one point you team up with the guy you’ve thought of as the villain up until that point. Pretty standard trope, until you remember that he outright murdered one of your party members earlier in the game. None of the other characters seems to mind that, though.
I never finished Legend of Dragoon as a kid, and as an adult I had fairly mixed memories of it. I remember laughing at the music, while thinking the battle system was novel. I had no idea, starting it up again, that it would have aged so poorly. There’s very little redeemable about the game. The idea that it warranted a sequel is silly, even with its small but vocal fanbase, given how slapdash and nonsensical the story is. If you, like me, are on a mystical quest to revisit the games of your youth, buckle yourself in for a slog. If not, skip Legend of Dragoon entirely.