It's not been a good year for dragons in games. Case in point: Dragoneer's Aria. There are lumbering lizards in it, but the game itself is as dull as a bread knife. And don't expect to find out what arias have to do with anything, either. This turn-based role-playing game tells a nondescript story, features unbearably slow battles, and misses the mark in almost every facet that makes RPGs fun to play. In fact, Dragoneer's Aria is the opposite of fun, and it's a game you'll do best to avoid.
You play as Valen, an academy student whose graduation is cut short by the attack of a mean black dragon. Seems the same dragon once hurled the world into chaos centuries before, and now he's back to destroy the friendly dragons that keep the world in balance. So Valen and his ultrafeminine braided pigtail depart from the city of Granadis to save the good dragons, though as is standard for this type of game, he gathers a few friends along the way. The naïve healer Euphe is so sweet she might as well have been dipped in sugar, while Ruslan's sarcastic attitude gives him the typical bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold role. The most interesting character is Mary, a pirate who breathes occasional life into the mundane dialogue but still can't save the plot from mediocrity. Even the twists don't make things interesting, since you can see them coming from a mile away.
Almost every aspect of Dragoneer's Aria, including its title, is pulled from the Standard Book of Japanese RPG Clichés, and then saddled with elements that slow it down to the speed of an adamantoise on downers. Even spell names sound as if developer Hit Maker fed a bunch of violent-sounding nouns and adjectives into a slot machine. Cutting Tornado? Song of Confusion? It doesn't get more generic than this. Then, throw in multiple enemies that share the same ugly character model--except maybe one has green feet and the other has yellow. What else makes them different? Well, in battle, one's called a raven, and one's called an eagle. How does the Granadis Endangered Species Committee tell them apart?
Perhaps they simply take the poor birds into battle. The raven is a weakling compared to the eagle, yet for some reason, the creatures live two feet from each other. As you wander through one drab dungeon after another, you'll bump into enemies that are a cakewalk to beat--one step away from another encounter that will destroy you in no time flat. You can try to escape from battle, but it rarely works. When you are able to escape, the winged eye that represents the encounter will still be floating there, and may very well fly right back into you, forcing you back into the battle you wanted to escape from in the first place. It's insanely imbalanced and forces you to grind, grind, grind until you are sure you can move on without fear of having your foes wipe the floor with you. But as if the standard grind isn't enough, each area features creatures called avatars, and if you earn 10 of them, you can summon the avatar's soul in battle. But avatars only show up every 15 battles or so, so if you want to earn a soul, expect to spend a very, very long time in a single dungeon. The ridiculously low item-drop rate just makes matters worse.
And be sure to grab a book. Battles take forever, because you have to sit through one long, unskippable animation after another. Even the menus take their time, so a single battle might take 10 to 15 minutes, yet requires precious little input. Eventually, you'll be pounding on the X button, wishing you could skip through every plodding animation. But don't bother--trying is as futile as trying to skip past any of the pokey cutscenes. All told, the excruciatingly creeping pace turns what would probably have been a mildly boring 35-hour game into 50 hours of mind-numbing monotony.
There are some decent ideas behind the combat, though even they end up contributing to the imbalanced battles. If you're familiar with Final Fantasy VII's materia system, you'll find it easy to understand Dragoneer's Aria's lusces, which represent spells. Characters can freely switch out lusces, and you can equip as many of them as there are slots in your accessories. Lusces level up separately from characters, so as you use them, you level up the spells associated with them. Then you have the energy bar, which is not a protein-filled snack, but rather a mana gauge that slowly fills as you perform standard attacks. Each spell level uses the equivalent amount of mana, so a level-three spell uses three mana points, which translates to 300 energy. There are also superpowered spells called dragon skills attached to the dragon orbs you collect from the elemental dragons.
These things are fine on their own, but they're not balanced properly, and eventually you'll find that your standard attacks get the job done better than casting spells. If you have a choice between using your sword and doing 1000 damage, and casting a fire spell that does 500 damage and spends a mana point, why would you cast the spell? Furthermore, if a more powerful dragon skill does more damage and costs less mana, why would you use a standard spell? All you can do is level the spell up so that it becomes more effective, which just means more grinding. If you want to balance things out a bit more, you can also earn energy by guarding. Guarding brings up a minigame where you match a spinning icon to blue crystals arranged in a circle. But considering the ridiculous length of the battles, why would you stretch things out even more by guarding, when you can speed things along by attacking? You can try the game's simple crafting system when the battles take their toll on you, but it doesn't help ease the tedium.
It also doesn't help that Dragoneer's Aria looks as poor as it plays. The towering cityscapes look impressive, but most of the game simply looks bland, and in some cases, downright ugly. Polygons have noticeable seams between them, textures are flat and unsightly, and the second-rate art direction doesn't help matters. The soundtrack isn't memorable, but it's nice, and the voice acting is uneven, ranging from bad to good, depending on which character is speaking.
The PSP features a number of good RPGs from which to choose, so there's absolutely no reason to waste money on this dud. It certainly can't be saved by its lame ad hoc multiplayer, which earns you some goodies you can't get in the single-player game, but can't make playing it any more enjoyable. In short, save your pennies and spend them on something that you'll get actual pleasure from.