Despite not being the biggest fan of the series, and only having played through five games prior to this one, I actually hold a special place for Dragon Quest. It is a lighthearted and joyful RPG series with memorable scenarios, excellent designs, lovely music, and simple yet enjoyable gameplay. So when a new one came out, under the guise that its success will dictate whether or not the series will continue undergoing the lengthy and difficult process of localization, I naturally picked it up, got my hopes up, and… well, I’m incredibly disappointed, let’s put it that way.
Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past Review
Developers: ArtePiazza, Heart Beat, and Armor Project
Publishers: Nintendo and Square Enix
Originally released on the Playstation near the end of the system’s lifespan, Dragon Quest VII tells the story of three children who live on the only island in the world who uncover an ancient temple that reveals to them that there are actually eighteen other islands that were previously lost to the world, and can only be restored if the children collect a series of fragmented tablets and use them to restore these islands by venturing into their forgotten past and make right what once went wrong. It’s a bit convoluted, but serves as justification for the youths to venture around various nations as they encounter small stories while a larger one looms in the background.
I actually really like the idea behind this story. It has a lot of potential for detailing an ever changing world and explore the conflicts found when cultures intersect and intermingle with each other after being in isolation for years. That’s before getting to the time travel element, which can give way to a world that drastically changes and evolves as you explore the past and present alike, and turns all of the main characters into heroes of time who can be heralded as the noble saviors of various communities, as well as the ones who reshaped and revitalized the world, but may be criticized for their possible misactions and– Oh goodness do I wish this game knew how to use its premise properly!
In actuality, the story of Dragon Quest VII lacks any such creativity, or much creativity at all. More locations the children visit follow the same basic premise of a dry town being destroyed by a blasé disaster that is remedied through a boring resolution that is reached after interacting with a series of droll characters. There is some effort made to make this story noteworthy, but it all too quickly became a string of selfless acts by characters with little to no personality who selflessly devote themselves to another town, often with no meaningful reward beyond plot progression. Even when the heroes are narratively rewarded for their actions, it doesn’t contribute anything back to the actual game.
Every one of the scenarios I encountered on a new island felt like the most boring rendition of the story that I could see play out, with the most boring characters, and presented the most boring way possible in a boring locale that recycled assets to the point where I genuinely could not recall which town was which. It’s no surprise that the ultimate ends of this story is to defeat a Demon King who wants to, you guessed it, take over the world. The fact that discovering that took twenty hours, however, is.
While I have heard some defend the more relaxed and less pressing pacing of this title, Dragon Quest VII is just abysmally slow. Every storyline felt like it overstayed its welcome, it takes eleven to get four party members, over forty to get the fifth one, twenty-five hours to unlock the vocation system, and about two-hundred if you want to do everything. Saving involves mashing through a long drawn out speech that I doubt has been changed from the original Famicom version, much like the antiquated menu system that somehow has input latency. I’m not even sure how that is possible.
The only justification I can come up with for this glacial pacing is that the developers simply could not stop themselves from adding more and more content to this game, loving each and every piece of it so much that they felt the need to expand them all. This genuinely feels more like a game from 1990 than 2000, developed by people with bassackwards priorities and an idea of “fun” that is just imperceptible for me. I’d say that it was following some sort of transition, but every Dragon Quest game I’ve played, aside from IX, had been pretty good with its pacing.
Actually, I want to stop and ask a rather simple question. What is it about this game that is special, that is unique, that is revolutionary in some way? Dragon Quest I, you have the blueprint for the JRPG genre and a super dated, but ultimately innovative game. Dragon Quest II, you have the introduction of a party system and a bunch more improvements, released eight months after the first one. Dragon Quest III, you have further refinement and expansion, along with a more detailed party system with the ability to teach player made characters multiple classes.
Dragon Quest IV, you have a multifaceted story with changing perspectives and a memorable cast of characters on top of solid gameplay. Dragon Quest V, you have a long form story telling the life of the main character as he goes from a kid, to a slave, to a monster tamer, to a king, to a father, to the savior of the world, along with a super in-depth monster taming system. Dragon Quest VI, you… I don’t know, I never played that one, but in Dragon Quest VII, you have… a lot of content and little else aside from that. Oh, and let’s not forget that there is nothing that turns a good game bad than hour after hour of bland and uninteresting content, which makes up the great majority of Dragon Quest VII. At least what I played before I dropped it over forty hours into the game.
I could go on with my problems regarding the story, structure, and legacy of this game, but I should move on. Being the grandmother of most modern JRPGs, the turn based combat of Dragon Quest has always been pretty solid, and things here are pretty responsive, fast, and allow for some strategy as things get complicated later on. But once again, the pacing problems rear their ugly dilapidated head that reeks of maggot infested fruits. The number of battles, their frequency, the lack of strategy required or available for them, and the lack of meaningful progress made between them all lead to an experience that quickly became tiresome. I began to set party members to auto-battle simply because I was tired of entering commands in battles I had a 100% chance of winning on my first turn.
Based on that tidbit, the phrase overleveling may have seeped into your mind, and I probably was overleveled for the majority of the game. Despite the act of grinding and gaining levels being about as expedient as the first game in the series, I did find myself engaging in additional battles if only so I could gain additional gold. Gold that enemies dropped in perplexingly small quantities when compared to the steeps prices at equipment shops. I simply began ignoring the offerings of item shops for a while, and soon discovered how the player is actually expected to gain Gold and new equipment in this game. By save scumming and gambling!
Yes, the most reliable source of equipment and gold is by playing a card matching game that becomes available around the same time as classes do, and it’s actually specifically because of these classes that the player is encouraged to gain gold by selling the equipment they win through this minigame. In order to level up these classes, and learn the magics and abilities they offer, characters need to fight a set number of battles, specifically battles with enemies who are near the main character’s level. Something that can be difficult if the party is overleveled. But it’s cool because there is a bonus dungeon you can download with weak enemies who lack such restrictions.
This dungeon made grinding class levels a breeze, and led to a sleuth of new abilities and spells, which simultaneously gave the game depth, overcomplicated it, and trivialized most battles as I ended up with characters who had access to 27 spells and 31 abilities. Many of these are redundant, such as Counting Sheep, Zzz Shanty, and Snooze, all of which serve to put enemies to sleep, yet Counting Sheep invalidates the other two as it puts an entire group of enemies to sleep without using any MP. So why are the other two still in my spell and ability lists? I have no idea! It may have to do with stats, but Dragon Quest VII does not show the player spell and ability stats so I could not tell.
This lack of numerical values makes it difficult to judge what the best non-magic based ability is without experimentation. Which soon revealed that Wind Sickles and Lightning were the most effective damaging moves at my disposal despite being element based attacks that use no MP. While non-offensive ability Leg Sweep can incapacitate bosses (assuming they have legs) and prevent them from attacking in the prior turn that also uses no MP. Simply by using these relatively easy to obtain abilities, the game quickly becomes a trivial and boring. Well, more so than it already was. At least aside from that one stupidly hard section where the characters lost their magic and abilities. That part just sucked.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, yes this game has a lot of obscure nonsense strung about as time goes on, with side quests that lack any non-narrative reward, and an entire subgame the player may indulge in. Neither of which are well explained by the game itself. However, it does a good job at providing the player with their next objective through the ability to look over recent developments or be told the general location of the next available fragment. Though, as a word of advice, a lot of running around in circles may be necessary.
Seeing as how I talked about everything that I can recall about this game and its general structure, I should take a moment to praise its recreated 3D graphics, which look remarkably nice on the 3DS in spite of its poor resolution. ArtePiazza is a talented studio at creating visuals, and they have had ample experience with the Dragon Quest art style, so it is no surprise that the environments and monsters alike look rather nice, and the animations are surprisingly smooth.
However, an issue of asset recycling is very prevalent here as one realizes how few character models exist for children and old men, let alone household furniture and trees that litter the consistently familiar looking overworld. They do a great job at bringing Akira Toriyama’s illustrations to life given the hardware’s capabilities, but I do wish they could have designed more NPC variants. It’s also worth noting the the in-game camera is rather tight, making it difficult to see in every direction, and very easy to run into a spawning enemy, which are already hard to avoid because they spawn in tight corridors that make an encounter with them inevitable.
Speaking of quality things that are severely worsened by excessive quantity, which I’ve been speaking of for three pages now, the Koichi Sugiyama scores of these series are home to a lot of quality and memorable melodies, though they oft are hindered by repeated listenings, and the score of VII is no different. There are only so many times one can listen to the town, overworld, or battle themes before they grow tiring. This problem is only exacerbated by the high pitched sound effects and the fact that the western versions of Dragon Quest VII use a MIDI soundtrack, opposed to the orchestrated score of the Japanese version. It may seem minor, but after comparing the tracks side by side I can safely say there is a world of difference.
So that’s Dragon Quest VII, one of the longest JRPGs ever made, and I only got about a third of the way through it before giving up as, well, it really isn’t very good. Characters are bland, the story is dull, the structure is slow, there is little to no charm present in anything aside from the designs, and the gameplay is filled with annoyances while being an easy yet convoluted. I have waited years for this game to be brought to the west, yet I think so little of it that I will probably never end up completing it. I can only hope I’ll be able to say kinder things to part VIII when it comes out, and if not then… I don’t know.