Since its March 2009 release in Japan, 7th Dragon has existed as a point of frustration for me. Coming at the height of my DS obsession—which, to be fair, still exists to this day—the game combined utterly gorgeous 2D visuals with a production team that included Reiko Kodama (Phantasy Star), Kazuya Niinou (Etrian Odyssey), and Yuzo Koshiro (a large number of gaming soundtracks you’ve loved over the years).
Unfortunately, we never got the game in the West, no matter how many times some of us begged for it. It then received a Japan-only two-part sequel on the PSP, 7th Dragon 2020, which seems to go down more of a “traditional anime-style” route than the original game had featured, while still retaining some of the elements fans would be familiar with. And then, there was 7th Dragon III Code: VFD, a title I wasn’t exactly excited for, as it seemed to retain even less of the things I had been enamored with from the original so many years ago.
As 7th Dragon III Code: VFD kicked off, I wasn’t hopeful that the game would deviate from my unenthusiastic expectations for it. After making a new friend and teaming up to tackle the latest VR gaming trend at a local arcade, you’re told that the game is a “test of potential” of sorts by reps from Nodens, the company who created it. They recruit you to help battle the real-life threat that exists, as mankind’s survival depends on being able to stop a coming dragon-fueled apocalypse.
The story that plays out from there was easily the worst part of 7th Dragon III Code: VFD for me. At times, it’s inoffensive and completely average; at others, it ranges from boring to infuriating. Part of that stemmed from my hatred for many of the primary NPCs in this game. While I’m sure some of you will find them tolerable or even (somehow) likable, to me many of them were insufferable and annoying. Even the moments that were meant (I’m guessing) to endear them to me just fueled my dislike for them—reminding me of that particular meme about a young girl and her cracker-eating habits.
What helped in my utter dislike for the people around me was that Code: VFD is very bad about making you feel like you’re being drug by your arm through its adventure. Right from the very beginning, your character makes decisions that don’t make any sense, trusting people they have no business to trust. That frustration was exacerbated by the game’s moments of decision-making, when you’d get to decide how your otherwise mute character would reply to the question or comment that was made. So many times, the two choices were just different ways to say the same thing, with no real difference in the sentiment being expressed and no storyline change coming as a result. With so many Western RPGs giving players actual choice in who their characters are or what actions they take, my tolerance for the JRPG genre’s meaningless take on that idea is wearing exceptionally thin at this point.
Ah, but then I’d escape from whatever cutscene I was just a part of, run off back to the portion of the current dungeon I’d been previously exploring, and find myself immersed once again in a pretty fantastic experience. Code: VFD plays out much like a typical RPG, with you and your party running around dungeons and small towns talking to NPCs or exploring new passages. After a short period of time (tracked by an on-screen indicator), you’re whisked away into a random battle (which do occasionally happen in totally inappropriate locations), where fights play out by setting commands for your three-member team in a pseudo first-person environment. It’s a set-up that most JRPG fans should be long familiar with, but it’s the additional twists Code: VFD brings to that idea that leave it feeling fresh and new.
The game’s classes are one such twist. 7th Dragon III Code: VFD offers up a weird mix of job types that don’t feel familiar for the most part, and at first, they come off like the result of developers who were trying too hard to be different. Except, they quickly come to make sense, and they work—impressively so. Whether making your protagonist, or the teammates you’ll be taking out onto the field, you’re encouraged to get creative with how you mix those classes together with each person’s overall look. When my heroine first walked on-screen in the game, she was a Gothic Lolita-inspired maid who runs at monsters in order to punch them in the face—when she isn’t acting as a healer. Her melee-meets-medic God-hand class provided for strategies and fighting techniques I wasn’t used to using, and the same is true for the other job types you either pick at the start or unlock along the way. The idea could have gone horribly wrong if the game wasn’t balanced for the weird team combinations that are possible in Code: VFD, but it is, and that made the experimentation with different combinations even more enjoyable.
7th Dragon III Code: VFD then layers on a number of other unique concepts. While your main team only ever consists of three party members, you can have two other teams of three in reserve. Out of battle, you can swap between them in order to bring in fresh fighters; in combat, you can call out those other members as support since reserve characters have access to special support skills. Speaking of those, juggling buffs, debuffs, secondary skills, and even items are all hugely important here, as opposed to so many other RPGs where you can get through most of the game simply mashing the attack command. The game’s challenge can be pretty intimidating at the beginning, but it evens out around the one-hour mark, settling into something that, while not on the level of an Etrian Odyssey, is certainly harder than many of its competitors. There’s also a lot of extra content to do in the game, ranging from hunting down all of the sub-dragons that roam the worlds you travel to, to taking on and completing quests, to saving civilians, to personalizing which skills and stats to strengthen on your characters, to using earned credits to build up your home base with interesting new rooms and resources.
Existing as something of a mix between long-expired JRPG tropes and modern-era freshness, 7th Dragon III Code: VFD succeeds far more than it stumbles. What started out as a weird, overly-hardcore-looking third chapter to a saga we’ve completely missed out on turned into a pretty engrossing experience that I ended up liking far more than I expected. While its lows were at times unbearable, those failings came in elements outside of the core gameplay as moments that could be forgotten once separated from them. For what it is as the “game” part of role-playing game, Code: VFD is a pleasant surprise that RPG fans hopefully won’t miss out on.
While it gets bogged down by story and character elements that I found to be the opposite of fun far too often, 7th Dragon III Code: VFD offers up a stellar RPG experience that's stuffed full of enjoyable gameplay mechanics and ideas.
Sega, Nihon Falcom
T - Teen
|7th Dragon III Code: VFD is available on Nintendo 3DS. Primary version played was for Nintendo 3DS. Product was provided by Sega for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.