7th Dragon III: Code VFD
by Polly

Note: Some images taken from Sorumian's walkthrough.

Dungeon crawlers. The genre for the kinda person that likes to play RPGs, but maybe doesn't want a whole lot of story getting in the way of all the punchy, slashy, magic-casty fun of a solid combat system. These types of games are typically a bit more nuanced and system-heavy than your average role-playing game in order to keep the gobs of random encounters you'll slog your way through entertaining. Character customization, intensely difficult encounters, and sprawling mazes are the order of the day for these kinds of games, and they've managed to keep themselves relevant with lots of high-profile, long standing titles and series still releasing today.

Listeners of The Sockscast may have heard me rave quite a bit about Labyrinth of Touhou 2 last year as being THE dungeon crawler that all future dungeon crawlers would have to live up to. Even casting aside the Touhou-based paint job, LoT2 is a game that took everything that can be off-putting about the genre and fixed it, while still retaining everything that makes up the core of good dungeon crawling. 7th Dragon: Code VFD hit my radar late last year thanks to a friend's stream and Pauncho Smith's own recommendation, so with the hunger for some turn-based, character build-driven gameplay growing, I took the game out for a whirl.

7th Dragon III is actually the fourth entry in the series following the original's DS release in 2009 and a couple spin-off/sequels released on Sony's PSP. The series has been largely guided by some pretty influential names in the industry including Kazuya Niinou of Etrian Odyssey fame, Yuzo Koshiro of "responsible for composing the best damn tunes of your childhood" fame, and Reiko Kodama who is responsible for the creation of the Phantasy Star series and providing graphics design for a string of easily recognizable titles over the years as well. It's a series that's built on a "Dream Team" coming together and there's admittedly a LOT to be excited about with names like that behind it.

Ugh... Just ugh...
7th Dragon III takes place 80 years after the events of the previous games, and all you really need to know (and the game is very quick to summarize this before sending you on your dungeon-grinding way) is that the seventh dragon is about to awaken, and if it does, humanity's gonna get its shit pushed in real proper-like. The story spans multiple eras, and sees your troupe of hacky-slashy heroes using a convenient time-traveling portal to travel to each of them to prevent the calamities that the other dragons are causing in order to complete the Dragon Chronicle, which will somehow save humanity.

A paper-thin premise is all this kind of game needs to succeed, and while the premise is simple, 7th Dragon III also wants to cram clumsy character arcs and development down your throat in cutscenes that drag on (HEY OH!) way longer than they should. Every anime-inspired story beat and trope you can think of is here, and this game loves to beat you over the head with them time and time again. By the five-hour mark, I was annoyed, and by the ten-hour mark, I was thumbing through them as quickly as possible because it's all so dryly written, self-serious, and genuinely wants you to be invested in these tropes and archetypes that have been done better elsewhere. Things only really become interesting in the game's final 5 or so hours, and for a 35-40-hour experience, it's just a lot of wasted time. This is a game that DESPERATELY needed a "Skip Cutscene" button.

But again, this isn't a genre that needs a great story and sharp characters to succeed. It's just gotta have those systems, combat, and dungeons to make things work, and 7th Dragon III largely succeeds at... some of that.

Character and party customization are the very heart of the game. Cosmetically, there's a sizable amount of designs to choose from, and on top of that, a large number of Japanese voice actors and actresses you can choose from when adding new members to your team. From a more mechanical standpoint, as the game progresses, you'll eventually unlock access to eight character classes, each highly-specialized to perform very specific tasks and come with an ever-growing list of Skills to invest in to flesh them out to suit your party's needs. Of course, you've got your punchy, slashy, and magic casty types to dole out huge damage numbers and light the screen up with fantastic effects, but other classes require a bit more thought and planning and are far more fascinating to work with.

The Duelist, for example, uses elemental-based cards to cast spells, but she also has the ability to set up dangerous traps that trigger when enemies attack her, and also has the ability to alter enemies' elemental weaknesses to better suit her currently held cards. The Agent is a hacker that can take control of enemies and make them attack one another, steal back vital magic points for the entire party, or debuff their attack stats to the point of being laughable. On top of that, he can also hide himself from view and counter with vicious damage, escaping completely unscathed. Or how about the Fortuner, who can inflict every status ailment in the game with alarming success. Fortuners can then deliver heavy damage to enemies who are affected by their status ailments, and can also relieve themselves of status ailments by passing them right back to the enemies.

Even if 7th Dragon III doesn't have quite as many classes as you might see in other titles and doesn't offer any kind of subclassing system (though you can reclass at the cost of 10 character levels and keep certain bonuses), it's easy to see that all of the roles were very well thought out and are made to synergize well with one another, with many classes having reaction Skills that can trigger just from the actions taken by another class in battle.

Taking things a bit deeper, the game eventually allows you to have three separate parties of three members, and though they can't be readily switched between in combat, the two teams not currently on the front line can be just as vital in turning the tide of an encounter that's quickly going south. Each class has its own set of offensive and defensive abilities you can use from the sidelines once a certain number of turns have passed in battle. You can either fire off one before the start of your next turn for a one-round defensive or healing bonus, or each character on the front line can perform a "buddy attack" with any member on the back rows, the latter of which will be required in order to properly cancel out the "pissy boss mode" some enemies can activate. Going one step further, we have Unison Attacks, which allow ALL NINE of your party members to have instant turns that cost no magic points whatsoever.

As you can see, there's loads of fun and experimenting to be had here with character builds and party dynamics, and the most challenging of boss fights and encounters will require you to be flexible with your team builds and make each turn substantial. This, unfortunately, doesn't hold true for all fights in the game (one mid-game boss literally requires you to just go buy instant-death protection accessories or you simply can not win), but for the most part the game's bigger setpiece battles are fun to strategize your way through.

Random encounters and overall dungeon exploration fall fairly flat, however. By the second half of the game, I never went into a dungeon without a full stack of items that allowed me to skip random encounters entirely, and focused mostly on rushing down the smaller dragons on each map for all the EXP and Skill Points I needed to progress. This also becomes bland, as each dungeon typically only has two or three dragon types and once you've figured them out, they're as trivial and monotonous as the random encounters can be. Dungeon designs offer no relief as they're all simple boxy mazes with some pretty wallpaper and there's very little in the way of puzzles or fun dungeon gimmicks to speak of to help break things up a bit.

There's also some very simple sidequesting and base building aspects that you're forced to engage with here and there, but they feel in place simply to make you run back and forth between two or three NPCs or hunt down a stray dragon or two and, again, offer no real reprieve from the monotony that starts to creep up around the game's halfway point.

Rounding out the package we have one of the best looking RPGs on the 3DS next to Shin Megami Tensei IV. A lot of work clearly went into the game's visual presentation, featuring lavishly detailed backgrounds across the story's various settings that really help cement a sense of place. There's also a great deal of impressive animation for character and enemy attacks that sets 7th Dragon III's visuals a cut above most other dungeon crawlers that opt to for a first-person view. The 2D character art is also slick and gorgeous, and there's a good bit of variety in the looks you can choose for your created party members to help make them feel a bit more unique. Monster and dragon designs are also a high point, looking as vicious and menacing as you'd expect these fanged and horned enders of the world to.

Yuzo Koshiro's score for the game can do absolutely no wrong. The game features a really nice blend of pumping electronica-influenced pieces (very indicative of his earlier Streets of Rage 3 work, but more focused) that really emphasize the action and flow of combat, but there's also a very healthy selection of quiet ambient pieces that set the tone of each time period as well as punctuate the moments of the story the writers intended to have impact. The game also gets bonus points for having a unique battle theme for nearly every area of the game to help some of that grinding not feel like such a chore.

If you've already chewed through the Etrian Odyssey series, had your fill of Shin Megami Tensei, and been bruised and battered by Labyrinth of Touhou 2 (seriously, play Labyrinth of Touhou 2), 7th Dragon III may not have much to offer other than its fun spin on character classes. It's not nearly as difficult or deep as those games can get, and ultimately, likely won't be as rewarding. However, if you've found yourself intimidated by the genre's complexities and challenge, this may be a pretty good place to start.

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