3DS owners have watched the pocket-sized portable become something of a treasure trove of JRPGs over the past few years; ATLUS in particular has showered the system with Etrian Odyssey and Shin Megami Tensei titles, Square-Enix introduced the Bravely series, and Nintendo's stepped back up to the plate in helping to publish long-awaited Dragon Quest releases soon slated for Western shores. It's wonderful — if perhaps not entirely surprising, given this atmosphere — to see SEGA add to that pile of riches with 7th Dragon III Code: VFD, the fourth game (and first to reach the West) in a series that's been going since 2009 in Japan. With excellent character creation, uniquely engaging class-based combat and a stellar soundtrack and style, 7th Dragon fits right in with the rest of the all-star adventures available on the 3DS.

The opening moments of Code: VFD play out like a true gamer's fantasy: after having a go at Tokyo's hottest new multiplayer VR game, 7th Encount, you're singled out as so talented at virtual dragon slaying that the game's makers would like to have you do it in real life. As it turns out, 7th Encount was a recruiting tool in disguise, and you're called on by its dragon-hunting developers, Nodens, to help prepare for the coming of an all-powerful, world-destroying dragon, code-named 'VFD'. You're going to need all the knowledge you can muster to take on your eventual foe, and since dragons have been wrecking havoc on humanity for millennia, your mission is to travel through time and space to defeat and take 'samples' from other True Dragons before that final fight.

7th Dragon's story sports some fun twists and it uses the time-travel mechanic to bring players to unique places, like a technologically advanced sea-kingdom of Atlantis in the past, and a medieval Eden in the future. There are also quite a few memorable characters, from Nodens' quirky dream team of scientists and members of the militant International Self-Defense Force to locals in Atlantis and Eden, and though we found talking doll/nagivator Nagamimi's Hot Topic-inspired edginess off-putting, the rest of the cast made up for it. It's also worth noting that even though every part of the game's title makes it sound like a direct sequel, Code: VFD is a completely standalone adventure; there are nods and references to the lore of past games that you'll appreciate if you've played (or read about) the rest of the series, but you won't miss out on anything by jumping in fresh.

Once you do jump in, the first thing you'll do is set up your squad. 7th Dragon may have a pre-set story, but it stars characters you'll make yourself, and the excellent character creation is one of the game's best assets. You'll be able to choose from four classes at first (four more unlock as you play), each with two different basic appearance styles, both of which have a male and female option and three colourways to choose from after that. The best part, however, is that classes aren't actually tied to their art, so you can pick your characters' appearances completely independently of their classes. Want to make your Samurai a female maid? Of course you can! Want your God Hand to be a spunky, pre-teen kid with a hip pack? No problem! Characterization doesn't stop at appearances, either; you can choose between 40 different voice actors (20 male and 20 female) to play your party members' parts — if you're a seiyuu fan, they're even listed by name so you can find your favourites. While it's almost overwhelming at first, we really loved 7th Dragon's character creation tool; it feels like a gold standard, and we'd be very happy to see decoupling character art from class selection become the JRPG norm in future.

After you've got your team assembled you'll be able to jump from Noden's time-traveling Portal to wherever your missions take you. The Portal takes a menu-based approach to location-hopping, and the place of any sort of world map, though once you hit the ground the third-person dungeon crawling leaves you free to explore some seriously beautiful locales. You'll take in plenty of sights on your quest to collect the dragon samples, but as you might imagine there are lots of enemies to get in your way as well. 7th Dragon doesn't have 'random encounters' in the usual sense; rather, as in Etrian Odyssey, a coloured gauge at the top of the screen will let you know how close an enemy is to attacking. When it hits red, you'll be plunged into battle, and that's where 7th Dragon really shines.

Combat here is classically turn-based, with characters being able to attack, defend, and use skills. It gets interesting, however, once you factor in 7th Dragon's different classes, each of which makes for massively different playstyles for the characters that use them. We're used to seeing magic-based mages, strengthy fighters, and healing classes like medics, but in most RPGs the differences are slight; what spells or skills you use will vary, but controlling them each works largely the same. Here, however, classes feel fundamentally different, to the point that it's almost like using a different combat engine with each of them.

Take the Duelist, for example. This class, unlocked from the start, fights using a deck of three different colours of cards: red (fire), blue (ice), and yellow (lightning). A meter above their status bar shows the current 'hand', and you'll start each battle with two randomly drawn cards, and automatically draw another one at the start of each turn. Cards power all of their skills, so to use a 'Summon: Fire I' attack, you'll need one red card; to set a 'Barbed Wire' trap, which deals damage and inflicts the 'Bleed' status on enemies if they hit the user with a physical attack, you'll need to discard one red and one yellow card. These are easily hugely helpful skills, but we loved the 'luck of the draw' element needed to make them work — deciding whether to use a lesser skill we had the cards for right away, spend a turn deck-digging for better options, or change tactics entirely to suit the colours in our hand felt great, and completely different to the usual attack-guard-spell dynamic of most RPGs.

That's to say nothing of the Samurai, who have access to completely different skillsets based on what kind of sword they have equipped, the God Hands, who deal damage by building up a multi-level, cumulative status effect known as 'God Depth' and then 'breaking' it, or the Agents, who can spend a turn 'hacking' enemies to be able to control them, using programs like 'madstrife.exe' to make them attack each other or donate MP to the team. Each of these classes are wonderfully fun to play as, and they really shine in combination, which 7th Dragon takes full advantage of. You'll start out in a three-person team, but you'll eventually be able to create a second and third string as well, for a total of nine party members charging into the fray. You'll still only control three at a time in the traditional sense, but your B and C teams can provide in-battle support through buffs, debuffs and spells, jump in for 'Buddy Attacks' and follow-ups, and go all-in on a pile-up frenzy when the time is right.

All of this makes for incredibly engaging combat, and — considerably more than in most RPGs — that holds true from the smallest fight to the biggest dragon. Since classes play so differently, you won't be able to just choose 'Attack' for all three party members and one-turn your foes — you'll have to think about class-specific strategies and teamwork right from the start. It makes encounters with the lower-level enemies considerably more interesting; rather than simply serving as cannon fodder to add to your pile of EXP, these fights become proving grounds for the intricate sequences of skills and techniques you'll want to use on the dragons, helping you hone your strategies as you head towards the the big boss.

That's a good thing, too, because 7th Dragon is no pushover. Even early fights gave us a run for our money, and dragon battles are genuinely thrilling, akin to the long bouts with FOEs in Etrian Odyssey — they also have a similar tendency to wander into normal encounters if they're nearby. There's both a 'Standard' and 'Casual' difficulty setting, but even with the added buffs on Casual, you still won't be able to muscle through with 'Attack' commands alone; 7th Dragon demands thoughtful tactics throughout, and we love it for that. That's mirrored in character development too; skills can be learned and leveled up using points in a tree system, but those points are far more scarce than in most RPGs, so you'll want to focus on the skills you actually want your characters to use, rather than trying to have everyone learn everything.

Apart from the excellent combat, there's plenty else to do and see in the dungeons, including lots of people who need rescuing. You won't need to escort any powerless civilians, as saving them is thankfully a wholly automatic process triggered by finding and talking to them, but we appreciated the nice sense of purpose it added to roaming around the maps. Dungeons sport interesting layouts, as well, with multiple, intertwining and vertically-stacked paths, eye-catching architecture, and residential areas where NPCs live. They're not the types of labyrinths where you'll end up lost, but they're engaging enough to hold your interest as you go, occupying an underused happy medium between the randomly-generated corridors of recent Persona games and the puzzle-filled catacombs of Etrian Odyssey.

Similarly, when you're back in Tokyo between dragon runs you'll find a diverse but distinctly manageable slate of distractions back at Nodens HQ. This multilevel tower serves as 7th Dragon's customizable hub, and you can carry out various construction projects to add in rooms and activities using the Dragon Points you'll earn in dungeons. You'll start out by adding a simple dormitory for your party, but where you go from there is up to you; to give a taste of the possibilities, you'll be able to turn a basement floor into a cat café (!) if you like.

Aside from that obvious winner, our favourite option is the Skylounge, which opens up the option to go on dates with team members and story characters alike. These fun conversational cutscenes are a great addition, and we love that you can date anyone in your party regardless of gender. And while interactive romance isn't as rare as it used to be in JRPGs, it still feels wonderfully novel to be able to pair up party members you've created yourself — it's another element that helps the user-created characters feel much more fleshed out. Again, we appreciate how 7th Dragon gives you extras to explore if you like, but keeps them totally optional — you won't miss out on powerful spells if you don't get to the dating, or game-changing abilities if you somehow skip the cat café — treading a pleasant middle way that feels like a rarity in recent RPGs.

Both these extras and the main storyline are made all the more enjoyable thanks to very solid writing, and a characterful script. There's a lot of 'eye dialect' that serves to give each story character a unique voice even without full voice acting — from spatterings of French, false starts, and elongated consonants to stars, tildes, and music notes for emphasis, almost everyone has a signature 'speech' style, and we love the offbeat, Internet-inspired charm it lends the dialogue. You'll also have plenty of dialogue options throughout the adventure as the main character, and though they often amount to two ways of saying the same thing, rather than branching conversational paths, being able to choose how you want your character to present themselves really helps ink in your avatar as a person, rather than an empty vessel.

Adding plenty of personality to the game itself, meanwhile, is 7th Dragon's enthralling art style, which skillfully melds a neon-laced futuristic feel with lots of living, breathing, nature imagery. Like Etrian Odyssey, 7th Dragon happily takes the arrangement but not the aesthetics of the word 'dungeon' to heart, with intriguing 'alt-animal' enemy designs and lush labyrinths that seem more like national park than penitentiary. We loved exploring for the chance to get to see what was coming up next, and the graphics do a wonderful job rendering worlds we wanted to jump into, with expressive lighting, set pieces like waterfalls and rivers, and vibrant colours. The chibi character models might be an acquired taste, but we liked their juxtaposition with the slickly stylish character portraits, which helps put 7th Dragon somewhat in-between Bravely Default and post-Playstation Final Fantasies on the scale of abstraction.

Battles look wonderful as well, and sport an engaging mix of perspectives and angles. They're set up like the first-person encounters of Etrian Odyssey or Shin Megami Tensei, but when a party member acts, they'll either pop up as a smaller model in front of the enemy to perform their attack (as in Persona Q), or you'll get a dynamic view of them attacking in third-person. Enemies, meanwhile, will hop towards the front of the screen to attack, with beautifully detailed animations that reminded us of a 3D take on the DS Dragon Quests' battle scenes.

Unfortunately, all this movement along the Z-axis in battle serves to really hammer home 7th Dragon's most noticeable presentational weakness: a compete lack of stereoscopic 3D. Everything is totally two-dimensional, without even a Pokémon XY-style compromise for the occasional stereoscopic scene. There have been plenty of other 3DS games that fail to take advantage of the depth slider, of course, but the omission is particularly disappointing in 7th Dragon because so much of the game seems built for 3D; the multilevel dungeon designs, the on-theme UI frames in battle, and especially the enemy animations that 'pop out' towards the player in battle all had us wishing for stereoscopic support.

Along with the lack of 3D, there are a few smaller presentation missteps, the most notable of which is the lack of a controllable camera. For the most part, the automatic camera gets a good view of the action, but when it doesn't it's distracting; bad angles caught us off guard a few times, and we frequently found ourselves wishing for the ability to zoom in or out. The hands-off camera also plays into another issue: the orientation of the touchscreen mini-map doesn't always match up with the actual overhead view. Since neither is adjustable and locations tend towards symmetry, things can be downright disorienting when you first enter a new area. Finally, there's a slight but salient delay in accessing menus or triggering conversations with NPCs. None of these issues are much of a problem on their own; rather, it's that they stand out in an experience that otherwise feels so polished.

One particularly impressive point of polish, though, is the music: starting from sasakure.uk's (of 'Hello, Planet' and Hatsune Miku fame) catchy theme song and continuing into the soundtrack composed by legendary Yūzō Koshiro (of Etrian Odyssey and Streets of Rage), 7th Dragon kicks off with a musical bang and never lets up. Tracks channel the theme of each era wonderfully; the electronica stylings of present-day Tokyo are a great introduction, but things get progressively more interesting as you travel through time. Atlantis hosts our favourite musical culture, with tracks featuring lots of shifting rhythms and instrumentations as they swirl around; the royal family's theme starts out as a sparse, Celtic-tinged dulcimer melody over low tabla before steadying into a complex-meter battle march, and finally coming together into a full-orchestra arrangement with ambient vocals. Elsewhere, rocking battle themes inspire action, downtempo jazz sets the mood in the Skylounge, and exploration is framed by club-ready tracks that harken back to Koshiro's Streets of Rage days. All in all, it's one of the most engaging JRPG soundtracks we've listened to in a long time, and had us opting for headphones every time we played.

Conclusion

With top-class character customization, a delightfully different combat system and a slick nature-futuristic style, 7th Dragon III Code: VFD is a fantastic addition to the 3DS' JRPG library. It shares quite a bit with the Etrian Odyssey series — including a player-created party, satisfying class-based battle strategies, and an incredible Yūzō Koshiro soundtrack — but feels like an entirely different beast thanks to its unique classes, epic time-traveling storyline, and quietly charming downtime activities, from dating to cat cafés. A disappointing lack of stereoscopic 3D and a few quality-of-life quibbles get in the way, but they weren't enough to dampen our enthusiasm; this is perfect summer adventure to sink your teeth into.