Despite Dragon Quest being older than its perennial rival (and now Square-Enix stablemate), Final Fantasy, by a year, Yuji Hori and Akira Toriyama’s long-running JRPG series, has taken much longer to find a following outside of Japan. Though both made the leap from Nintendo to Sony, with the seventh entry in each series landing on the PSOne, Sony’s decision to publish Square’s Final Fantasy VII in the West ensured that the game would become a worldwide phenomenon and the first foray into the world of JRPGs for many. Meanwhile, Dragon Quest lingered in relative obscurity outside of its native Japan. Though it had a small but dedicated following in America, the series did not arrive on European shores until the release of Dragon Quest VIII on the PS2. However, the series failed to garner the recognition it deserved until Nintendo followed Sony’s example and secured the rights to publish Square Enix’s ongoing series of handheld remakes in the West, and began extolling its virtues far and wide
This newfound fanbase cried foul when the 3DS remake of Dragon Quest VII launched in Japan in 2013 with no sign of a Western release. But now after three years, Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past is finally available throughout the entire world. This availability is of particular note for series fans in Europe (and Australia) as the original PlayStation version was never released in those parts of the world. So for many, Dragon Quest VII may as well be a brand new game, and thanks to it being such a unique and captivating JRPG, it feels like one.
Dragon Quest VII opens with the young hero living a simple life in a small fishing village called Pilchard Bay, a tiny port on the island of Estard, which is home only to a few sparse hamlets and the castle town from which the island takes its name. As far as the residents of this small island nation are concerned, Estard is the only landmass on the planet. However, the hero, along with his friends Prince Kiefer and the rebellious Maribel, begin to have their doubts after discovering mysterious shards while exploring some ruins on the island.
After placing several shards together to form a tablet, the three friends are magically transported from the island to another, unknown, part of the planet. Stranger still, when they finally make it back to their sleepy island home, not only has the land they have returned from appeared as a separate island just off the coast of Estard, but several hundred years seem to have passed. The trio then sets off on adventure across the seas and through time and space; unearthing tablet fragments, resurrecting long-forgotten lands, uncovering a planet-spanning archipelago, and unravelling the mystery surrounding its disappearance.
Rather than venturing on a grand, globe-trotting adventure to save the world, Dragon Quest VII sees players save it one island at a time. The result is a very different kind of RPG; its semi-cyclical narrative results in a gameplay loop that, in the early chapters at least, make the game feel more like a dungeon crawler than a traditional JRPG.
Players will collect enough fragments to form a tablet, then be taken back in time to a new island and swiftly introduced to the populace and their problems. After this, the player must solve a few local disputes—usually by defeating a monster or recovering some special trinket. With these goals fulfilled, the characters return to modern-day Estard just as the island they so recently departed rises from sea. The gang then travel to the ruins of the civilisation they were just aiding to hunt for the pieces of the next tablet and the time-traveling hijinks begin again. Although the world is thus revealed piece by piece, it is, nevertheless, beautiful, filled with bustling towns, wide open fields, dense forests, steep caves, and ancient ruins to explore, all these environments replete with monsters to slay and treasures to plunder.
Dragon Quest VII has seen a stark visual upgrade from the PlayStation original, with the whole game now fully 3D, making the world a joy to explore, whether wandering the plains on foot, sailing across the vast seas in the trusty ship, or discovering a whole new world on a flying carpet. A hand-drawn touchscreen map along with a new fragment detector simplifies and streamlines the fragment finding process. Random encounters have also been nixed, with monsters now visible on the field, allowing players to sneak past if they want to. When forced into battle, the combat is traditional Dragon Quest, turn based and a lot of fun. Along with the usual attacks, spells, and abilities, the formation of party can be adjusted—either shoving a character to the front to improve their attack or pushing them to the back to increase their defence. The party can also conduct a group attack, for example, targeting a Slime, then striking one of the happy little snot balls.
Though the basic combat is relatively by-the-book, Dragon Quest VII’s vocation system does a great job of spicing things up. In a similar manner to Bravely Default and Final Fantasy V, each member of the party can pick a profession that affects their base stats, as well as which spells and abilities they learn. The jobs available range from basic fantasy staples including warriors, mages, and thieves, to more off-the-wall professions such as jesters and troubadours. Though some vocations suit certain members better than others, experimenting with different combinations is fun. Vocations come in two varieties: Basic and Advanced. While any party member can take a basic job, advanced careers require characters to first master a combination of low level jobs by completing a certain number of battles using them. For example, levelling up the Warrior and Martial Artist allows the character to become a Gladiator, which combines the strength of the warrior with the speed of the martial artist. Likewise, levelling up the Dancer, Jester, and Troubadour tracks unlocks the musically-minded Luminary. While skills acquired in advanced jobs can only be used when using that specific class, every spell and ability learned in basic jobs stick with the character and can be used when they change jobs. Party members can even become monsters if they acquire enough monster hearts from fallen enemies; party members literally consume the hearts of fallen foes to gain their strength, and then march into battle wearing their skin.
Dragon Quest VII is huge; two hours pass before the first battle, then another twenty before the vocation system is unlocked, and at least 100 until the final boss is defeated and the credits roll. Despite the game’s epic scale, the pace feels brisk thanks to the cyclical gameplay and episodic storytelling. While the overall goal of saving the world is a lofty one, resurfacing each island only takes a couple of hours. Though players probably will not be able to finish an entire section during a morning commute, chances are another part of Estard will be restored by the time they get home in the evening.
Numerous activities also lay off the beaten path: players can frequent a casino to try their luck on fruit machines and card games; fill in a bestiary; or collect ‘mini medals’ on their travels, which can be exchanged for rare equipment. The 3DS also allows players to trade ‘Travellers Tablets’ via Streetpass, which grants access to special mini-dungeons, in which players fight waves of monsters and a final boss in exchange for rare spoils. Players can set a tablet via Streetpass and receive them in return, or alternatively players can take to the internet and trade one via Spotpass to receive three in return. Players can also send defeated foes to the Monster Meadows, a Sonic-Adventure-style Chaos Garden of sorts, where vanquished beasts can be visited as they live out a much more peaceful existence. Another option is to send parties of penitent beasts off on adventures on their own to search for Traveller’s Tablets.
Along with being well paced, Dragon Quest VII is incredibly well written. The new translation gives the game a literary tone, which befits its gradual world-building perfectly. Party members are quirky and likeable, and NPC dialogue changes alongside the plot. The narrative strikes a fine line, juxtaposing serious and surprisingly affecting scenes and themes with light-hearted moments that prevent it being all doom or gloom, giving the tale a wonderful sense of whimsy.
In an interesting twist, dialogue is also presented in dialect, written in non-standard ways to reflect the regional accents and speech patterns of the various island nations the heroes travel too. This practice injects regional British accents and other European languages into a game with no spoken dialogue. The party travels to northern towns, and finds NPCs using ‘nowt’, as well as a faux-Scottish settlement that uses plenty of ‘ochs’, ‘taes’, and ‘kens’, while other areas have residents throwing Gaelic, German, and Italian phrases into the mix. The use of this style is very hit-and-miss, though it fits with the globe-trotting narrative perfectly. Unfortunately, the diversity of cultural dialect often does not extend to the character models and architecture of the villages themselves. As a result, the fast-talking Gaels of Ballymolloy share the architecture and NPC models as the Latin inspired people of L’area.
On the whole, though, Dragon Quest VII’s presentation is superb; the new 3D overworld, in particular, looks wonderful, especially when the stereoscopic 3D is turned on and the towns can be seen accurately rendered in the distance. Similarly, seeing newly-resurrected islands on the horizon as the party sails towards them feels incredibly satisfying.
Character models are also incredibly detailed and well animated, bringing Akira Toriyama’s designs to life with aplomb. This excellence is especially clear in the battles, in which the view swings between first- and third-person as the battle progresses. The appearance and equipment of party members also changes depending on their current profession. Meanwhile enemies react differently depending on whether they are struck by a regular attack, critical hit, or spell.
Likewise, Koichi Sugiyama’s score adds to the ambience of the game superbly, with bombastic battle and boss themes and sweepingly epic overworld fanfares juxtaposed with suitably sombre tunes as the party crawls through ominous dungeons and temples. Unfortunately, the western release of Dragon Quest VII substitutes the orchestral versions of the tracks found in the Japanese version of the game with MIDI renditions, which is a little disappointing.
Dragon Quest VII is a masterpiece— an island-hopping adventure, spanning centuries and continents, with beautiful 3D graphics, a marvellous soundtrack, superb writing and brilliant pacing. Those lucky enough to play the original will find this a superb remake, while newcomers have a chance to play the best version of a landmark title. Either way, RPG fans with a 3DS will not want to miss this epic.