For many, the PS1 was defined by the global recognition of Japanese role-playing games. Final Fantasy VII obviously led the charge in this regard, but it was flanked by now legendary properties like Breath of Fire, Wild Arms, and Suikoden. It's easy to see the impact that the JRPG boom had on the gaming landscape of the late 90s and early 2000s.
Understandably, Sony wanted a piece of the pie. At the time, The Legend of Dragoon was a big budget, large scale production. A 50-hour epic packed with CG cutscenes and cutting-edge visuals, it was pushed to be a true competitor to Final Fantasy and its established peers. However, Japan Studio's effort fell short of those lofty goals — both critically and commercially.
When The Legend of Dragoon came West in 2000, it was met with a wave of rather lukewarm reviews. Many of these critics made unfavourable comparisons to — you guessed it — Final Fantasy, which had undoubtedly set the JRPG standard. In hindsight, such comparisons were perhaps a little unfair given that this was a completely new property from a relatively inexperienced developer, but again, The Legend of Dragoon had significant backing from Sony. It was meant to be the next big thing — and that set certain expectations.
Playing The Legend of Dragoon over two decades later, you can understand where some of the original complaints were coming from. This is a stereotypical RPG of its time, held back by a rough English localisation and a combat system that's still more than capable of dividing player opinion. But even with its noticeable flaws, there's an undeniable charisma to this fantasy epic, and for long-time fans of the genre, it makes for an effective nostalgia trip.
The Legend of Dragoon's strengths lie in its sense of adventure. It's a proper good-versus-evil plot that drags you across a delightfully drawn world map that's packed with memorable locations. Looking back on it now, it's a predictable blueprint — the same blueprint that so many classic RPGs rely upon — but the game's inherent charms carry the experience. Its art direction, character designs, and varied soundtrack create a journey that can still be captivating.
Even with its wonky Japanese-to-English script, The Legend of Dragoon manages to tell a surprisingly emotional tale. You're playing as a group of ragtag heroes, but they all struggle with their own problems throughout the story, coming to terms with what can be fairly dark themes. At points, this can be a refreshingly curt RPG, refusing to beat around the bush when the narrative demands a hard-hitting moment.
The story itself is fairly standard stuff as the ancient power of dragons, all-powerful artefacts, and an evil empire make up the plot's core, but there are at least some intriguing ideas sprinkled into the finer details. As alluded though, it's really the main characters that keep things interesting — an endearing bunch even 23 years later.
Gameplay-wise, The Legend of Dragoon is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a 2000, Japanese-developed, PS1 RPG — but it does boast a few interesting wrinkles. Needless to say, battle is where you'll find them, thanks to a system that still feels unique.
Combat is built on two central pillars: Additions and Dragoon transformations. Additions are basically combo attacks, and each party member learns their own set of moves. In order to unleash these techniques in a fight, you need to get used to pressing X at the right time in a kind of rhythm minigame — but calling it that doesn't really emphasise how important the mechanic is to your success.
More powerful Additions tend to require longer, more intricate rhythms, and then you've got enemy counters to worry about, which force you to hit a different button before your attack is interrupted. Compared to the menu-based, more tactical approach of other RPGs, it's a strange system — but that's not necessarily a negative. Again, it helps give the game a unique identity, and once you've actually got the timing down, the process is oddly satisfying.
However, repetition does set in as soon you've found your favourite Additions, because you can only equip one technique at a time. Eventually, you'll just be tapping your way through the same attacks over and over again, and you seriously start to question the system's depth.
Thankfully, the arrival of Dragoon forms hours into the game adds a very welcome layer of strategy to later encounters. Spirit points, accumulated by pulling off successful Additions, can be spent on character-specific transformations. These temporary evolutions open up powerful new Additions and a range of magical spells that can provide a significant advantage in tougher fights. A game-changer and, arguably, a game-saver, just as the repetitive combat system begins to creak.
Before we wrap things up, we should probably touch on the game's technical issues, which are annoyingly frequent when playing on PS5. We noticed a bunch of graphical bugs during our playthrough, from flickering backgrounds to clipping character models. Audio problems can be persistent as well, with voice lines cutting out, and some sound effects missing in action. Restarting the game seems to fix things, but frame rate hitches are also a concern, particularly in combat — and battles are already glacially paced to begin with.
If you're looking for a PS1 RPG experience that typifies the era, The Legend of Dragoon is a solid shout. A big budget title at the time, its ambition is still hard to fault — but with the benefit of hindsight, it's also easy to see where this Sony-backed release stumbles. The combat system is uniquely satisfying, but it can feel frustratingly stunted. Meanwhile, endearing characters carry an emotional story, but an awkward localisation effort comes close to sabotaging the script. A flawed classic, but a memorable adventure all the same.