7th Dragon is one of many RPGs for the Nintendo DS that never made its way out of Japan. Which is a pity and more than a little surprising since it has several big names behind its creation. Directed by Kazuya Niinou of Etrian Odyssey and Trauma Center fame and produced by Rieko Kodama (famous for many early Sega titles but perhaps best known for the Phantasy Star franchise, a beloved classic among many old school Sega fans) and with a soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro (Streets of Rage, Actraiser II, Kid Icarus Uprising and many others), 7th Dragon sets out to create an old school JRPG experience and succeeds admirably.
As per many old school RPGs, you form a team of four characters out of seven possible classes, and can have numerous party members in reserve for later use if you so choose. Fighters, Knights and Samurai serve as your front-line classes, while Rogues, Mages, Healers and Princesses serve as your back line supporters. Each has a different role to fulfill toward that end - Fighters focus on landing multiple hits, knights serve as party tanks who sync up well with Princesses, and Samurais are based on raw power at the cost of defense. Mages and Healers are pretty self-explanatory. Princesses and Rogues are the odd classes, with Princesses serving as a support class of sorts (having numerous skills that boost allies and weapons that can weaken enemies with status effects) and Rogues are a fairly weak, albeit speedy class that wields bows and daggers and can inflict status effects on enemies. They also have an odd skill that permanently destroys them, but recovers your entire party to full health and inflicts heavy damage to all enemies on the field - novel, but not very practical in a genre known for requiring long stretches of grinding to get characters up to speed.
As in Etrian Odyssey, a key facet of the game is each character's skill tree. Characters have a variety of options for customization - you can have a fighter wield axes or bows, a Samurai use one of three stances (Zamba, Iai or Unarmed), each with its own unique set of abilities, and Mages can specialize in one (or several) types of elemental magic. Putting points in some skills is a necessity to unlock others, and even basic abilities require at least one point in a prerequisite rank - you can't cast your basic Heal spell until you take at least one point of Healing Mastery, for example.
The game plays very akin to Etrian Odyssey, albeit viewed from a Dragon Quest styled overhead view rather than a first person perspective. To that end, the game also very much follows the format of many early RPGs - talk to NPCs, get quests, carry them out for rewards. Trade in any monster junk you happen across for cash to upgrade equipment (and unlock new items in the shops), and repeat until you've reached the end.
This also means that the game entails plenty of grinding before you're tough enough to last your way through the next big dungeon and, in true old school RPG fashion, careful item rationing is essential to your survival. MP-restoring items are among the most expensive items in the game to buy, as are status restoring items. Thankfully, the game does cut you something of a break here - some enemies do drop low-end healing items or temporary buffering items that last a full day of game time, allowing you to hold your own for least a little bit longer once you reach a new area and the enemies become substantially tougher.
Combat in the game is pretty standard turn-based fare, though there is a slight twist in the form of the "Exhaust" system. Each character has three charges of "Exhaust" that they can use, which will substantially boost the power of an attack or skill you use that turn. Certain higher-end skills also require at least one charge to be used at all. However, there is no way to replenish these charges in the field - only by staying at an inn will they be restored, so saving them for bosses or when you're in dire straits is definitely a wise course of action.
At first the game is relatively tame, allowing you to explore and power up a bit at your leisure as it introduces you to the mechanics and feel of the game. But once you clear a dungeon or two and the story kicks off proper, a massive difficulty jump takes place. Not only are the enemies now much more dangerous, but the entire world is covered in poisonous flowers called "Furowaro", and stepping on them will deplete 2% of your HP with each step. This doesn't sound a lot, but it does quickly add up because these things are everywhere. Thankfully theys do go away once you've stepped on them and, on the world map, stay gone permanently. The same cannot be said for the dungeons, however - as soon as you leave a screen, all of the Furowaro you've trampled will come right back, and will continue to do so until you defeat the boss (which clears the dungeon of them and allows you to go back for any treasures you've missed in relative safety).
It's mainly for that reason that 7th Dragon is more of a war of attrition than anything - you can trounce enemies in a dungeon with relative ease, but due to the sheer number of Furowaro you have to cross through to reach the end, it still makes getting to the boss and having enough resources left to win a harrowing task.
In short, 7th Dragon does its best to be an old-school RPG in just about every facet, pulling no punches in the difficulty department or skimping on the in-depth character tweaking that has since primarily become the hallmark of western computer RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Dungeons of Dredmor. The end result isn't for everyone, but those who enjoy these types of games definitely have something unique and special in 7th Dragon.