Bring the Dragons Over!
I’ve talked a bit about the company Imageepoch back in our
Stella Glow review – a developer of mostly JRPGs, with most of their work staying exclusive to Japan, and defunct as of 2015. Imageepoch created a few different JRPG series, one of which is a series that hasn’t made it to western shores until now: 7th Dragon.
In 2009, the company released the eponymous title 7th Dragon for the DS in Japan. Coming a couple years after the dungeon-crawing boom the DS experienced with the release of Etrian Odyssey by Atlus, 7th Dragon was produced in a similar vein. Taking place in a medieval-style fantasy world, the game tasked you with creating and customizing a party from a choice of different character classes (a la the Etrian Odyssey series) and leading them to slay 666 dragons that have invaded the world.
The thing that made 7th Dragon stand out against other dungeon crawlers was that it was structured more like a traditional JRPG. Sure, it had the heavy focus on exploring dungeons and class-based combat, but there was also a focus on story (which many dungeon crawlers lack, sometimes on purpose) with typical world map and town exploration offered. The game was well received in Japan, enough so to kick off a series.
The next game, 7th Dragon 2020, was released for the PSP in 2011. This game functions as a spinoff of the original, moving the setting to post-apocalyptic Tokyo and switching from a 2D presentation to full 3D. The character classes offered are a bit more unique as well; while 7th Dragon had genre-traditional classes like Knights and Healers, 2020 mixes things up with classes like Hackers (focusing on buffing the player party) and Destroyers (counterattack-focused fighters). This game was followed up in 2013 by 7th Dragon 2020-II, a direct sequel to 2020 as the name suggests.
Of course, Imageepoch filed for bankruptcy a couple years after the release of 2020-II, leaving the series in limbo. However, Sega stepped up to develop the next entry in the series, and the third game in the 2020 spinoff series. This game is also to be the first to make the leap across the Pacific.
7th Dragon III Code: VFD was developed and published by Sega. The game is set for release in North America on July 12th, 2016, for the 3DS.
Code: VFD takes place in Tokyo in the year 2100. The world is still in the process of reconstruction following the attacks of the True Dragons 80 years ago (the events of 2020 and 2020-II). Technology has managed to advance greatly, and an international military known as the ISDF has stepped up to take control of security in Tokyo. Unfortunately, there is still one remnant of the attacks: Dragon Sickness, an incurable disease that has spread across the world.
The game begins with your characters roped into playing a hot new arcade game, 7th Encount, with a young girl named Mio. After showcasing your seemingly natural talent for this game and blowing away all of the high scores, your characters and Mio are swept away to nearby Nodens Enterprises, the company that created the game. Here, it is revealed that Nodens created 7th Encount to scout and recruit potential soldiers.
As it turns out, another attack by the True Dragons is imminent. This time, the attacker will be the 7th and most powerful True Dragon, named VFD. Nodens is recruiting people through their game to assist with a project: to travel through time and collect samples from the other six True Dragons. With these samples, a weapon can be created to fend off VFD. Shortly afterward, a group of regular dragons attack Tokyo and nearly kill Mio, but your characters manage to fend them off. Realizing their true strength in this battle, along with the threat the dragons present, your characters agree to assist Nodens.
What follows is a fairly standard “save the world” RPG story with a time travel twist. While the story was enough to keep me playing through the game’s endless dungeons, it’s not really all that interesting. Luckily, the various NPCs in the game are decently well-written. Character interaction is a highlight of Code: VFD, offering up a decently-sized cast each with their own quirks, twists, and motivations. None of them are what I would call particularly deep, but watching the cast of NPCs develop throughout the story helped hold my attention through the game’s relatively long run time.
This strength in characters is surprising, considering your playable party is a group of silent blank slates that you create yourself. This has the effect that your characters are easily the least interesting part of the game when it comes to story.
Be Who You Want To Be
Code: VFD follows the style of its predecessors, blending together the dungeon crawling genre with traditional JRPG elements. Most of the game is spent roaming dungeons from a third-person overhead perspective, but this is interspersed with town and city navigation, conversations with NPCs, and helping Nodens develop facilities and equipment to assist in your missions.
The biggest aspect that the game sells itself on is the level of customization for your party. At the outset, you can form one party of three characters, made up from a selection of four different classes. The classes range from the near-typical (Samurais, whose available battle skills depend on if they’re using a longsword or twin blades) to quite unusual (Duelists, who use a deck of cards for weapons, with available skills dependent on what cards they currently have in their hand). Four more classes are also unlocked throughout the game, offering even more specialized abilities.
Even beyond this, you can select what you want each character to look like from 32 choices, each of these having three different color palette variations. Even further, you can select what voice actor or actress you want to have voice each character, from a total of 40 available. The total number of permutations available made creating the exact party I wanted to play with quite fun, and I quickly became attached to the party I designed. It may not be as detailed a character creator as some games can have, but it’s more than I’ve ever seen in games of this genre.
Learning and developing skills for your party members lets you further customize your party. The experience you earn from battle is spent directly on skills, with each character having ten or so at the game’s outset. Skill development is fairly simple: you can spend an amount of experience (Skill Points, or “SP”) to learn or level up a skill, with each having a max level. However, even with the availability of SP-granting items, characters earn SP relatively slowly, and the amount to level up skills quickly becomes expensive. This encourages you to have each character specialize in certain skills.
This hard-line focus on specialization of characters means that you have to tailor your party to the challenges of each dungeon. Luckily, as the game progresses, you get the ability build multiple parties, which you can bring into dungeons with you and swap out between battles. During battle, these backup parties can offer assist attacks as well, lowering enemy stats and occasionally unleashing special attacks of their own.
Even with all of this focus on customizing, specializing, and tailoring your party to future battles, Code: VFD is surprisingly easy for a dungeon crawler. Games of this genre usually range anywhere from “difficult” to “hardcore,” sometimes with quickly-increasing learning and difficulty curves. This game, though, is pretty much the opposite of that. The early game can be difficult, as you’re still developing your party, but as it progresses, it steadily becomes easier and easier. While it never enters cakewalk territory, as long as you’re not regularly running from battles, its rare that you’ll ever find yourself in much of a struggle.
In terms of actual battles, the highlight of the game comes in fighting the various dragons…of which there are over 200 of them throughout the game. These are usually found randomly wandering dungeons (much like F.O.E.s from the Etrian Odyssey series), unlike regular enemies who are encountered randomly. These battles provide the greatest non-boss challenges in each dungeon, as they hit hard, love to use status-afflicting and stat-affecting attacks, and are able to act twice every turn.
Much like the rest of the game, though, these battles can be surprisingly easy…although with the caveat that you have a well-built party that can handle them. Unlike the aforementioned F.O.E.s in Etrian Odyssey, where you’re actively encouraged to dodge them when you first encounter them (lest you suffer a full party wipe and a game over), most of the dragon battles in Code: VFD can be handled without too much difficulty upon first encounter.
Despite the surprising ease, though, I almost never found myself getting bored. Some fights can still be a struggle, and figuring out the best party setup and skill loadout to eliminate a dragon before you take too much damage is satisfying. My complaint with the dragons, though, is that many of them show up quite repeatedly within dungeons, and once you have a strategy to take a specific one down, eliminating the repeats can be somewhat dull in going through the motions.
Jagged and Lovely
With the focus on character and party customization, one would hope that that the character designs available are designed well…and I am pleased to say that, at least to my eyes, the character designs of Code: VFD are standout. As I mentioned, there are 32 different character designs available. To be more specific: there are 16 different body styles and poses, each used to create two different designs. Even with this, though, the designs are greatly varied, featuring everything from armored knights and punk-style characters to maids and cat people.
Character art in menus and conversation are done in a subdued anime style with a very light and occasionally pastel color palette. The designs here have a nice level of detail and, in my opinion, create a bit of personality for your party, which doesn’t have one within the actual story.
All 32 of the designs also have full 3D polygon characters used during dungeon and city exploration, as well as during battle. The designs of the character art translate surprisingly well to the polygon characters, retaining the same personality of the design despite the loss of detail. During exploration, the characters can be a bit small and occasionally easy to lose track of within some environments. In battle, though, the characters are large and animated well.
Within battle, enemy design varies wildly. Random trash enemies are relatively simplistic in design, and palette-swap enemies are quite common. The dragons, being the focus of the game, do not suffer from this, offering a variety of different crazy designs. All of the enemies animate smoothly and interestingly during attacks, and strong use is made of the first-person perspective offered while being attacked. So much so that I’m very surprised that the system’s 3D mode is apparently disabled for this game.
Speaking of the system, the 3DS’ graphical weaknesses are easily noticeable in this game. Massive amount of aliasing plague many scenes in the game, including the characters themselves on occasion. It’s a fact of life with the 3DS, but for the scenes the game is trying to present, it is disappointing.
Big Name Quips
The soundtrack of Code: VFD is pretty much your standard JRPG video game soundtrack. All of the instruments sound synthesized, and there isn’t much here that I haven’t heard before. The tracks do go a long way in adding to the atmosphere in some areas (particularly in some of the dungeons in the Atlantis portion of the game), but there isn’t much here that stands out to my ears.
The voice acting, though, is of particular note in this game. As mentioned, 40 different actors and actresses provided their voices to this game, and you can select which ones you want for each of your characters. The voices are all in Japanese, but this game wasted no effort (or, apparently, expense) in bringing in some major talent from the Japanese anime and gaming spheres. If you’re familiar with these at all, you’ll definitely recognize some standout names like Yui Horie and Yuki Kaji, among others.
Voicing is limited, relegated to a couple of cutscenes, along with mid- and post-battle quips, but the sheer variety you’re able to select from goes a long way to really characterizing the party you create. Many NPCs have limited voice acting as well, which is done relatively well. Also of note, the sound quality of the acting is surprisingly good for a 3DS cart.
Excellence Held Back
Overall, 7th Dragon III Code: VFD offers an entertaining dungeon crawling romp with great graphical presentation (although hindered by the system it’s on), along with a surprising amount of customization. Despite them having no personality in the story, I really did grow attached to the characters I created for my runthrough, so much so that I couldn’t imagine the game with any other character permutations.
While the story itself is mediocre to decent, the character interactions within are surprisingly well done, even if your party isn’t really a part of them. My main overall complaints would be the uninteresting soundtrack and the graphical limits the 3DS presents.
I’ve mentioned in past reviews that I’ve never been much of a dungeon crawler fan due to the lack of story or characters to get attached to. Code: VFD gives me those characters in spades, and the battle system is just plain fun without being punishing, giving me what I would now consider one of my favorites in the genre I’ve played.
The real downside, though, is the fact that this game is on the 3DS. Code: VFD would have benefited greatly from being released on a system like the Vita, with its greater graphical power. Aside from having a constantly available map on the bottom screen, the game doesn’t really make notable use of the 3DS’ unique functions. With the past two series entries being on the PSP, I believe it would’ve made greater sense to stick to Sony’s handhelds in this case.
Despite my personal grievances there, though, if you have a 3DS, Code: VFD is definitely worth owning.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copy provided by Sega for 3DS. Screenshots courtesy of Sega.