Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen

"Dragon Quest IX" represents what seems to be a dieing breed.  Good RPGs on Nintendo systems is a dream slowly fading away.  Really great games like "Xenoblade" and "The Last Story" will never reach North America*.  Heck, even the latest "Fire Emblem" game wasn't localized.  Its becoming a nightmare.  Meanwhile the PS3 has "Resonance of Fate", "White Knight Chronicles", "Valkyria Chronicles" and yes, even "Final Fantasy XIII".  What does the Wii have?  "Crystal Bearers"?  When the Hell is "Dragon Quest X" coming???

Well, to get me through this drought until the PS3 is cheap enough that I can buy it for peanuts, I am proud to announce a new goal for this summer, gaming-wise.  I hereby declare that this season is The Summer of Dragon Quest!  This is pretty fitting because this year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the series.  Dragon Quest is one of the great sacred cows of the RPG genre, being the main rival for Final Fantasy in Japan.  If you've ever wondered why "Enix" is now half of "Square Enix" its entirely because of this one franchise.  It has something like twenty games all-together, but I'm going to keep my focus on the main series.  My first target is the remake of "Dragon Quest IV" for the Nintendo DS.

"Dragon Quest IV" was originally the last Dragon Quest game on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, back in the days that it was localized as "Dragon Warrior" for no apparent reason.  It is the first part of what is called the "Zenithian Trilogy", three Dragon Quest games that just so happen to include Zenithia, a flying castle filled with angels - like the Observatory from "Dragon Quest IX".  Its not really much of a trilogy, totally different games with totally different stories.  More importantly for me, "Dragon Quest IV" is the first classic style RPG I've played in three whole years.

The last "classic-style" RPG - what I'll loosely define as turn-based battles, random encounters, and 2D-style graphics - I played was "Final Fantasy IV DS".  That of course was an unrelentingly difficult game, full of brutal random battles that could wipe out your party before you can even pick a move.  "Final Fantasy IV DS" is a game designed to wear its player down and break their spirit, its not something that wants to be played.  And just when you think you have the game understood, when you think you might actually be able to deal with its hatefulness, the plot kicks out your entire party and replaces it with worthless party members like Tellah.  Oh, and if you don't have a guide, you won't find all the best abilities, meaning that the game is essentially unwinnable.  I was left so furious by the end that I basically declared the entire genre worthless and instead played things like "Persona 3" for awhile.  Its been that long since I've been able to play an RPG with random encounters in it.

"Dragon Quest IX" was to me at least, is a refreshing breath of scented air because its exactly like the old Final Fantasy games that I loved.  All gameplay, limited storyline.  Dragon Quest games in general are representatives of a long-lost era.  Around "Final Fantasy VII"**, all RPG companies decided that they weren't making games anymore, instead they were making animes with battle systems.  (Compare "Chrono Trigger" to "Chrono Cross" if you want to see a perfect example of how intense this shift was.)  Final Fantasy especially took the lead, trying every single game to tell the most dramatic and fantastic story ever told.  That obsession has really gone to Square Enix's head I think, and Final Fantasy games are really uneven lately.  "Final Fantasy X" is probably the worst example of taking a storyline way too far, because the game is so full of cutscenes and annoying characters that its almost unplayable.

The Dragon Quest series has never gone that road at all.  When everybody was trying to rip-off "FFVII", "Dragon Quest VII" for the PS1 was sprite-based.  It was the same game as the others, only much much longer.  Dragon Quest's lone foray into full 3D, "Dragon Quest VIII" had voice acting and cutscenes.  But those were just added features, the gameplay was still exactly the same as it had been for decades.  The plots never get bogged down into love stories, they never end in preposterous ways that don't make any sense, and they never force you to sit around for two hours waiting to play again while basically watching a movie - usually a bad movie.  Best of all, nobody spends ten minutes whining about painful character flaws.

What makes for a classic RPG formula, I think, is a kind of episodic style.  1) Enter a town, 2) find out what you need to do, 3) do through a dungeon, 4) kill boss, 5) explore the World Map to find the next town.  Repeat that until you find the power of darkness out to destroy the world.  "Final Fantasy III", I think, is a perfect example of a classic RPG with this format.  The heroes are semi-blank slates who do good deeds for no reason other than to do good.  Find out that a princess is captured by a dragon in a tower?  Guess we better get ready to climb some stairs.  What I really liked about "Final Fantasy XII" was that it was able to include a small of bit of this "Chronic Helpfulness Disorder" in the Hunts sidequests.  But it also had a great plotline that was entirely separate from the sidequests.  Dragon Quest and Zelda seem like the only franchises that even have a formula like this anymore.  Its too bad, I miss it***.

Anyway, now I can get to the review:

"Dragon Quest IV" is really not all that dissimilar to "Dragon Quest IX", showing how little this series has changed in twenty whole years.  The main battle system difference is that your characters have set jobs, you can't change them out.  Also your characters aren't generics, they're all people with their own storylines and personalities.  ...And there's a also a dragon you just randomly get in the last five minutes.  The subtitle "Chapters of the Chosen" actually means something, which is surprising to me.  I'm used to games like "Dissidia Duodecim" and "Revenant Wings" where the subtitles don't even begin to make sense and are only included to sound cool.  "Dragon Quest IV" is divided up into five chapters each one starring different heroes who are divinely chosen to defeat the resurrection of Satan.   A literal subtitle, thank the Goddess!

"Final Fantasy IV" attempted to tell a story with lots of different party members so as to give the player very different gameplay experiences.  Of course, the way it did this was extremely contrived and incredibly stupid:  party members would die without warning and your ranks would be replaced by new people.  This leads to disgraceful incidents where two kids sacrifice themselves to save older people.  Oh, but nobody actually dies, they're all fine in the end.  "Dragon Quest IV" goes for the same effect but takes a much more intelligent route:  divide the game up into chapters and have the player move between the playable characters.  You also don't suddenly lose rare items and equipment this way.  I'll do a quick character breakdown here:
  • Ragnar McRyan is the hero of Chapter 1, and a Scottish knight.  He wears pink armor and has an awesome mustache.  Ragnar is not at all related to a certain Randian pirate, by the way.  In a weird twist, he does join up with a talking Healslime enemy that wants to become human - and does.  He's got an obscene amount of HP and so is a great tank.
  • Tsarevna Alena is the Russian hero of Chapter 2.  In Soviet Zomaska, Princess save you!  Despite being a Princess, she jumps out of her room in her castle and goes off exploring with Borya, an old mage, and Kiryl, a young Priest who wants to break his vows for her.  Even though Alena is dressed with a Black Mage hat, she's knows no spells and is actually the best damage dealer in the game.
  • Torneko Taloon is the shopkeeper hero of Chapter 3.  He's a fat dude with a strangely hot wife that is always horny.  In Chapter 3, you actually do get to play as a shopkeeper selling items to adventurers in one of the coolest reversals of perspective in RPG history.  For some reason later in the game on he never wants to follow orders.
  • Meena and Maya are two incredibly sexy Indian sisters and the co-heroes of Chapter 4.  Their dad was murdered in "Dragon Quest IV"'s version of France, so they go off to defeat his killer.  They ultimately fail and instead waste time in the casino until the Hero finds them.  Meena is a great White Mage, Maya is a great Black Mage.
  • The Hero is the main character and the star of Chapter 5.  You can choose his or her gender and their name.  He/She is half-angel living in an unnamed town.  Then monsters kill your adopted parents, your girlfriend (even in the female choice), your mentor, and the poet who is simply walking through.  The Hero then travels the world collecting the other party members to kick evil's ass.  Which you do.  As a character, the Hero is a jack of all trades and basically a master of all.
"Dragon Quest IV" also proves that random encounters can work in RPGs, but you need to keep track of one thing:  encounter rates.  "Persona 3" didn't have random battles, but the number of enemies you saw was ridiculous, meaning that the gameplay was an awful slog.  In this game, there are random encounters, but usually only a few per floor.  This is a really good thing because "Dragon Quest IV" also has the smallest bestiary of any RPG I've ever seen.  The first half of the game constantly recycles the same enemies.  That's not even counting pallet swaps.

But the thing I really like about Dragon Quest games is that they're not afraid to be ridiculous.  Much of the game is a collection of puns, many of which are downright stupid.  There's a character named "Prelvis" Esley" for one.  Then there's the Slimes, they manage to stick the word "goo" into every sentence.  The spell names are ridiculous to say, like "Swoosh", "Zing", and "Kafrizzle".  Sometimes if an enemy confuses your characters, they'll take their equipment off.  And when Maya took her shirt off, one enemy Goblin was entranced by the sight he didn't attack for a turn.  However, the real core of the silliness comes from Akira Toriyama's artwork.  From the Slimes up, the enemies look more ridiculous than threatening.  You can also pretend to be a monster and infiltrate their base, only to discover that they aren't really evil as much as mischief makers.  I think its silliness alone that has kept Dragon Quest from ever descending into the pit of boring melodrama like Final Fantasy has.

I'll admit though, the story could be better.  The main villain is a Sephiroth-looking dude named Psaro the Manslayer.  (Remember this game came out in 1990, so who is ripping off who here?)  They try to write in a reason why he's evil, he has a girlfriend named Rose who gets murdered by humans.  It almost works, but then the villain's lone scene with the girl is basically "Hi Honey, I'm home.  I'm going to kill all humans.  See you later!"  I'm not kidding, the scene is that sudden.

The crazy thing is that "Dragon Quest IV" is really on the low end of the Dragon Quest spectrum.  Compared to other titles I've heard its basically a "Final Fantasy V" - decent enough but entirely mediocre.  So I'll have to hit those ones next.  Next time on the Summer of Dragon Quest, I see how this franchise works in full 3D with "Dragon Quest VIII".  Until then, guv.

* Though if you want to do something about that, join Operation Rainfall, a pretentiously-named mass movement of Wii-owners who are sick and tired of being dicked around by Nintendo and not getting any decent Japanese games.  Send Nintendo a letter, pre-order the games on Amazon, call them.  Do anything.  We must fight.  If you want something to play other than "Skyward Sword", join us.

Of course, ironically enough, the only reason I can play Dragon Quest games at all on my DS is because Nintendo licensed them.  SE couldn't be bothered.

** You could argue "FFVI" was actually the first of the new style.  It does have a heavy focus on a dramatic overarching storyline.  And many cinematic effects were tested out on that early title.  But really it was the graphical abilities of the PS1, mainly FMVs, that really allowed for a cinematic RPG to fully take shape.

*** I think Ramza Beoulve from "Final Fantasy Tactics" might actually be a classic style RPG hero who just happens to be in the wrong genre.  He's in one of the darkest RPGs Square Enix has ever made, but is totally incorruptible and unambiguously good.  Not to mention Ramza seems to have a downright obsessive compulsion to save random people he finds that are under attack.  Naturally in a game where betrayal is the currency of the realm, things don't go too well for him.  But if he were in a Dragon Quest game, he'd be perfectly fine.


  1. I just couldn't find the energy to continue playing Dragon Quest 9. There was simply nothing motivating me to go forward.

    FF4DS had a nice story though, and I really enjoyed that game. Maybe there's a connection.

  2. Going to play Dragon Quest VIII, gov'rnor?
    I really want to know what you think of the game. It's one of my favorites of its sytem, and I'm not even a Dragon Quest guy.
    And I lost my copy midway through DQV, so I'll never finish it, but the quality of storytelling took a leap on that one. It also is the original pokemon game.

  3. Blue, I just now thought. There is a recent RPG that is in most ways like Chrono Trigger. It even uses sprites as characters, has turn-based combat, no random ecounters and it really delivers in story: Radiant Historia, produced by Atlus.
    The game is a piece of work. If you liked CT, you really need to play that game yesterday.

  4. I'm playing FF XII right now, the mark hunting is a fun thing to do, and I do agree with your opinion on it, but they seem to want to give marks you can only when your 10 or 15 levels higher then you are now, speaking which, is it wrong if I liked Vaan when it first came out, but now I realize what a whiny little annoying faggot who is completely useless other than to piss people of and be an extra target.

  5. No. It is okay for you to take him for what he is instead of inventing flaws to jump on the bandwagon.

  6. @TriumphForks: I'd say if you liked a character and now no longer like its an unfortunate thing. It was a sad day when I realized that Tron Legacy actually wasn't a very good movie... Very sad.

  7. Wait so you haven't played Dragon Quest IX? You should really try that Blue. The story doe's drag in some places, but it's better ten half the crap that's out now.

  8. He has. There is a post about it in this very blog.

  9. @Anony: I never said that I didn't play DQIX or even implied it. There was a very helpful link to my DQIX review in the post. (I don't think its my best work, but apparently its the most popular post I've written.)

    DQIX was actually my favorite game of last year.

  10. ohh playing as a shopkeeper. i could charge high prices for crap just like theyve been doing for me for years

  11. I love all the DQ games, especially no.4...btw, you mentioned that monsters kill all the people in the mountain village including the travelling poet...but the poet was psaro the manslayer on a kinda scouting mission, lol!
    Jonah cook!

  12. Yes, Woosh used to be known as Infernos and Zoom was once Return. Metal Babble became Liquid Metal Slime and the Tortragon (dw3) is now Wyrtle. But what really made me lose interest in Dragon Quest 9 was post game content. After defeating Corvus, there was another storyline boss called Nodoph at the top of the tower of Nod. Nodoph, the legendary boss maps, and the best items and equipment in the game you can't get unless you connect to something called the wifi network and download the rest of the game. Yes, the rest of the game. So I bought an incomplete game for $60 and can't connect to the Wifi network because my router's network security key on my pc is locked. I tried a usb cable to get around this, but Windows 7 doesn't support usb cable connections. Way to go, Enix, you're losing your U.S. fanbase. The makers of Dragon Quest 10 seem desperate to die the same death Diablo 3 did.

  13. Ever since Dragon Quest 8 every monster, item, and spell name has been renamed into bad puns. The Awake spell was changed to Cock-a-doodle-doo. Come on, really?! And I miss the original puff-puff room scenario from Dragon Warrior 4. In the DS remake it makes no sense. But what I really enjoy about the DQ4 remake is the extra sea monsters generate and Chapter 6. And there's an argument going on that metal babbles should get their original name back. Liquid metal slimes, nah, I want metal babbles.