A very well-balanced, deep and challenging Role-Playing Game for the PSP.
If you know of HitMaker's previous PSP Role-Playing Game: Blade Dancer: Lineage of Light, you're probably well-aware of the fact that it wasn't very well-received, mainly because it's non-traditional structure made it difficult to grasp for anyone but the true hardcore gamers that took the time to learn how to effectively use the crafting system. With Dragoneer's Aria, HitMaker hopes to have improved upon the Blade Dancer formula in such a way that it will be more accessible to gamers that aren't quite open-minded enough to fit in the "hardcore" category.
Expectedly enough, the mission to make Dragoneer's Aria appeal to more than the hardcore gamers was a complete and total failure. Their mission to improve upon Blade Dancer, however, is the redeeming success - and oh, what a success that attempt was!
To those who've played Blade Dancer, you'll be overjoyed to hear of the following improvements: the crafting system has been improved at least thricefold in depth, the avatar's moving speed has been increased(and features a "quick run"), there's actually overworld music where once there there was only ambience, the level of challenge is no longer an inconsistent mess, weapon durability no longer exists (thus meaning that the breaking weapons have been done away with), the battle system is much more deep, the storyline/character development are both teeming with life, the voice acting has been greatly improved, and the game's structure feels much less like an MMORPG, and more like a traditionally streamlined adventure.
The battle system is of the standard-fare turn-based formula. The "wait system" from Blade Dancer has been eliminated to speed things up. The MANA system of the same game, however, has been kept - but modified greatly. Your party still shares the same MP value, but now enemies have their own mana flow so that their techniques do not drain directly from your MP, and the value is not reset after battle. Accumulating MANA is quite a simple task; normal attacks replenish 50 MANA, criticals 80 MANA, guarding 50-100 MANA, and there's occasional mana pools littered about that recover upwards of 300 MANA.
To consume from this MANA are your character's "Lusce Spells". Every character's bodily equipment has slots, and each slot can be filled with Lusce that can grant them certain magical techniques. In addition to this, progression throughout the game will reward the gamer with Dragon Orbs that can be used to gain "Dragon Skills". While each Lusce Spell and Dragon Skill starts off so weak that most would think they're useless compared to normal attacks, every tenth usage of them(until one-hundred) will increase their level, which can result in their effect becoming simply ferocious.
Of course, there's enough of a difference between Dragon skills and Lusce spells so that neither becomes useless to the other; Dragon skills consume the same set amount of MANA regardless of what their level is, but have very little variance in effects. Lusce spells consume more MANA as they level up(you can select which level of the spell you want to use) but also have a vast amount more variance in what they can do.
Other special skills include such as the MANA Rush, in which you can consume MANA to rush the enemy with high powered attacks, and a very interesting take on guarding against enemy attacks. The Guard system is now set up as a wheel with five points that must be hit with precision. Hitting each point reduces the amount of damage done by 20%, and of course, hitting all five points results in a "Perfect" guard - which can nullify all physical damage done to the respective party member, as well as recover a large amount of MANA. Just as it sounds, this process can get to be time-consuming for those that don't quickly pick up the cadence-based pattern that makes this easy, so there is a traditional "Defend" option to reduce damage without the Guard sequence.
The truly interesting thing about the battle system is how much more focused it is on adding a strategic experience to a sub-genre of role-playing games so widely known for lacking strategy and challenge. Dragoneer's Aria takes a more "Digital Devil Saga" approach to things, such that rushing into battle ready to mash X until victory is a real quick way to get all your characters sent hurling towards the ground in record-breaking time. The first few bosses are fairly simple to defeat, but then it gets to be progressively more menacing until the point in which there are a multitude of regular enemies whose in-combat strategies can get to be unforgiving.
The teleportation is back, but is now presented in a much different design. In the main area of Granadis, there's a sort of "hub" you can use to teleport between visited areas so that backtracking is avoided, and, unlike Blade Dancer, this is offered right from the start of the game instead of requiring you to play through half the game before it's available. The emphasis on field skills are a lot greater this time around as well. While everyone still has their own proficiencies, each individual party member also has an upgradeable field skill that actually proves to be very helpful. Valen's, for example, is the ability to ascend to an advanced speed of running for faster on-land navigation through areas, and has a longer duration as the skill is increased; and Euphe can create a sort of vitality pool that sacrifices MANA to recover the party's vitality - which, of course, becomes greater in strength as the field skill is increased.
Everything from the Dragon Skills to guarding and even Field Skills can be upgraded with usage, but even more helpful is that, when Lusce skills are increased, the increase is not character specific. So if you decide you'd rather not have a certain character use a certain skill, you don't have to restart the leveling procedure - the spell's level will carry over to whoever you equip the Lusce to.
The aesthetics and auditorials are all very well-done. Aesthetics are full to the brim with details from mouth movements to bodily gestures, facial emotion portrayal, and detail in landscapes. Voice Acting is well-done, defining each character considerably with everything from each character's grammatical proficiency to their speaking accent. The soundtrack of Dragoneer's Aria is truly a departure from what most of come to expect from Japanese RPGs. Instead of going straight for the traditional catchy genre mixture of jazz and rock like so many others, Dragoneer's Aria aims for a less-catchy, but more theatric "movie-like" soundtrack experience. In a lot of ways, the musical style is similar to what was featured in Blade Dancer, except there's much more fully-orchestrated works where the aforementioned HitMaker title often featured very little outside of ambience.
The most well-known complaint with Dragoneer's Aria is that the battle system is beyond sluggish in pace. This is undeniably true, but an incredibly poor point to use for those wanting to dismiss this game. As the same lot bringing this up consistently fail to mention - the slow battle system is justified by how much faster the technical progression is. To cite an example for elaboration though, let's use another well-known RPG of the PSP's archive: Brave Story - New Traveler.
In Brave Story, the battle system is much, much faster in pace, to the point in which most non-boss encounters can reach their conclusion in mere seconds, however, experience income is very low, and the gamer would have to go through many, many of these battles in order to reach the next level of experience. In Dragoneer's Aria, it certainly is true that a standard battle can take anywhere from thirty seconds to over five minutes, but in return, the experience income is high, and the requirement low - meaning that it's very common that you'll only need to complete one to five battles to reach the next level. In other instances, it's very easy to have a character equipped with an "Escape" Lusce so that low experience monsters can be avoided.
As the gamer progresses through Dragoneer's Aria, they will, of course, encounter many new characters that have been linked to the elemental dragons orbs, such as the oracle Euphe, the pint-sized pirate girl with a razor-sharp tongue - Mary, and an elven warrior shifted from foe to ally that will be known as Ruslan. They will also find many optional quests, unravel the personalities of said characters throughout the story, and continue their lineage to gain the trust of the dragons while plot twists occur, all brought to life by a well-done narration, a great voice-acting cast and well-defined personalities.
Although it's failure to get out of "niche" status will make this point ill-recognized by most, Dragoneer's Aria went well above and beyond "just improving upon Blade Dancer", and actually managed to become a very well-done Role-Playing Game.
Overall: 8.7/10 (Rounded to 9.0 for GS rating system)