Japan’s capital city may be no stranger to invasions by fantastical beasts but the games depicting these dramatic events rarely attract a staff list as notable as 7th Dragon 2020‘s, a “dragon hunting” RPG produced by none other than Reiko Kodama (Phantasy Star, Skies of Arcadia), directed by Kazuya Niinou (Etrian Odyssey, both Dragon Quest Builders), and graced with Yuzo Koshiro’s (Streets of Rage, Ys) wonderful music.
The back of the box’s bold claim that this is a hunting RPG will naturally bring Capcom’s unstoppable wyvern-bashing series to mind but in practise this is a dungeon crawler right down to its core, players tasked with taking a small user-created party through a variety of familiar Tokyo locations that have been twisted into something dreamily outlandish, all in the hope of saving the civilians, soldiers, and scientists trapped within and whittling down the game’s two hundred dragons to a world-saving zero at the same time.
There are five character classes to build your party of three from (others can be created and then swapped between when back at base), all with pigeonhole-avoiding titles like Hacker, Samurai, and Trickster. This pleasant cliché dodging continues through to their abilities: It may not take very long to work out Psychic is 7th Dragon 2020’s dedicated spell-chucker, but what’s interesting is that in this case your best mage is not only your best healer but also comes with a wealth of other fascinating unlockable skills besides. In fact every class has a broad range of talents that make them much more interesting than “The fast one” or “The heavy hitter” without reducing them into bland facsimiles of each other, and it takes time and effort to use each class effectively, to realise how they can best support each other and survive longer as a result. These skills make characters more useful rather than more powerful, bringing in all sorts of damage over time effects, heals that automatically trigger under certain conditions, status changes, damage absorbing overshields, and helpful veils that dish out elemental punishment whenever an enemy makes physical contact with a party member too. Even standard combat invites you to weigh up the pros and cons of weaker multi-hit attacks versus singular devastating blows or prioritising a particularly troublesome debuff casting enemy over something a little more straightforward. There’s a lot you can do in 7th Dragon 2020’s battles, and all of it is worth doing.
And all of this absorbing action zings across the PSP’s gorgeous screen thanks to Shirow Miwa’s excellent character designs, always distinctive and delightful whether represented by the clean lines and bright colours of the game’s many character portraits or the tiny-toed 3D models used throughout the game. Happily the quickfire animation has no problem keeping up with this stylish artistic direction, everything from venom-spitting enemies to power-boosting “Exhaust” skills looking sharp and dramatic. Giant swords have heft, spells crackle and burn, party members throw their whole weight behind even the most standard attack – knees bent, backs dramatically curved – every frame packed with kinetic joy as monsters wriggle or characters thrust themselves into view and skid off again in the blink of an eye.
Just as much care and attention was lavished on the dungeon crawling, which is what I can only describe as “the good kind of dungeon crawling”; the kind that isn’t about a ten minute labyrinth taking an hour or more because it’s been designed to trick you into walking down yet another dead end or get lost in a maze of nonsensical holes and identical tunnels. It’s not linear by any means but 7th Dragon 2020 will prevent you from wasting time going down routes you really don’t need to take yet and any wrong turns are either short, loop back around to where you already were, or have a treasure chest at the end of them. There’s also an on-screen minimap displayed in two sizes at all times (you can even turn it off if you’d prefer) to keep you on track, and restorative save points may not quite be waiting around every corner but they do at least pop up frequently enough to be expected and relied upon. Dive deep enough into a dungeon and you’ll more than likely encounter a two-way exit back to the menu-based world map – when discovered these become permanent and freely selectable new entrances, granting instant access to the later parts of an area. To help make life (and living) easier for you between these points all sorts of useful items from character revivers to quick dungeon escapers are incredibly cheap to buy back at your headquarters, a supply that’s kept topped up by generous dungeon chests and defeated enemies. If 7th Dragon 2020’s clear on anything, it’s this: Anything rattling around your inventory is meant to be used as often as you need to use it – even if that means using it up – because you can be sure there’s always more on the way.
Keeping these runs from degenerating into corridors for corridors’ sake with a boss at the end are a whole host of mini events, breathtaking areas that have only the most tenuous grip on reality, and dramatic (and optional) encounters with powerful dragons roaming the halls. Dragons bring with them a unique challenge: If you find yourself engaged in a random battle near one of the dragons patrolling the dungeon there’s a chance, depending on how physically close they were to your team before the fight started and how many turns you take to defeat the enemies now standing before you, that they’ll barge their way into the scuffle, either as well as or instead of everything else you were already fighting – it’s even possible to have a dragon join in a fight with another dragon. If that happens you’re in for a tough but not impossible time, as even on the standard difficulty (an easier “Casual” setting is also available from the very beginning) fights always feel fair, and that’s without any forced grinding or sidequest harvesting either. If the worst should happen and your party fall all’s not lost, as you’re free to retry any battle for as many times as you’ve got the patience to carry on; so if you just needed one little thing to swing your way or were sure you could do better on a second (or tenth, or twentieth) go you can prove it.
The most magical thing about 7th Dragon 2020 isn’t its imaginative winged beasts or wondrous locations bathed in searing pinks and purples, it’s the game’s ability to make this endless loop of hitting and hiking feel like a lot of fun. And like any truly great game, it achieves this by doing something almost offensively simple: Making sure everything you do is rewarded with as little friction as possible. If you’re fighting dragons of any shape, size, or difficulty anywhere at any time then you’re making tangible progress that will unlock visible rewards, and if you’re fighting random encounters then you’re always earning money and skill points which can then be used to further improve your already entertaining characters. Even a straightforward level up completely restores a character’s HP and MP, and that means the mere act of “hitting stuff” has an obvious benefit. Outside of battle it’s little things that make the difference, like the game offering to auto-equip new weapons and armour as soon as you’ve bought it and being conveniently able to move between the many floors or your headquarters at the tap of a shoulder button.
7th Dragon 2020 doesn’t want to be easy, but it doesn’t want to invent extra problems for you either. It’s a thoughtful and enjoyable game that divides the genre’s traditionally lengthy treks and intense battles into satisfying portable-friendly chunks without sacrificing the strategic depth that makes dungeon crawlers so enticing in the first place.