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.