I was fairly excited about this release. I tore the box open this week, ready and willing to relive hours upon hours of my wasted youth. I squeed with delight as the Dragon Quest theme began playing in all its tinny regal splendor. And then the game began.
Let me say, first and foremost, that I did enjoy playing Dragon Quest IV. Arte Piazza, the art directors from Dragon Quest VII, took the lead on this remake, and it shows. The refresh on the art is welcome, but not intrusive or overdone. Akira Toriyama’s monster design is still charming and bright, including the bosses. The sound is a near-perfect translation of the original and still rings true after fifteen years. The problem is that most of the mechanics are also still the same after fifteen years, and they don’t quite stand the test of time.
JRPGs are known for slow-paced combat, and DQ is the grandaddy of them all. Twelve year-old me had no problem with this, probably because I didn’t know anything else. DQIV is turn-based, and forces you to go through several menus to choose exactly what everyone wants to do, every time. Unlike the recent re-release of Final Fantasy IV, there is no Auto-Attack option. This means is that early fights can take forever as you whittle down slime after slime.
Inventory is suboptimal. When I didn’t know that only being able to hold eight items per person (plus one overflow bag) was an arbitrary difficulty modifier, it didn’t bother me. Today, trying to stock up on Medicinal Herbs that don’t stack and cannot be used except by the player who is holding them is nearly unforgiveable. This is particularly true in the early stages, when those herbs are your lifeline, and its a long way back to the save point.
Ah, yes, saving. Another “fun” DQ innovation. In DQ, you save by “confessing” at a church. That’s it. No save points in dungeons, no way to port out and port back in, nothing. This means that if you trudged all the way out to some Light forsaken tower and spent two hours grinding through it just to die on the final boss, you are out of luck. Do it all again. This time with feeling. And mana regeneration? Forget it, until you can obtain items that will do restore your juice. So make those spells last. They’re the only ones you’ve got.
Finally, level grinding. I’m a 4-year WoW player, so level grinding is nothing new to me. That being said, years of playing WoW and Final Fantasy games have conditioned me to expect that if I play through a game normally, entering dungeons and facing bosses in sequence as I meet them, I stand at least a fair chance of prevailing. Not so in DQ. Most of the time, if you try to take on a challenge as soon as you encounter it, you’re going to die. End of story. Expect to wander around aimlessly looking for fights for at least an extra level, better two, beyond the level you are when you first encounter The Next Big Thing. Oh well, at least you make lots of gold, right? Wrong. Forget being able to get the latest and greatest gear available from each new town, at least at first. DQ is stingy with the money, and dungeons drops are rare. Be prepared to wander.
I knew all of this going into the game, though. I knew that there were things that were going to bug the heck out of me because I’ve come to expect more from my RPGs since 1992. That’s why I still enjoyed DQIV so much.
The storyline is still fairly epic, even by today’s standards. The characters have life, and feeling, and the localization teams have done their best to make each Chapter feel like it takes place in a completely different part of the game world. Even if this does lead to some horribly funny Japanese-to-Russianesque-to-Rusjapenglish in Chapter 2, it gives you the feeling that you are a large world with varied ethnicities and real danger.
My favorite Chapter is still 3, the tale of Mara and Nara, the dancer and the fortuneteller. As a kid, these ladies inspired me even more than warrior princess Alena. That part hasn’t changed a bit. Fighting with clubs and daggers is de rigeur, but using fans, claws and cards as weapons is a blast. Grinding through the merchant quest still sucks, though.
I also have to give credit where credit is due. What little new stuff there is here really works. The DS two-screen approach offers a lot of screen real estate for this game. This is invaluable in dungeons because it lets you get a better sense of where you are going, and cuts down on the random lost roaming of the original. The towns look lovely, almost on par with Dragon Quest VII. There is an online Chance Encounter mode that allows you to expand your own town through Nintendo WiFi play. If you have other nostalgia-starved friends who pick this title up, you’ll enjoy sharing your own little piece of Heaven with them.
All in all, I think Arte Piazza did a good job updating this classic for the modern era. I hope this brings a new generation of proto-geeks to DQ, and to the appreciation of substance over style (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy X-2). I’m looking forward to the ports of Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride and Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Reverie, the second and third titles in the so-called “Zenithia trilogy”. Most Americans (including me) have never had the chance to play DQV and VI. DQV was released in Japan in July, so hopefully the U.S. release isn’t far behind. Maybe they’ll even evolve out some of the rough parts this time.