7th Dragon III Code: VFD Review
Looking out over the gaming landscape can be a confusing thing, especially when you look at how things have changed over time. Who would have thought handhelds would replace home consoles as the go-to for RPG fans? Somewhere along the line, Nintendo's DS and now 3DS systems have been home to the best RPGs, especially JRPGs, coming down the pike. In just the past few months, the 3DS has gotten more AAA JRPGs than some consoles see in their entire lifespans. Stella Glow, Bravely Second, Fire Emblem Fates... Just those three make a pretty impressive case for Nintendo's handheld being the main requirement for a modern education on the JRPG. This shift from console to handheld has also been responsible for us Westerners getting more and more Japanese niche RPG titles released on our home shores. Titles like Legend of Legacy, Conception II, the Etrian Odyssey series have all carved out fanbases in the handheld sphere that may never have existed if the genre had stuck with consoles. The latest JRPG to stir up genre fans is the impossibly titled 7th Dragon III Code: VFD, the latest in a series that has never before seen light outside of Japan. So does this new title soar like the Etrian Odyssey series? Or is it a slog through tired genre conventions like Conception II? No matter the answer, the game's very release on our shores is a testament to the power of the JRPG community on the 3DS, and that can't be anything but good.
7th Dragon III Code: VFD, heretofore referred to as Code: VFD for the author's sanity, has to do double duty when it comes to plot. The game must explain the events of previous titles in the series while also setting up this new, and seemingly final, entry. I'll give you the highlights: Previous 7th Dragon games revolved around a war between humanity and a race of dragons and, short version, humanity won. Barely. In the 80 or so years since two True Dragons decimated Tokyo, humanity has rebuilt and flourished in an almost-dragon-free world. This is where Code: VFD picks up the story. A game company, Nodens, has created a simulation called 7th Encount, which is loosely based on the events of the dragon attack on Tokyo. Playing a game based on an event from an in-game game? Ooh, meta. Anyway, while players the world 'round enjoy the game, little do they know it is actually a secret recruitment tool for what is to be the dragons' reappearance and subsequent attack on humanity. Predictably, your character is recruited through the game for the coming fight, and the adventure takes off from there. The "game about a game" trope has really exploded in the past few years, but Code: VFD's story being based on an actual real world game lends the idea a good deal of credibility despite the fact that few of us in the west ever had a chance to play any of the previous 7th Dragon games. Wow... Was the confusing enough for you? Luckily, the game gets all this across much more clearly and you'll be fully versed before the game's first hour is over.
Normally, I'd move on to graphics, gameplay, etc. from this point, but I want to spend a little time on Code: VFD's characters and dialogue. Not everyone who takes the plunge will agree with me here, but for me, this is the game's best feature. You can tell from the dialogue alone how much fun the localization team had bringing this to American audiences. While the player character doesn't have a ton of personality (more on this in a bit), the supporting characters are just plain wacky. You can expect the anime convention circuit to have plenty of Julietta and Nagamimi cosplayers in attendance soon as these two make what could have been long, tedious dialogue sessions into unpredictable, bizarre exchanges that range from touching to truly WTF. Julietta, who looks like Kate Moss if she was a purple-haired transgendered woman (maybe?) with a goatee, seems to steal every scene. Well, every scene without Nagamimi, a foul-mouthed stuffed rabbit-thing with a top hat and buttons for eyes. There are plenty of other great characters in Code: VFD, but these two are what the game will be remembered for, much like Kefka from Final Fantasy 6 or Frog from Chrono Trigger. To explain further would be doing you a great disservice, but just know that you are in for a treat with these two and by extension, the rest of the cast.
Before we talk gameplay, let's knock the presentation stuff out of the way. The best way to describe Code: VFD's graphics and sound is "inoffensive." No visual or piece of music will impress in the way some other RPGs will, but nothing is all that bad either. Dialogue chains are punctuated by the usual series of static anime portraits to illustrate who is speaking, and aside from the two standouts mentioned above, the character designs all seem to have been ripped from the pages of a book on how to draw anime/manga for beginners. The environments are serviceable and get the job done, but boast no particular style or anything to set them apart from the masses. There are also in-battle animations, but that's more a point for the gameplay section. The background music continues the "meh" factor; it fits with the game, but is forgotten less than five minutes after finishing a play session. The voice acting, though, does impress, as it is entirely in Japanese with English subtitles. I've become less and less tolerant of terrible English dubs, so it's always a nice plus, for me anyway, when the game is presented in its original form. Not everyone agrees with me here, but no matter your view it's important to mention so you know what you're getting yourself into.
The first thing you'll do in Code: VFD is create a character. If you're hoping for a Skyrim-level of customization, well, you are going to have a bad time. Instead, you'll choose from about a half-dozen pre-drawn characters, with more unlocked as you play the game. The only real choice you have is over which of a handful of color palettes you want with your choice of character. Sexy anime girl in green? Or sexy anime girl in blue? It feels a little lame and kicks things off to a somewhat sour start, but the next choice, class, feels a little better. You've only got four to start with - Samurai, Agent, God Hand and Duelist - but more are unlocked later and can be swapped at any time, provided you have leveled up your character enough (level 30, if I remember correctly). Similarly, when creating allies to join you in battle, you have limited options; with up to nine characters in teams of three, you'll end up with the majority of the designs used, whether you like them or not (though, I suppose you could use the same portrait twice, but it never even occurred to me to try and overlap).
As you play, the game employs a third-person, isometric view of your characters in the overworld, while battles take place in first-person. Between the battle perspective and the character creation, Code: VFD can give off a very Etrian Odyssey vibe. The free, third-person movement, though, tends to make things feel a little more exciting than just moving around a grid, unable to see your characters. You also see your people in brief but welcome battle animations for most attacks, further distancing Code: VFD from the Etrian games. On paper, it seems insignificant, but I found myself more drawn to exploration based solely on my view of the action. Some of that excitement is tempered by the game's reliance on random enemy encounters. Being ripped from third-person exploration to first-person fights can be disorienting and makes exploration tougher; you need to constantly reorient yourself, wasting at least a few steps before you are pulled into another fight. A little bar in the top left of the screen changes color from green to red as your likelihood to get pulled into battle increases, but when compared to games like Bravely Second and it's ability to turn off random encounters altogether make this little quality of life improvement seem like too little, too late.
If you are expecting an Etrian level of challenge, though, you may be disappointed. Well, half disappointed, anyway. After the game eases you into its brand of dungeon crawling and fighting, the difficulty spikes to about what feels appropriate for other games like this one. And while bosses remain tough customers right through the end of the game, your team can quickly become overpowered with what seems like minimal grinding. By hour 10 or so, I was absolutely steamrolling over most of the rank and file bad guys. Changing the difficulty is always an option to make the game more unforgiving, but, to me, that feels like a manufactured challenge, rather than an inherent one. I might be the only one in the world who sees it this way, but know that no matter how hard you want the game to be, you can adjust it to your liking.
Code: VFD is not a game you can beat in a weekend. With side quests, a facility-building mechanic and even a somewhat tawdry dating system, I can't imagine anyone will be able to knock everything out in any less than 50-60 hours. Unlockable classes and character types promise multiple play-throughs to entice the hardcore, and some DLC is also planned, though I couldn't tell you what that DLC will be. The inevitable comparison to the Etrian Odyssey rears its ugly head again in that the game may not be for everyone, but those who do go all-in will have tons and tons of content to explore and master.
So what's the verdict? Well, a few months ago, when I reviewed Legend of Legacy, I came to the conclusion that I personally loved the game. Despite that, I adjusted the review score to a neutral number, somewhere in between how I felt and how I thought most of the people who would play the game would feel. Code: VFD is kind of the opposite. I found the random encounters and dungeons to be a bit on the tedious side, and even with the thrill of third-person exploration, getting constantly pulled from the action left more than a bad taste in my mouth. The characters and dialogue, snappy as they were, wrote checks that the gameplay couldn't cash, making the whole package feel like it was on the lower end of the 3DS JRPG spectrum. That said, there is definitely an audience for this game, and those folks will absolutely love every second of Code: VFD. So with that in mind, I can feel good about giving the game a somewhat hesitant recommendation. It won't please everyone, but if any of this sounds good to you, Code: VFD is a worthy purchase.
Final Rating: 79% - The random encounters make the snappy dialog not so snappy.