2017 has been an amazing year for games. Every month sees at least two new titles that make me want to drop everything and start playing. Games like Nier: Automata and Persona 5 have been standouts, with Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood poised to run over dozens of other game of the year candidates vying for my limited gaming hours. However, when my living room (and all of its related game consoles) got taken out of commission by construction related to an uninvited tree making its home on my roof, I broke out the handhelds and revisited a title I hadn’t finished from a series I adore.
My history with Dragon Quest dates back to the original Dragon Warrior on the NES, a title I constantly begged my mother to let me watch her play as a child, and one of the main motivators in learning to read. I’ve been following the series ever since, and have snatched up just about any release that hit our shores. Dragon Warrior VII, the last title to carry the Warrior name before Square Enix regained the rights to the Dragon Quest name in the West, was a title I had mostly experienced by proxy. While the slow opening turned myself (and plenty of other western fans) off, my mom had stuck with the series through the years and we were able to tag team the whole experience. When a 3DS remake promised to polish off some of the rough edges of the original I was right there ready at day one. Unfortunately, due to a shaky localization record I didn’t get my chance until three years later. But sure enough, with a new localization blitz bringing us a host of titles we’d missed out on the first go-round, I had my copy on day one.
And much like the PlayStation original, the game lost me.
This time around it was much easier to get into, with the opening hours streamlined and a fresh coat of paint keeping me invested, but the sheer volume of the game meant I took a few months off in the middle before coming back to polish off the back half. But that’s not to say that it’s a terrible game. In many ways, I found Dragon Quest VII to be one of the most entertaining games in the series. It just takes some commitment to get through.
Dragon Quest VII starts you off on a small fishing island. Oddly, this sleepy island is the only island on the planet. Being the same kind of adventurous doormat as most Dragon Quest main characters, you and your friends are quickly swept off on a quest to find all of the other islands in the world and bring them into the modern day. You accomplish this by tracking down the eponymous fragments, piecing together tablets that send you to one of the lost islands in the past. From there, you do your RPG hero thing: find out what’s bothering townsfolk, solve problems, defeat a load bearing boss or two, then hoof it back to the present where the island reappears as if it had always been there. While this setup does little for a strong overarching narrative, it allows each island to be its own little vignette with a self-contained story. Furthermore, the standard Dragon Quest localization means each island feels unique with its own dialect and feel.
These vignettes are both the best and the worst part of the game. While these digestible story bits can be fun, there are almost two dozen islands. The concept wears down well before its done, and this is why I ended up taking an extended break partway through the game. The story on each of these islands is pretty light, as it typical of Dragon Quest. Every once in a while you’ll get something with some depth, such as a mysterious rain that turns an entire village to stone, but generally they’re straightforward. The baddies are who you expect, the people who seem like traitors are traitors, and you can see exactly the building you’re going to have to hoof it up to fight the boss of the area.
Luckily, Dragon Quest has always excelled as this kind of comfort food, and the format really sings on a handheld. It allows the more grindy bits flow by easily, a few minutes at a time between other responsibilities in my day. What really helped pull me through, however, wasn’t the story or the characters, but the class system.
Dragon Quest VII has a basic yet satisfying class system. While each character has character levels that are static across all classes, each class also has its own ranking. This means you can level up Dragon Quest staples like Warriors, Martial Artists, Priests, and Mages across your different characters. Leveling a class not only allows you to keep all of those class skills whenever you swap classes, but mastery also unlocks higher level classes. Mastering Martial Artist and Priest allows you to promote your character to a Paladin, while Sailor and Thief naturally open up the option of Piracy. There are quite a few classes to unlock, not to mention monster classes that let you take on the forms of the series many baddies, and tailoring your characters to fit your play style can be a lot of fun. Even better, the 3DS version gives each character a unique outfit for each class. If you’re an aficionado of RPG dress up like myself, you’ll doubtlessly find some drive to unlock the higher end classes so you can bust up slimes while looking positively fabulous.
Unfortunately, this system is also held back by the game’s pacing troubles. I didn’t unlock the ability to change classes for over 20 hours, which by most standards is a pretty solid benchmark for an entire game, not simply the introduction to the meat of this one. The system is satisfying, however. In keeping (with a few exceptions) all of your class skills when you change classes, you get a great feeling of progression and your characters really feel like your own by the end of the game.
And throughout, the core gameplay is classic Dragon Quest. If you like grinding to get enough money for that next sword, fighting adorable and unique baddies, and getting into an adventure unhampered by pessimism (or nuance), Dragon Quest VII delivers. It’s a very specific taste, one that tugs at nostalgia strings while managing to give you something new if you’re a long time fan. There’s a satisfying level of polish, and the audio visual package is fantastic. Mostly.
Unfortunately, the orchestrated soundtrack present in the Japanese version is replaced with a digitized soundtrack in the western release, and its absence is noteworthy. While the compositions stand fine on their own, the nuance of an orchestrated Dragon Quest soundtrack is always something special when you can get it. The orchestrated soundtrack certainly would have helped alleviate some of the repetitive drone of questing through all of the islands. The visuals aren’t without fault either. The style is certainly there, with vibrant colors and Dragon Ball artist Akira Toriyama’s designs front and center as always. However, the game is a bit slavish to the PlayStation original. There aren’t a lot of unique animations, and character models are reused constantly. There is no real visual difference between the past and the present, every mayor looks the same, and eventually the islands start to bleed together. It’s hard to fault sticking to the original, but it can be tough to swallow when you see SNES RPGs with more character in their animation.
There are a few other issues with the remake. Random encounters are gone, replaced with visible, avoidable enemies on the world map. This is a great modern convenience! However, the dungeons aren’t really made for it, and you often end up with more enemy encounters in those dungeons as the narrow passageways make evading the constantly-spawning enemies impossible. And while the new coat of visual paint is lovely, it comes with some slight menu lag in battle, where you spend a huge chunk of your time. It’s a minor inconvenience that you grow accustomed to, but if you fire up another game soon after you’ll notice the difference pretty quickly.
Despite these little problems adding up over time, the remake ultimately made for a far more enjoyable experience than the original. I’m not sure if I’ll ever dig through the enormous title again, but the Dragon Quest charm was present throughout and it felt great to have experienced this little piece of history. I wouldn’t recommend it to first timers, and it’s not going to crack my top games in the series, but the vignette style and robust job system provide an entertaining spin on the nostalgic core. If you’re already a fan of the series, this is the definitive way to play the 7th entry.