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Review: Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten PastDragon Quest Dragon Quest VII Dragon Quest VIII Square-Enix
Developer: Square-Enix, ArtePiazza
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: September 16th, 2016
Dragon Quest must seem like a weird series to look in on from the outside. If you were to travel to Japan, there’d be no arguing its relevance there. The main theme plays on trains today, Dragon Quest III made kids and adults go crazy a few decades back... It’s certainly safe to say that it’s as recognizable there as something like Final Fantasy is in the West. Fans here are much harder to come by. But they are legion, so to speak — often having to form campaigns or move proverbial mountains to convince Nintendo and Square-Enix that the franchise still has a place in the West, outside of quirky spin-offs and mobile ports.
As history is known to repeat itself, the two 3DS Dragon Quest games that die-hard fans have been clamoring for since at least 2012...were finally confirmed for release outside Japan, last year. Dragon Quest VIII is the only entry left in the main series that I’ve yet to play. From what I hear...it’s bold & beautiful, it’s very character-driven, it’s newcomer friendly, and it’s one of only a few examples of Dragon Quest feeling “modern”.
Dragon Warrior VII, as the West knew it in the days of the original PlayStation... is none of those things. As you can tell from the graphics alone, there was little separating it from the Super Nintendo entries that came before it. It’s been harped on for its obscene length — some saying it took over 100 hours to see the credits roll. Even die-hard fans could list numerous flaws, without so much as a second to think about it. Enter: Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past on Nintendo 3DS, a remake of the PlayStation game many once knew... that rebuilt everything from the ground up, including fully 3D-rendered graphics, a fully orchestrated soundtrack in Japan, and a brand new script for the West.
There are a few sources out there to tell you what exactly has changed between the original game and its remake. But I'm not one of them. This was my very first time with VII. I can’t really tell you how things were, but I can certainly tell you plainly how things are. And that’s why — before I say anything else — I have to give caution where it’s due. If you are brand new to Dragon Quest, I promise that VII on 3DS is not the place to start. It took me 80 hours to reach the credits, and I’d guess anyone who touches the game will average a minimum of 72-75. Its length alone is incredibly daunting!
Again: the original game was over 100 hours; the developers consider 80 hours to be that journey at its most trimmed down... and I genuinely feel they’re right. I can’t confidently say that any substantial part of the narrative or world deserved to be cut in transition from PlayStation to 3DS. Everything I ever did felt worthwhile, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with some mechanics or choices made.
And that’s the other point I’ve got to hammer in. Many of my contemporaries have or will harp on Dragon Quest VII for being “stuck in the past”. Don’t get me wrong: I love that about these games. But the voices of dissent are absolutely correct. You can’t select a single enemy to target out of a group of them. There’s inventory management: characters in your party are only able to hold up to a certain number of items, while a Bag you pull things in and out of takes care of the rest. Permanent saving can only be done in towns, often making dungeons harder [or at least more of an endurance test] than they should be.
There are numerous caveats about Dragon Quest games in general that most hobbyists will call “archaic” and “poorly aged”, at best. If you are intimidated by a super long Japanese RPG that’s the equivalent of a stubborn old man, in terms of its mechanics, I implore you to wait for the port of Dragon Quest VIII on 3DS instead. That game was much more beloved in its time, and it definitely seems like an easier pill to swallow.
...If I still have your attention after that, then the rest of what I have to say is mostly smooth sailing. Let’s keep coasting along, shall we?
Fragments of the Forgotten Past is, at its core, a tale of world-building... literally. The world starts out as just a single island. You play as a fisherman’s son, who begins his day running a series of mundane errands that automatically try your patience right from the start. But if you stick with it past that first 90 minutes or so, you’ll wind up in a mysterious land with your best friend the prince and the mayor’s daughter... as the very first monster you’ve ever seen, a Slime, draws near. As the story slowly unfolds, you’ll set out to find 130 strange fragments... whose purpose is to literally piece together the 18 major civilizations of the world.
Whether one set of fragments takes you to a tiny village, or another has you traversing an entire continent... this wide, wild world is handled in brilliantly strung together vignettes. The fisherman’s son is destined to become a hero, and figure out why the whole world became so small in the first place... by saving one island at a time. Each major location has a history... and you’ll often get to experience and change its history for the better, first-hand!
There’s not a whole lot of character development in the party, if I’m being honest. Your cast of playable characters is certainly unique (and they typically have something funny, helpful or honest to contribute to the unfolding story, if you press the “Party Chat” button right as a crucial plot point happens), but the people they meet are of much more importance to the narrative as a whole. The “world” of Dragon Quest VII is absolutely my favorite part of the game, by far. It scratches a personal itch for me that games like Golden Sun managed in the past. And — consistent with the rest of the series — it’s filled to the brim with puns, strong accents, and allusions to real world places and endeavors. Certain aspects of the game are arguable, but its script and story are absolutely wonderful.
Before I start to pick things apart, here’s just a few more high notes. The visuals were practically peerless when the game first came out almost four years ago, and they’ll still impress today. Nobody brings a monster to life quite like [character designer Akira] Toriyama does! Battle scenes are consistent with the dungeons you’re exploring in, often going out of their way to reflect precise detail that goes above and beyond most generic battle backdrops. Characters themselves are perhaps the most animated I have ever seen in my 25 years as a Dragon Quest faithful. When the king is mad at your foolhardy best friend, the camera pans as he slowly looks you both in the eye, and strums his fingers impatiently along the side of his chair, tapping and waiting for the prince’s latest excuse.
While the music isn’t fully orchestrated here in the West, it’s definitely a few steps up in quality from the PlayStation MIDIs of the year 2000. Its arranged expertly enough to fool an untrained ear, at times. The level of care and attention I've seen here far exceeds series standards. Even when the game would test my patience, the ludicrous degree of polish is what kept me pushing forward.
And gosh, does Dragon Quest VII test your patience. Its stubbornness is among its biggest flaws. Here’s an example: One part of my quest took me to an island with a tiny village called Providence. There’s a mountain right outside the village that leads up to a church, and... I must have climbed up and down that mountain five separate times in order to advance the story, and only one of them had the place rid of monsters. The concepts of backtracking or retreading old ground is something Dragon Quest VII takes pride in, for goodness sake. You may think you left the fiery volcano you journeyed down around Hour 15 behind — but you’ll be coming back around to it around Hour 65! Sure... there are new enemies, and a brief bit of a new location inside your retreading... but that aged, stubborn concept is what’s going to make even the most patient RPG fan or Dragon Quest veteran scratch their head.
One bit that is unique to the remake is the act of initiating battles. The PlayStation original featured random battles, where enemies could not be seen. The remake generates enemies you come in contact with to prompt a battle. While this concept worked fine in Dragon Quest IX... the level design in VII has you going down a bunch of tiny corridors where encounters are often impossible to avoid. It’s easy to dodge a big, fat dragon on the world map as you’re going from one town to the next. But that same dragon will probably take up your whole bit of walking space, if you’re packed into a tiny hallway after some treasure. And because the enemies are randomly generated and not set….you could kill a dragon in front of the chest, take about 5 seconds to open it up, and have another dragon spawn right behind you where you just were. It didn’t grate on me too much, but... goodness, is this an example of a time where a balanced random battle system is sometimes superior to an unbalanced enemy encounter system.
Fragments of the Forgotten Past is, at its core, an endurance test. If you can endure the first 90 minutes without a fight... things pick up, and I feel most players will genuinely appreciate where you are & how you got there. If you can endure the more rugged parts the entire 80 hour journey... you’ll probably walk away with a smile on your face, as I feel this world is among the best Dragon Quest as a series has to offer. I've had a blast, and I’m going to push my time with the game beyond what’s required and go explore some post-game dungeons, recruit some monsters, and even create Traveler's Tablets to StreetPass with.
But this isn’t a game where I can say, “Everyone should try this! Everyone will love it!” For all of the above reasons and more, Dragon Quest VII is an incredibly nuanced experience. It’s a great game that’s targeted at a very specific crowd of people — I just happen to be one of those people! If anything I’ve said appeals to you, especially if you’re familiar with how Dragon Quest as a series “works,” I don’t think you’ll regret giving this one a try.
+ Herein lies a spectacular example of world-building as a plot device. The story is told in a series of vignettes that capture a range of emotions.
+ Dragon Quest mechanics are tried and true. If traditional turn-based battles and bosses that test endurance versus a certain gimmick are your cup of tea, you'll fare all right.
+ For being such a long game, there is adequate signposting every step of the way. Easily playable in small bursts.
- The game is stubborn to a fault, often forcing backtracking and dungeon retreading to hammer in the idea of hardship.
- The encounter system does not mesh well with the dungeon design. Small corridors lead to many a forced fight.
- Length could work against the experience here, if you're not patient with some antiquated game mechanics.
Overall Score: 8 (out of 10)
The remake of Dragon Quest VII will test your patience. But if you endure, you'll come away knowing (and probably enjoying) one of the best worlds that Dragon Quest has to offer.
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