Dragoneer's Aria
| Dragoneer's Aria

While grown-up consoles have been enjoying all manner of creative and inventive expressions of the Japanese role-playing game, handhelds have had to settle for more conservative and orthodox examples of this love/hate genre.

In particular, the PSP has played host to some extremely tired and by-numbers JRPGs from PoPoLoCrois through Breath of Fire III by way of Tales of Eternia and Astonishia Story. Perhaps the main reason for this has been that all of these games are straightforward ports of very old Super Nintendo and PlayStation games, stretched out to fill the PSP widescreen but nevertheless still enveloped in the dust and must of time.

Dragoneer's Aria, by contrast, is a brand new Japanese RPG tailor-made for the system – a rare sight indeed. However, the fact it's been created from the ground up unfortunately has not meant that developer Hit Maker has seen fit to rearrange the foundations. This is a relentlessly traditional Japanese RPG that adheres to all of the genre's many conventions, albeit one that's at least cast in impressive full 3D and aimed at hardcore players.

You play as Valen, a lanky, fearfully-androgynous academy student who is forced to skip his graduation ceremony thanks to the appearance of a hulking black dragon. But don't let this negative early encounter give you the wrong impression. Dragons in this world are generally a friendly bunch – in fact, they're integral to the survival of the human race on the planet, hence the need for Dragoneers, protectors of its six hulking holy monstrosities.

The black dragon, by contrast, appears out of nowhere, destroying the capital city of Granadsis and sending Valen and his motley crew of three contemporaries off on a world-saving adventure.

The game is comprised of clichéd building block after block. The unimaginative turn-based battle system is combined with rudimentary item crafting, a simple mana system, control of field effects and elemental-granting orbs to create an experience that has been experienced by the JRPG fan many times over and, in most cases, better. (In a sense this conservatism has been a conscious decision: Hit Maker has clearly tailored this game to a mainstream audience following its poorly-received and more leftfield earlier effort, Blade Dancer: Lineage of Light.)

Enemies on the field are represented by flying eyeball icons. By targeting the monster icon you can read information about the enemy group's make-up and compare their stats to those of your team, deciding whether they're worth the effort or not. Battles take a long time to get through and require decent planning and strategy. And as the game demands a significant amount of level-grinding to get you deeper into the story, there's no skimping on facing up to monster after monster to raise your stats appropriately.

There are some interesting diversions, though. Each area you enter features monsters known as avatars. Collect ten of them and you can then summon the avatar into battle. However, these avatar monsters only turn up very rarely so, to collect each summon, you'll have to play through up to ten battles for each dungeon you explore.

The game does come with some other extras. In particular, Dragoneer Mode, a network-based quest for up to four players. This one-off multiplayer mission (that plays out much like an MMORPG quest) results in the unlocking of a secret item to carry over into the single-player game, a neat idea that adds value to the package.

Yet despite the fact there are few brand new PSP RPGs available, it's difficult to recommend Dragoneer's Aria over some of the other traditional but competent ports around. For aficionados who prefer 3D to 2D and who enjoy grinding there is fun to be had here, but most players are advised to stay away.

Dragoneer's Aria

The PSP has been crying out for a brand new classic Japanese RPG for a long time now. Dragoneer's Aria, as a wholly average expression of the genre that's of interest to super-fans only, is not the game to answer its melancholy call