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12 March 2017 @ 01:07 pm
Game Review: Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen  
I was one of the Final Fantasy fans that failed to make Dragon Quest popular in the West. I borrowed a friend's copy of Final Fantasy and played it to death, even beating it after weeks of work, but I saw someone playing Dragon Warrior and I just wasn't that interested. Simplistic sprites? Shakespearean English? Dying to magicians when he tried to head out to Garinham to buy stronger weapons and armor? No thank you. It wasn't until I went to university that I tried playing Dragon Warrior again, and I thought it was fun enough, persisted to the end, and then left the series behind.

Until I saw that some of the Dragon Quest games had been ported to iOS and I had a two-week-long trip to Japan coming up. I had vague memories of seeing Dragon Warrior IV in Nintendo Power and I'd heard good things about it, so I bought it, downloaded it, and loaded it up during the flight. And while I didn't beat it during the trip--I decided that writing thirty thousand words in daily blogging about it was a better use of my time--I've beaten it now! And it was pretty good!

The operative word here is "try."

The subtitle is Chapters of the Chosen, and it's probably half the game before you actually get to take control of the hero (other than in the brief prelude added in the remakes). There are four other major characters, each with their own quests they have to undertake. Ragnar MacRyan, a captain of the guard who investigates disappearing children. Tsarevna Alena, who seeks excitement outside the walls of the palace her father has confined her to. Torneko Taloon, a shop assistant who wants to strike it rich and own his own store. And Maya and Meena, the dancer/fortune-teller pair of sisters who seek to avenge their father's death at the hands of his renegade apprentice. Each one has their own chapter with a short goal they have to accomplish, and all the time they hear the stories of the rumored resurrection of the Lord of the Underworld, which can only be stopped by the Legendary Hero, and the monster's plan to find and stop the Hero before they can attain their full power.

No prize for figuring out who the Legendary Hero is.  photo 58-2nsylaw.gif

I really liked the structure here. It's a good setup for the second half of the game, since by the time you take control of the Legendary Hero you've already spent time with everyone else who will join the party and can look forward to when they appear, but each of the individual chapters is interesting too. They're a few hours long, providing just enough time to get to know the focus character without overstaying their welcome. The only chapter that I felt was too long was Alena's, which involves escaping from her castle, fighting a monster at a nearby village, entering a tournament to try to defeat someone named "Psaro the Manslayer" only to have him not show up. Then everyone in her father's castle has vanished. It went on just a bit too long for me, and was the only prequel chapter I didn't beat in a single sitting.

The true measure of a man is the size of his...shop inventory.

On the other hand, Torneko's chapter was a delight to play. Unlike the other characters with chapters focused on them, Torneko is neither physically nor magically powerful. And he's not even a merchant himself, he's just a merchant's apprentice. The start is waking up, going to work, and buying and selling weapons, day after day, over and over, without end. Torneko gets an aisai bentō from his wife each day, and she changes it for a fresh one if he wakes up with it still in his inventory. It was this that finally told me what I needed to do, after probably a week straight of retail work waiting for something to happen. Torneko woke up, took his lunch, and then went out into the field and started fighting monsters.

The goal of the chapter is to earn a ton of money so Torneko can buy his own shop, and everything is in service to that. Torneko doesn't get any companions who join him, but he can hire mercenaries named Laurel and Hardie--Laurence and Scott in the Japanese, which gets at one of the worst parts of the game that I'll talk about later--and the monsters have a greatly-increased chance of dropping items, which he can sell. And later, when he opens his own store, can give to his wife tending the shop and she can sell. It's easy to earn a huge amount of money in a short time, and then use that to get an arbitrarily high amount of money later by carrying forward high-value weapons and armor and selling them as soon as the Legendary Hero finds Torneko and gains access to his inventory again. It was basically a mini-dose of Recettear in a sea of fighting the forces of evil, and it was one of my favorite parts of the game.

Our destiny, after enough XP.

Yūji Horī is on record as saying that one of the design goals for Dragon Quest was to make an RPG that anyone could beat. Unlike Wizardry, one of the inspirations for what became JRPGs, players for Dragon Quest could never die permanently and if they found a battle they couldn't beat, they could just go out, grind monsters for a while and gain a few levels, and then come back and try again. I remembered this when I died during a boss battle and then reappeared at the church I had last saved at and then went out to go grind some more levels before taking on the monster menacing the small town with Alena and her companions.

I've heard that in the original the player only controlled the main character of the chapter and everyone else was CPU controlled. That would have been a nightmare in any battle that required any kind of tactics, and I'm glad that it wasn't followed through here. It's possible to set AI for each character so that those with no spells, like Alena or Ragnar, can just berserker attack every round if there's enough healing from elsewhere. Otherwise, it's a game from 1990, so everyone has FIGHT, MAGIC, and ITEM, and any character differentiation is through whether they know magic or not, what magic they know, what items they can use, and their character stats. Alena has very high Agility and Luck, so it's advantageous to give her the falcon knife earrings so she can attack twice in a row, giving her two chances to crit. Torneko gets a lot of hit points--when I finished the game, he had more HP than the Legendary Hero even though I gave all the HP-boosting items I found to the hero--and he's a jester, occasionally ignoring battle orders and performing actions that can cause status effects or sudden critical hits.

This is why the opening chapters are so integral. They provide the characterization, so when everyone folds into the Legendary Hero's party you're attached to them by virtue of the time already spent with them and they don't just fade away into collections of stats and available equipment slots. It probably would have been more optimal to swap out Torneko for Ragnar or another spellcaster, but I kept him in my party for the entirety of Chapter V because the 99 cautery swords he brought in funded the war effort against Psaro.  photo latest.gif

You don't say. Emoji Kawaii frog photo croaking_frog_emoji_by_kaidahthedragon-dabw3kq.gif

In terms of plot, Dragon Quest IV was pretty basic. Even beyond the localization making it impossible for me to take it seriously, there's no real complication or emotional depth in the story. There is a Lord of the Underworld, fated to be defeated by the Legendary Hero. This is not a secret, since random townspeople talk about the monsters and the Legendary Hero and the prophecy, so it wasn't a case of the protagonist realizing their destiny the way I've heard that Dragon Quest V is. The Legendary Hero's hometown is destroyed, so he (or she, if you prefer) is thrust forth into the world to defeat evil, he gathers the chosen companions, and kills slimes and monsters with silly pun names--platypunk, Venus guytrap, buffalo wing, weartiger, etc.--until he's strong enough to win.

The effective part was the individual chapters and their protagonists, even though they lost some of their depth when I reached the final chapter and everything was folded into the quest to destroy the Lord of the Underworld. There's a "talk to party" button with location-based responses that provides some connection to the party, but mostly it's used to help figure out where to go next. I ended up using a walkthrough several times while I played the game it was mostly to remember where I was going and what I was doing, since I played over the course of nine months. If I had played straight through, over the summer vacation or after finishing homework while I was ten years old like the game was clearly originally designed to be played, I doubt I would have had those problems. Most of them were pointers to events in previous chapters that I remembered as soon as I looked them up but had forgotten in the intervening time.  photo shrug2.gif

So the story wasn't a huge draw, and the gameplay was pretty simplistic. But because of that, it was the perfect game to play on an international flight, or while i was cuddling on the couch with softlykarou while we watched a YouTuber playing video games. It didn't change my life, but it was fun.

"Balzack" is really "Baalzack."  photo emot-stare.gif

I was a bit leery of playing a complicated RPG on iOS. I've played full iOS games before, but only platformers like Tiny Dangerous Dungeons--probably the worst genre to play on touchscreen controls, as it turns out. After managing that, Dragon Quest IV wasn't a problem at all. The interface is well-suited for a touchscreen and since combat is simplistic with no options beyond the standard old-school JRPG menu, there's no complexity to get in the way. Occasionally the movement was a bit oversensitive and once I fell into a pit, but it took me thirty seconds to get back to where I was. It was never a big deal.

And one benefit is the art, though with a slight downside. The backgrounds are all in the Nintendo handheld-style 3D and the view is at ¾ above, presumably to allow for rotation of the levels so that the designers could put doors and chests behind other objects. This extends to the background art during battles too, which does accurately represent the area where the battles take place.

But the pixel art is gorgeous. There are some examples of in the screenshots I've included in so far, but even that doesn't really get into how great it looks in motion. The fluidity of the sprites as they bounce up and down in battle readiness, the attack animations like the tree-stump enemies growing leaves as they attack or the way that Psaro's flesh burbled as he mutated in the boss battle or the dragons flapping their wings...it looks amazing. It really makes me wish that they had done the rest of the art in that style rather than the generic 3D art. The border between the two is more jarring than if either had been used for the entirety of the game.

Settle down there, old man.

I'm much less impressed with the localization, though. I mentioned above that two characters were named "Laurel and Hardie" to throw in a joke where the original Japanese didn't have one, and this seems to have been the localizer's approach to everything. Different countries have over-exaggerated accents to distinguish them from each other. Names are changed just to make extremely bad puns, like the hilarious jokester Tom Foolery (originally "Panon"), the town of former pirates named Dunplundrin (originally "Seaside Town"), El Forado the hidden village of the elves (originally "Elfville"), Laissez Fayre the theatre town (originally "Monbabara"), Archie O'Tect, who builds a bridge, and Archie O'Logist, who's in the town that springs up thanks to the Legendary Hero's actions to search for remnants of the old town there...

I hated all of this. I understand that localization is an art and that the nuances of trying to convey the spirit as well as the meaning of the original text might require changing what it says in order to best accomplish that, but that's not what's going on here. Especially with the only game I played previously being Dragon Warrior, so I'm used to But Thou Must-style language. Coming from that to puns everywhere and people speaking like a middle school drama club who don't understand the value of subtlety just made me grind my teeth. This is the kind of thing that makes me understand why people are up in arms about localization changes.  photo emot-objection.gif

I suppose if it really bothers me, I should play in Japanese. Unlike a lot of Western fans, I could actually do that.

Nobody here but us slimes.

I didn't have any nostalgic memories of Dragon WarriorQuest going in, and I was worried that it wouldn't help me smooth over the difficulties inherent in the game the way that my memories of playing, say, Jill of the Jungle helped smooth over its DOS platformer eccentricities. I certainly can't see what it is that got hundreds of Japanese schoolkids arrested for truancy for skipping school to buy the new ドラクエ game as soon as it hit the shelves. But as I said above, it was fun, and when I was about halfway through I went out and bought DQV so I can play that as well. The simplicity and charm is perfect for a game that I'm going to play sitting on the couch while watching something else, on the train, or while lying in bed.

First, though, I suppose I should finish Chapter 6. I've still got plenty of couch time available to play.
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
Current Music: Dragon Warrior I - Hail to the Throne (Tyler Heath OC ReMix)