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Friday, January 27, 2023

Dragon Quest Treasures

A spinoff of the Dragon Quest series starring Erik and Mia from its 11th entry, which as its name implies, is focused heavily around hunting treasures in a large open world.  But does Treasures strike gold, or should it just be left buried?

Dragon Quest, as long running and successful a franchise as it is, is certainly no stranger to spinoff games, running the spectrum from Warriors style beat-em-ups to roguelikes to action platformers centered on the series' signature slimes to a monster collecting spinoff inspired by Pokemon; a bit ironic considering Dragon Quest had recruitable monsters as a mechanic several years before Pokemon was even a thing.

Treasures is another such entry, taking the familiar world of Dragon Quest XI (and starring two of its protagonists) but changing up the gameplay to be an open-world experience focused around completing objectives and hunting for hidden artifacts across a span of several floating islands.  To this end, your two main characters acquire a pair of magic daggers that allow them to procure said treasures, enlist monsters to help them pinpoint exact locations and travel more efficiently, and gradually upgrade their home base by finding loot and recruiting new characters to staff it.

A key component of any open world game, at least in my view, is making it fun to get around; after all, if you're going to be spending a ton of time running around the map, the developers had better put some work into making that aspect enjoyable, otherwise it's just 20+ minutes of empty filler in between each mission. Treasures thankfully does just that - your characters will automatically hop over small obstacles like fences and rocks, and pretty much anything that looks scalable with platforming is.  Recruited monsters aid greatly with this too, with some monsters being ridable to make running around faster (Knights), able to propel you into the air to scale cliffs (Slimes) or even go gliding over significant stretches a la Breath of the Wild (Drackys and other flying monsters).  Others still allow you to simply submerge into the ground, becoming temporarily undetectable to slip past potential dangers or avoid combat.

Combat in the game is pretty simplistic overall - Erik and Mia use their daggers and a slingshot to attack, with the latter having a large variety of pellets to utilize various effects - doing physical and elemental damage, inflicting status effects, healing allies, or even making monsters you shoot with them more likely to be "scouted" after their defeat, and they can hold X to heal using their stock of MP or tap it while moving to dodge.  Your monster allies largely move and act on their own in battles, though you can give general commands to go on an all-out offensive or battle more defensively.  Serviceable, ultimately nothing spectacular; but in a game where the majority of the focus (and experience) is in finishing objectives and treasure hunting, it's excusable.  In fact, the main reason you bother with combat is less for experience and more to gather dropped items or having a chance to "scout" them and make them into a recruitable team member back at your base for a fee (typically a handful of items and/or some gold).  Monsters will also randomly drop Medals, which you can equip on your characters to boost their stats, earning more slots for them as your treasure rank increases.

Treasure hunting itself is pretty cleverly handled.  Holding L and pressing B activates your character's treasure radar, which will point you in the direction of where its' buried.  When you get in close proximity you can pinpoint its location using your monsters' vision, showing where it's at from different angles so you can identify it with landmarks (with cute touches like looking through the slats on the Knight monster's helmet, or having a Ham Shamwich's view blocked by their hat and their nose).  From there, you dig it up and it gets added to your reserves, with one of your monsters carrying it until you're able to return to base and store it in the vault.  Sometimes monsters will drop treasures after taking a heavy blow, and they'll vanish unless you collect them again before too long passes (several minutes, so it's a pretty generous countdown).  You'll also (seemingly randomly) happen across already exposed dig spots with minor treasures called "Bric-a-Bracs" that reward less XP and gold for your vault, but finding enough of them does add up over time.  

There's a bit more to it than that, though.  Party composition, time of day and a few other factors determine each island's "golden ratio", the chance to find treasures there, so you can change up your party and try later if the prospects in an area are pretty bad.  On the other hand, a ratio of 100% is pretty ridiculous - you can barely go 30 yards without finding another bric-a-brac.  Which makes it kind of a shame that you can only carry 6-10 treasures at a time depending on your party composition.

As you complete missions and upgrade your base, you'll also add several new amenities.  These include being able to cook meals that temporarily boost your allies' stats, craft any of the many pellet types available from collected items, or even send out teams of up to three monsters on expeditions - basically they go out and gather items for you on trips that last 30 minutes or more, and they may even bring back some treasures under the right conditions.  Once a certain point in the story is reached, rival treasure hunters will become a more constant gameplay element, attempting to ambush you in the field and steal your treasures or raid your base - you can do the same back to them, however, so it's a fun dynamic.

Dragon Quest Treasures is a fun little romp - an open world lootfest adventure with some creative mechanics and the endless charm that the series has had as its trademark for three decades.  You have to be a series fan to get the most out of it (and appreciate the enormous encyclopedia of references to be found in the goodies you uncover), but for series enthusiasts, it's a quite fun time.  Oh, and mute the voices - I got so annoyed by my monsters constantly repeating the same three phrases over and over again every few seconds that I had little choice to continue playing.

Developer: TOSE
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Switch
Released: 2022
Recommended Version: N/A

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation

Dragon Quest's sixth entry had a tough act to follow after the strong reception of V, but tries its best to put a new spin on the format with a new take on the class system and some seemingly Zelda-inspired world exploration.  But does it prove to be another worthy Quest, or is this one dream that should be forgotten?

Dragon Quest V brought the series to a new console generation in style, with a layer of emotional and very personal storytelling not yet seen in the franchise to that point; to this day it remains a fan favorite, and series creator Yuji Horii has even cited it as his favorite story in the entirety of the franchise.  But of course, setting a high bar comes with an equally hefty price - trying to top or even equal it in later entries without feeling too derivative of that previous high point is a tricky endeavor, and of course you'll never be able to satisfy all of a particular game's fans no matter how hard you try; ask any Final Fantasy fan where the series' highest point was and you'll get answers going all the way back to the 8-bit days.

Dragon Quest VI follows in its predecessors footsteps by setting up a mystery right off the bat, then having the player slowly uncover what it all means over the course of the adventure.  It plays out quite differently here, though, seemingly beginning in medias res with the hero and two companions facing the main villain and being soundly defeated, then trying to play it off as simply a dream.  As the story unfolds you begin to encounter the characters from said dream (though they have no recollection of this event at first), and find yourself traveling between two parallel worlds - a more idyllic and happy one where you preside, and a more dystopian and ruined world where you at first appear intangible and are unable to interact with people on any meaningful level until certain events pass.  Throughout the game you frequently travel between both worlds, making progress in one to reach new areas in the other - not unlike A Link to the Past, released a couple years prior.

Dragon Quest VI marks a return to the party customization of 3, though in a slightly different form.  Each character you recruit fits a particular archetype similar to previous DQ games - The hero is a good all-around fighter and caster, Carver is a tough but slow fighter, Ashlynn is a powerful but physically unimpressive mage-type, et cetera - but after a point in the story you gain access to Alltrades Abbey and can take on Vocations - essentially a second job class to accompany your primary one.  Your character keeps their innate abilities, but as they level up their vocation by fighting battles they will gain new abilities.  While equipped, their vocation will also grant percentage bonuses and penalties to stats as well as an innate trait- for example, the Marital Artist class will give a boost to Agility and a hefty MP penalty, but while equipped that character will also have a greater chance to land a critical hit based on the vocation's level (maxing out at a 1/8 chance at rank 8).  Merchants are a relatively weak vocation with substantial penalties to all stats (except Wisdom), but grant a bonus to earned money from battles, and the infamous Gadabout class returns as well, with enormous penalties to stats, a tendency to goof off during battle and several skills of dubious quality, but the are a prerequisite to a powerful intermediate vocation called the Luminary.

Intermediate and Advanced vocations are another new twist on this system.  After mastering two (or three) specific basic Vocations, that character will have the chance to take on an Intermediate vocation, which is typically a hybrd of the prerequisite classes; not unlike the prestige classes in games like Wizardry.  Dragon Quest III's Sage class is one of them, combining the Mage and Priest together into a powerful and versatile caster class.  Others include the Armamentalist (Warrior + Mage), Gladiator (Warrior + Martial Artist with a bonus chance to dodge attacks), Paladin (Martial Artist + Priest, with a chance to instantly kill on a melee hit), and the aforementioned Luminary (Dancer + Gadabout).  Each advanced vocation also gets its own skill sets, and maxing out its level will grant a bonus to that character - for example, maxing out Sage grants that character a permanent 20-point increase to their maximum MP.  Going even further beyond that, there is a special advanced class called the Hero which is quite powerful, but requires mastery of four Intermediate vocations to equip and use, as well as two hidden ones that are more gimmicky by design, but grant hefty bonuses when mastered.

In the original Super Famicom version of the game, the monster recruiting mechanic returns, though with the prerequisite of having a Monster Master in your party; something a lot of players dismissed as superfluous in light of the vocation system making characters much more powerful and versatile than any monster in the game.  As a result of this, the DS (and mobile) ports did away with that aspect, instead relegating the Monster Master to more of a status/elemental attack themed support class and having a small number of optional recruitable allies in the form of "Slime Buddies" - all are variants of the series' iconic Slime monsters, and while some can become surprisingly strong, I mostly just stuck to keeping Healie the Healslime in my party as a between-battle healer and ignoring the rest.  Moreso because you only have space for one monster in your party by the end if you keep all the human characters in your active team.

Perhaps as a means to try and further distinguish Dragon Quest VI from its predecessors, a new level of polish was added to the game's interaction element.  Characters in towns almost always have new dialog after major story events, which does have the nice effect of making your actions feel like you're having a tangible effect on the world.  The infamous "but thou must" choices of earlier games are also done away with - you actually get different bits of dialog depending on your choices, and at times they even may make events play out slightly differently - for example, if you agree to help Madame Luca early on, she'll give you ten free herbs and Milly will join you as a temporary ally, whereas if you refuse you'll get no reward and have to brave the next dungeon with just the hero and Carver.  You end up following the same overall plotline regardless of your choices, but it is a nice touch at least; not to mention a bit self-aware given how much of a mocked trope inconsequential choices in JRPGs have become.

So, while Dragon Quest VI is something of a forgotten middle child for the series, that doesn't mean it's a bad game; not at all.  It's got no shortage of content, more character customization than any prior game in the series and they went all-in with the polish, adding a sense of immersion and palpable consequence that even most modern games lack.  It just doesn't quite have the strong emotional hook that 5's story had, and the later games on optical disc based platforms would of course offer far greater length and depth than could be provided on a 4 MB cartridge.  Still, DQ6 is another solid, entertaining Dragon Quest game that's worth playing if you have the means.

Developer: Heartbeat, Square Enix
Publisher: Enix, Square Enix
Platform: Super Famicom, Nintendo DS, iOS, Android
Released: 1995, 2011, 2015
Recommended Version: The DS version is a substantially upgraded improvement over the original Super Famicom version, though it is a bit hard to come by these days (and usually goes for hefty prices when you do).  The mobile versions are based on the DS port, though, so that may be the best way to buy it until it gets another rerelease.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

River City Girls 2

The followup to WayForward's take on the Kunio franchise (most particularly the Downtown Nekkestsu/River City Ransom offshoot series), River City Girls 2 is what you'd expect - keeping the overall format intact while adding in a bit more of everything.  The area you're exploring is now much larger, with six interconnected maps, and there are two new playable characters added - Marian and newcomer Provie.  The game has plenty more to experience, with a wider variety of enemies and maps, plenty of quests to undertake for hefty experience and cash rewards, and a more involved (and much sillier) storyline about a Yakuza takeover of River City.  The gameplay remains largely untouched from the original, though like the old Technos games, it hits a perfect blend of being technical and visceral - you can chain together some truly flashy and devastating combos once your skills are sufficient, and being able to buy equipment to earn special effects, bolster stats and call in recruited enemies to land a hit or two (whether mid-combo or to get out of a tight situation) only further adds to the fun of it all.  River City Girls 2 is proof that more of the same isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Developer: WayForward
Publisher: WayForward, Arc System Works
Platform: PC, Switch, Playstation 4, Playstation 5, XBox One, XBox Series
Released: 2022