The original 7th Dragon came out on the DS hot on the heels of Etrian Odyssey, and just like Atlus' game it was a dungeon crawler. Despite its moderate success, Sega never ported it to western shores; its sequel landed on Sony handhelds shifting tone and focus, the fantasy setting replaced with a mix of modern and magic, less dungeon crawling and more RPG-ing, with the cutesy character design changed to a more edgy approach.
7th Dragon III Code: VFD sees the series return to the 3DS while keeping what are now the series' hallmark game and art styles. The story is a direct follow up to 7th Dragon 2020 and 7th Dragon 2020-II (PSP and Vita respectively); Code: VFD is kind enough to recap the major events of the two previous games, though the continuity will be lost of the vast majority of players.
The world of Code: VFD is trying to recover from the previous dragon invasion, having to deal with its aftermaths in the form of an incurable disease, Dragon Sickness, spread by brightly coloured red flowers. The dragons are set to return to eradicate humanity once and for all: not only the government is acting to avoid that, but so does a videogame called Nodens: their videogame is in fact a tool to search for the Dragon Slayer, and the player's character might (wink wink) be it. The story is well paced, with a good amount of twists, full of well written and likeable characters; side missions are well integrated in both game and story structure, and will do a decent job in further deepening the rather large cast. Characters playing an active part in the story will remain NPCs throughout the game, while the party members created by the player will play a small role in the story.
The party is composed of three members chosen from four starting classes; as the game goes on, four additional classes and two secondary parties will be made available. At first secondary parties only take part in battles as support but during later dungeons each party will act on their own, forcing players to keep every character well equipped and skills up to date. Classes offer a good variety, with most classes offering two growth paths. Samurais can equip single or dual swords, making them pure damage dealers or specialised in follow-up attacks. Duelists rely on randomly drawn elemental cards to lay down traps or unleash magic attacks. God Hands focus on attacking single enemies with ever-growing strength. Banishers use devastating bomb-powered lances that must be reloaded after special attacks. Agents can hack enemies to inflict several status changes and even have monsters fight among each other. Building the party requires some strategy, but cohesion between classes only comes into the spotlight much later in the game, and it still won't be as tightly knit as in Etrian Odyssey. Overall the combat and class systems are thoroughly enjoyable in their relative simplicity, their accessibility hampered only by a rough translation, that tries its best to cram as much information as possible into tiny text boxes. There's an in-game help available, but that doesn't go too deep and many of the most advanced skills must be understood through trial and error. It's not possible to change party composition when dungeoneering, forcing a constant back-and-forth between HQ and labyrinths if you want to make the best out of the available resources.
Before entering any dungeon, a counter indicates how many dragons are left in the world. Citing Etrian Odyssey again, dragons act like FOEs ("Field-On Enemies", particularly strong enemies often levels above the party when first encountered): they are visible on the map (normal enemies aren't), actively searching for the party, butting into battles if close enough, or acting as roadblocks that must be defeated to progress. At first dragons are formidable foes, requiring the best resources and skills the party can gather, but after a short while they become the only enemy you want to encounter: it's easy to isolate them, with the right skills they can be defeated in a couple of turns suffering minimal damage or none at all, and reward the party with plenty of experience and loot. On the other hand normal random battles can take longer (especially if you rely on random classes like Duelists) with worse rewards. It's kinda ironic that the beasts the game likes to boast as terrible, almost invincible enemies end up in being the party's favourite and easiest opposition; this is also due to most dragons being simple hard hitters, not many can inflict troublesome status changes to spice up battles. Being a finite number, dragons can't be farmed for experience, and grinding against normal enemies can take a while. Luckily enough, grinding isn't strictly required: bosses, the True Dragons, are tough but can be defeated by going through a dungeon once and defeating all the lesser dragons there. Boss battles are a sharp increase on the difficulty curve, sometimes almost unwarranted, and more often than not require you to equip the main party with the right items, usually charms to protect against status changes or guards against one specific element. Bosses can be very uneven in their damage output and several unleash party-killing attacks with no pattern whatsoever, coming off as cheap. It's possible to be as cheap as them though: every enemy, from the lowest random encounter to the last boss, can be inflicted with all the status changes featured by the game; skills based on lightning are particularly useful as they can prevent units from acting and often the outcome of the most serious encounters can be skewed in favour of, or even decided by, inflicting this paralysis status.
One more thing about dragons, be they lesser or True, is that... they don't really look like dragons. They start off as dragons (or wyverns, if you want to be really picky), then progress toward funny-looking reptilians (with mouths almost as long as their bodies and tiny, tiny wings), to finish off with some incredibly strange designs: midget dragons, dragon fly dragons, giraffe dragons... bosses are dragons even less than that, but their appearance is explained by the story. Some designs will make you go "this is no dragon!" though, and it's inevitable to start thinking the term "dragon" was shoehorned onto them to fit with the game's title.
Dungeons aren't very complex - only two of the final labyrinths can be defined as such - but at least every single location has its very own distinct look and feel. All feature several save points that will also work as checkpoints if there's the need to restock items at the HQ or simply rearrange the party. The bottom screen features a handy map of all explored floors that will also show dragons, save points, and unopened treasure chests. Dungeons are filled with Dragonsbane, the bright red flowers spreading Dragon Sickness and a staple of the series: unlike the original DS title, Dragonsbane isn't lethal to the party in its normal form, making exploration much more tolerable as there's no need to constantly heal characters. In fact, dungeons can be completed in a single expedition: parties can rely on items, map skills (of limited use, but can be recharged by resting at the HQ for free), and character skills (that can be triggered inside or outside battles by expending MPs); Save points and level ups will both replenish health and HPs, removing a great deal of tension in exploring a new location. Along with lesser dragons not posing much of a threat, I'd say that this is the game's biggest fault: exploring dungeons feels like a walk in the park where you have to swat really annoying flies.
7th Dragon III Code: VFD is a good looking game. It doesn't break any new ground on the technical side but its style carries it from start to finish, though at first it might feel a bit too bombastic and all over the place. There isn't much voice acting, and everything has been left in Japanese; for me it's not a really big problem but some might scoff at the lack of subtitles for battle quotes. Music isn't particularly memorable, and Code: VFD lost the Hatsune Miku cameo from the two previous games. The 3D effect is very shallow, a letdown for some of the most elaborate special attacks.
7th Dragon III Code: VFD's biggest fault lies with my expectations: I was searching for a dungeon crawler, I've got a competent and fun JRPG with a decently complex combat and class system. I obviously can't penalise the game for this, as what's in here is a perfectly fine JRPG with its own identity and capable of carrying its characters, story, and combat system through 30-odd hours, although it excels in neither writing nor combat system. Nevertheless, 7th Dragon III Code: VFD is totally worth its time.