If there is one thing that Sony’s portable powerhouse isn’t short on its RPGs. When the system first launched it garnered plenty of criticism for having a library that mainly consisted of ports and re-hashes, but over time it has become a breeding ground for turn-based affairs of the Japanese variety. If there is one company that could be accredited for this trend it has to be NIS America as it seems they deliver a new RPG to the system on a month-to-month basis. Their latest title, Dragoneer’s Aria attempts to break the mold with an audacious combat system, more realistic character designs, and a nice twist on the conventional storytelling found in their other PSP efforts.
Dragoneer’s Aria follows the tale of Valen Kessler, who first appears to be a female lead, but upon further inspection we discovered that he is just fashionable. Androgynous protagonists aside the main plot revolves around the Holy Dragon named Grinlek who was killed by a Black Dragon centuries ago and in turn spawned six more dragons to take his place. Over time these six dragons with the aid of humans known as Dragoons hunted down and eliminated these Black Dragons, thus making the world a better place.
The game begins as Valen Kessler (that’s you) as he is just about to graduate from the Dragoon academy. During the ceremony a Black Dragon swoops in and destroys the main city of Granadis. Immediately after the dust settles you are tasked to seek out and discover how and why this happened as well as locating the rest of the dragons and discovering their status. While it isn’t the most original plotline it does deliver a nice change of pace from the quintessential “find the crystal, save the world” mentality that other games suffer.
As with any game of this type you are not alone on your quest. Along the way you will gather three other party members that will aid you in one form or another. Euphe is a mysterious young woman with a troubled past, Mary is the rebel pirate with a foul personality, and Ruslan is a cynical elf that prefers to travel alone but is damn good with a blade. Each character possesses his or her own skill set that will be vital in battle and can be upgraded; sadly though each character is pretty much set to their own style so don’t expect to learn many new attacks in the long run.
Of course an RPG is only as good as its battle system and Dragoneer’s Aria has both solid and weak spots that differentiate it from the rest of the herd. For starters instead of individual mana bars your party all shares one community pool of magic. While this doesn’t sound all bad in theory, the fact that it never increases and all special attacks use mana creates a game in and of itself to preserve the precious magic juice. This is of course countered by the fact that all normal attacks and guards progressively refill the meter.
Outside of standard combat and magic each characters has a special skill. For instance Valen can dash, Euphe is the healer, Mary can lay down traps, and Ruslan can teleport monsters out of the battle. These skills can be leveled up simply by utilizing them. The problem arises from the fact that while leveling normal attacks will come naturally things like healing and resurrection will not. Rarely does a game actually encourage you to let party members die, but if you want to raise your resurrect ability you will naturally have to make sacrifices; literally.
The biggest gripe most gamers will come away with about Aria’s battle system though is how long they drag on. Portable RPGs are best experienced if you can pop in and out at will, which is the glory of handheld gaming, however in Aria even the most common encounters can last upwards of ten minutes on a regular basis. Granted the game does try to remedy this by removing random encounters, but avoiding enemies on the map will prove nigh impossible in most situations. Couple this with the fact that escaping from a battle is rarely an option and you have a system that frustrates more than it innovates.
From a purely visual standpoint Dragoneer’s Aria is simply average. Character models are nicely detailed for a portable outing, but sub par animations and some of the most lackluster menus I have ever encountered really drag down the presentation. The sound is a nice mixture of great and mediocre. The music is a soft blend of piano melodies and your typical RPG battle fanfare while the voiceovers are hit or miss. Sometimes the actors nail it perfectly while other times they sound like amateurs trying out for their first gig as a voice over artist. The dialogue is pretty solid so all of this falls directly on poor performance as opposed to poor translation.
While the PSP is certainly not short on RPGs Dragoneer’s Aria does offer a nice diversion from others in the genre. If you are tired of saving the world by collecting crystals and visiting elders then this may be exactly what you are looking for. The problematic combat system and level grinding may wear on even the most die-hard of fans, but with plenty to see and do I Aria does deliver for those willing to forgive its shortcomings. Certainly not the best RPG in the PSP entourage, but its diversity gives it a foothold in the systems substantial library.