Random battle encounters. Eleven second transitions from field to battle screen. Mild hang time between menu selections and actual command execution. Hideous character and enemy models. Spell casts with done-to-death animations and camera angles. Enemies that dish wimpy damage and my ‘Guard’ command that heals back all that damage anyway. Then, a system fittingly named ‘Additions’, that is, additional steps between you and getting the hell out of yet another meandering turn-based PSX battle system. Attack an enemy? No. Spin around like a ballerina to the timed pressing of on-screen prompts and then do your damage.
Cheesy Addition combos in tow, Dart, a red armored adventurer in the land of Endiness, is on a life quest to confront a fabled ‘Black Monster,’ the demon that annihilated his village. But he quickly involves himself in strife throughout the continent, discovering for himself and the party members he meets, the power of Dragoon. This power allows temporary, Sailor Moon like transformations and yields powerful finishing attacks and magic unique to each party member. Build the transformation gauge through combat and save it for nastier encounters, and use Additions for the rest.
Each Addition combo rises in power the more times it’s landed successfully, and each is different in choreography, number of presses, and nature of timings. The pull is that damage isn’t a guarantee and in boss fights this intensity is definitely realized. In fact, I eventually opted not to use a strong party member because I knew I couldn’t reliably land his long and precise Additions for the spear. Instead, I settled for slightly less damage and used Kongol, an Axe wielding giant, who hits in a very predictable ‘1…2-3’ sequence. His simple Addition is my favorite at-bat in a tight boss battle, where nailing the combo is a must. But in regular encounters with meager enemies to face, I wish the system never existed. Kongol’s ‘1…2-3’ animation is complete overkill, an added tedium.
Though each instance of it is painful, from screen to screen the random encounters are far from dense. A few transitions between grassy paths and light environmental puzzles and it’s back to the world map and town visiting, out to find an NPC like a mayor or king to trigger some event involving dragons’ nests, bandits, or mysterious ruins. Much of Legend of Dragoon is actually cutscenes, then, though played out in comparable slowness to the battles. Character interaction is stilted and responses are lagged. The party may decide to leave and explore another town, and Dart’s model will need to nod his head in the direction of each other member. Nod, turn. Nod, turn. Nod, turn. Agreed? Okay let’s go.
My boy Kongol now exchanges his axe for dialogue, talking in the 3rd person, as in: “Kongol has friends,” or “Kongol help friends.” He’s very into the idea of friendship. Other party members are of equal mental standing. Dart is about helping friends. Shana wants to be more than friends (but Dart is clueless, a piece of humour milked so badly that 20 hours later you wonder what’s wrong with the man). Lavitz — the fellow whose Addition combos I could not for the life of me nail down– is all about being loyal to friends. Meru, a naive dancer with a hammer, wants to discover what friendship means. It’s a 40 hour journey of this nonsense, aside from a very dark mythology lesson the game dumps on you in Disc 4 and that the power of friendship must rebound from.
It’s unfair not to mention Rose, a mysterious woman who introduces Dart to his Dragoon powers. She has a lack of friends, so by default is the most complex character of the bunch. She is troubled by inner demons she keeps from the group. She telegraphs this with a heavy use of ellipses and lines like, “I….don’t remember how to smile..” and how her pixel jointed knees cross and arms fold as she leans against a wall in dialogue scenes, disinterested. She’s worth keeping around, though. Her black Dragoon magic drains enemies and dishes the points back as a party wide heal, turning the tables in some of the earlier boss encounters.
I keep coming back to boss encounters and that’s because I’m fond of how The Legend of Dragoon handles them. The fights demand measurement where Additions must be landed. Items — stockpiled in limited inventory space — must be utilized for key moments. Dragoon transformation timing must be spot on for the added defensive and damage bonuses, and choosing ‘Guard’ becomes a life or death decision of strategy. Nothing revolutionary here but the pacing is beautifully done, and it never demands an ounce of extra grinding to fairly compete.
The bosses add some actual adrenaline to a system never tested in regular encounters. See, when that fat EXP reward is on the line, morphing into a Dragoon gets my blood pumping. I see the game in new light when Dart — in red ceremonial Dragoon armor — is lining his ‘Final Burst’ attack and jet thrusts himself toward a boss, sword first. A long and hilarious animation in any other context, but in a tight fight, it allows me to assess my plans and admire my choices. It becomes epic.
But unfortunately that other context — the drab and dreary traditional turn based system and all the juvenile character development embedded between it — is The Legend of Dragoon’s most common form. It can only pop into something much cooler every here and then, and I happily embrace it when it does. But anytime else, it means Rose spinning a sword like a fool in front of some poor evil rabbit, screaming ‘ha! huh! hee-yah!” with each strike and finally, when completed, shouting the name of the Addition itself: “WHIP SMACK!” Yeesh.