It looks like my next post at Beneath the Tangles is up. Since its kinda-sorta about Dragon Quest VII, I thought I’d take the opportunity here to give some more thoughts about it as a game.
My relationship with the Dragon Quest franchise is a bit complicated. The games have a laid back, quirky style to them that functions as a welcome break from the usual histrionics of the JRPG genre. Akira Toriyama’s character designs are among his most charming, and the classically trained Koichi Sugiyama’s music has a pleasant, simple elegance to it.
But at the same time the gameplay can feel bland. To an extent, this is the point: creator Yuji Horii originally wanted to create an RPG that was simple enough to be played with the Famicom/NES’s two-button controller. The series has, since the first game, stuck to its commitment to casual play and wedded it to an eccentric conservatism in design philosophy which has kept the gameplay rooted in the NES era.
In theory I have nothing against old school casualness. Except that the average JRPG tends to be anywhere between 30-80 hours long, and at that length I require a bit more to keep my attention than mindless dice throws.
I’ve previously played four Dragon Quest titles: IV, V, VIII and IX. IV is the only one that I managed to finish, largely because it was short and sweet and had an episodic structure that kept me engaged. VIII and (especially) V were games that I reluctantly found myself getting tired of before the finish line emerged.
And yet I also feel a strange sort of consumer duty to the series. Dragon Quest is big in Japan – on par with the Super Mario or Zelda as one of those franchises beloved by both the hardcore and the casual. But its reception in Japan has been far more lukewarm, and as a result there hasn’t been as strong a push to localize it in North America. And so part of me wants to support the underdog – especially when he’s so darn charming!
Which is partly why I now find myself playing the 3DS remake of Dragon Quest VII, which has a reputation for being the longest and boringest of DQ games. Western critics were complaining about this game even when it was new, sixteen years ago. In a way, that’s also where some of the game’s mystique and challenge comes from, for me: if I can manage to complete this game and enjoy doing it, then maybe there’s some hope for me and DQ after all.
So far the experience is a pleasant palette-cleanser after the emotionally exhausting Suikoden II. As mentioned in my other post, the game starts out in a world which only consists of one rather plain island. You and your friends Maribel and Prince Kiefer (son of King Donald) are of course looking for adventure. Soon you manage to discover a shrine that provides the main gimmick of the game: it sends you back in time to a land-mass that used to exist, and, by intervening in a critical moment in that place’s history, you restore it to the present, and then you can explore it a second time from that time. Rinse and repeat until you’ve restored the whole world.
It takes a while to even get to that shrine, though. DQVII is indeed deliberately paced, albeit not quite the glacial experience I was expecting. Games like Final Fantasy XII and Persona 4 have given me some perspective on how slow things can get in JRPGs. The combat is DQ’s usual bread-and-butter stuff, but it’s relatively zippy, and benefits from the remake’s lack of random battles.
Again, the main draw so far has been character: although the heroes are pretty bland, a lot of the situations they find themselves in are colourful and surreal: an island of idiots who worship a live volcano! An island where people are animals and animals are people! etc. And a lot of care has been put into the animation work for the remake, as well. The manner in which, say, Maribel sticks her arms out when she runs, does as much a job of giving her characterization as her dialogue.
The music is, as usual for the series, quite good. But for reasons I don’t understand, the North American release of the game opts for a midi soundtrack as opposed to the orchestral one used for the Japanese release. It still sounds fine, but it feels like a missed opportunity (if memory serves correctly, a similar thing happened in reverse with VIII).
Apparently at around the 20 hour mark you unlock a character class system, so there are still some game mechanics that haven’t surfaced yet. Like I said, this game takes its time, and if I were playing it on a home console I might find it a bit too much given how busy this autumn has gotten for me. But as a portable game I can chip away at irregularly it does its job well.