RPGreats now has a Discord! Come on in to talk about game music, games in general, submit reviews or just hang out!

Monday, April 3, 2023

Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past

The seventh mainline Dragon Quest game and the first to be released in the US in nearly a decade when it launched in 2001 is one of the less-talked-about games in the franchise.  But does it have enough to offer for genre enthusiasts, or does a barrage of high-profile releases from then-rival Square on the platform just push this one into irrelevance?

Enix was never an enormously popular name in the west, but they gained a substantial following in the 90s for publishing Japanese RPGs - still a relatively niche genre at the time, but it began to grow in popularity after games like Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star rose to prominence.  After finding some success there, they got talked into funding a western-developed game - a tie-in to the short lived animated show "King Arthur and the Knights of Justice" - which underperformed both commercially and critically (being released the same month as Chrono Trigger likely not doing it any favors either).  This, plus low sales of their products overall, caused Enix's North American branch to close down in 1995.  They would open another localization subsidiary in 1999 through a joint venture with Eidos, though it was also short-lived, closing down in 2003 after Enix merged with Square and both companies' IPs starting to be published worldwide under the new Square Enix banner.

Dragon Warrior VII was the last Dragon Quest game to be published under the Enix banner in North America, and it was a bit of an odd man out on the Playstation. Dragon Quest had gone dormant in North America for almost a decade by that point, and it came back in 2001 - well after the launch of the Playstation 2 and at a time when Square was the undisputed biggest name in the JRPG genre.  So not too many people outside of Japan took notice of it, and among those who did it saw a fair bit of criticism for its slow pacing and very dated design sensibilities - no surprise as it still looked and played very much like a menu-heavy 8-bit game at a time when Square (and others) were pushing the boundaries of cinematic flair and more dynamic gameplay styles in their RPGs.  Nevertheless, the game did very well in Japan, becoming the single best-selling game on the platform there.

The game's development was a very protracted one - it began development on the Nintendo 64 shortly after Dragon Quest 6's release before abruptly shifting to the PlayStation in 1997, citing the higher storage capacity of the Playstation's CD format as a major motivator.  That, plus numerous delays owing to having a relatively small development team and wanting to give fans their money's worth after such a long wait, meant it spent five years in development - quite a lot for the time period.

You can tell right out of the gate that they strove to fit in as much content into Dragon Quest VII as they could; though they may have overdone it just a little.  In the original PS1 release it's a good two hours before you even fight a single monster; you spend quite a lot of time setting up the main characters and venturing through a long puzzle dungeon before you solve your first stone tablet puzzle and get sent into the past, where the majority of the game's action takes place.  While there, you generally complete a quest, gather some stone fragments, return to the present, go back to that same (newly-restored) area in the present and venture through it again to gather new treasures and stone fragments, and then it's back through the entire shrine dungeon before you're off to a new area to do it all again. Basically, you're going through every area in the game at least twice to collect key items, and since there's a total of eighteen areas in the game... yeah, it adds up.  The 3DS version does alleviate this slightly by making the initial shrine dungeon much shorter to get through, but you're still retreading quite a bit of familiar ground.

Something I do quite like is that they carried on 6's distinct characters well here - all of the are quite talkative, have distinct personalities and they interact with one another quite a bit in plot scenes (and there's quite a lot of funny party banter activated by the Talk command).  Each location you go to is quite distinct as well, with their own unique culture and quite a lot of colorful accents and lingo, which really makes the whole world feel more like a real place you're venturing through.

Also returning from Dragon Quest VI is the Vocation system.  Once you get about a quarter of the way through the game you get the ability to take on Vocations, which are essentially a secondary job class for your character, giving them percentage based stat bonuses and penalties while equipped and allowing them to learn new skills by completing battles.  Naturally it is a good idea to have a character's vocation choices compliment their innate abilities - making Maribel a Fighter isn't the best choice, for example, as she has stats geared more toward spellcasting and limited equipment choices.  There are still three "tiers" of Vocations, with Intermediate and Advanced tiers requiring you to master several prerequisites from lower tiers, as well as a whole new set of Monster vocations (which I will detail further in a bit).  Like 6, any skills and stat bonuses you learn from mastering a Vocation are permanently added to that character, so you end up with quite a large variety of abilities among your team by the end.  In the original PlayStation version, you could also unlock hidden skills by mastering certain Vocations back-to-back with one another, which could potentially unlock some very game-breaking abilities (like Sword Dance) relatively early on.  The 3DS version does away with this, though, making it so that Intermediate and Advanced vocation skills (and stat bonuses) are only available while your character is actively in that vocation, and shuffling the formerly-hidden skills into the normal sets for Intermediate and Advanced Vocations, which makes them considerably less abusable.  Also like 6, each location in the game has a level cap that, once exceeded, will no longer allow you to power up your Vocations there, so staying in one spot and making your entire party into gods isn't really an option. (However, the 3DS version adds a new mechanic in Traveler's Tablets, which unlock mini-dungeons that generally have significantly higher level caps than the areas you locate them in).

The monster recruitment from 5 and 6 is gone in 7, as it was criticized by many fans as being superfluous; not to mention that by 2000 there was an entire spinoff series (Dragon Quest Monsters) based around recruiting monsters and forming teams with them.  Instead, monsters have a small chance of handing over "Monster Hearts" after you defeat them in battle, which can be used at Alltrades Abbey to change a character to a Vocation class based on that monster, gaining their appearance in the process.  Some hearts can also be found as items in certain dungeons or as prizes from minigames, or by completing Traveler's Tablets.  Monster vocations also have three tiers of power (though they aren't labeled as such in game) and once again, you only get to use the skills, elemental/status resistance properties and stat bonuses of more powerful ones while you're actually in that vocation.  Using a Monster heart to change vocations or create a custom Traveler's Tablet also consumes it, so one should consider carefully before doing so. 

Dragon Quest VII, like the rest of the series, sticks to what made it a hit in the first place - turn based gameplay, an impeccable level of polish, open-ended exploration and a captivating storyline.  It refines a few ideas introduced in VI, but tells an entirely new story with plenty of creative twists and some excellent worldbuilding of its own.  It also largely exhumes the movie-like presentation most other RPGs on the platform went for in favor of having an enormous volume of gameplay content, though even fans of the franchise will likely admit that by the turn of the millennium its minimally-animated presentation was starting to look a bit dated.  This, paired with Heartbeat's closure not long after the game's release, is probably why Square Enix commissioned Level-5 to develop the next game, which resulted in a significant visual and audio upgrade going forward.  VII is thus regarded by many fans as another "middle child" for the series, but even a relatively overlooked Dragon Quest is still a good time for fans of classic style RPGs.

Developer: Heartbeat, ArtePiazza (3DS)
Publisher: Enix, Square Enix, Nintendo
Released: 2001, 2016, 2017
Platforms: Playstation, 3DS, iOS/Android
Recommended Version: The 3DS version is a major improvement over the original release, with a much more refined presentation on level with Dragon Quest VIII, doing away with random encounters in favor of visible enemies on maps, tighter pacing in general, new content, rebalanced gameplay and several convenience features including a stone tablet "radar" and reminders of the storyline and your next objective - a very welcome thing and something I wish more RPGs in this format would do.