In 1996, Nintendo launched the Nintendo 64, the successor to their 16-bit Super Famicom. Boasting a superior processing power, it proved instrumental in ushering in a new era of 3D gaming with Super Mario 64 in particular serving as a pioneering title. One year before its release, Nintendo announced a peripheral to their new console: the 64DD (Dynamic Drive). It was conceived to compete with the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation, contemporary consoles which favored the CD-ROM and its large storage capacity over Nintendo’s far more limiting cartridges. Among other things, it would feature a real-time clock, rewritable data storage, and the ability to connect to the internet.
One of the proposed titles for this system was a new chapter in the highly regarded Dragon Quest series. After achieving success with its two Super Famicom installments, releasing the next one on the 64DD would guarantee the sale of millions of units. However, technical issues plagued the 64DD’s development, and it was consequently delayed numerous times. Once its original planned launch in 1996 failed to come to pass, Heartbeat, the company in charge of the game’s creation announced the project would move to the PlayStation. This situation had a precedent, as Nintendo’s insistence on using cartridges cost them much of their third-party support, and series such as Final Fantasy would see their sequels jump to Sony’s console.
Unfortunately for Yuji Horii and Heartbeat, the problems had only just begun. The series’ immense popularity was such that as soon as Heartbeat declared their game would be on the PlayStation, Sony’s stock prices rose significantly in Japan along with Enix’s. Naturally, this placed the team under an immense amount of pressure. How could they possibly live up to the immeasurable hype? Because the staff only consisted of thirty-five people, work on the game was extended several times. It was finally released in 2000 under the name Dragon Quest VII: Warriors of Eden. By that time, Sony had launched the PlayStation 2 months prior. This in no way deterred the fans, as it quickly became the best-selling PlayStation game in Japan that year.
Historically, the series didn’t meet with anywhere near the level of success in its native homeland, but Paul Handelman, who was the president of Enix America at the time, expressed confidence in the game, commenting that “…at the end of the day, compelling gameplay is what it’s all about, and Dragon [Quest] VII provides just that.” As the previous two installments didn’t see a release overseas by that point, those who enjoyed the series were doubtlessly confused when this new entry was unveiled as Dragon Warrior VII. Despite having to translate a monumental amount of text, the translators soldiered on, and it saw its North American release in 2001. By this point, Microsoft had entered the console market with their Xbox console, the PlayStation 2 had been out for a year, and the Nintendo GameCube was a month way from its debut. Does Dragon Quest VII manage to end gaming’s fifth console generation on a high note?
Playing the GameIn spite of the upgrade in visuals, Dragon Quest VII deviates very little from the formula firmly established by its predecessors. There is a great emphasis on interacting with the environment and NPCs, which is accomplished either through the classic field command menu or the use of a contextual action button. While traversing hostile regions, you will inevitably trigger a random encounter with a group of monsters.
Anyone who has played a Dragon Quest game in the past will already be familiar with how combat functions. It is a turn-based affair in which a round of combat is played out once you have determined an action for each of your party members. The order in which each participant executes their command is determined by their speed stat. When fighting a horde of monsters, they could appear individually or in a pack. How many monsters reside in a pack is indicated with a number next to their name. This is relevant because weapons and offensive abilities target monsters differently. They either target one monster, an entire group, or every hostile on the field at once. If a monster in a horde is selected, that character will choose a target within the group at random.
Unlike the previous three games, there is no wagon; therefore, in the event that all of your characters fall in combat, there is no backup to save the day. This is because Dragon Quest VII has a much smaller array of playable characters. They instead join and leave according to the whims of the plot, obviating the need to switch them.
Your characters will learn spells and other techniques upon reaching a certain level of experience, but after some time, this stops. Luckily, the expanded vocation system first introduced in Dragon Quest VI makes a return so that they may pick up new skills. It functions in the same way as well; once you have unlocked a temple named Alltrades Abbey, you can confer a vocation onto a character and they will begin to learn abilities associated with that class.
Characters will become more proficient at their job with each battle they fight. Once they’ve fought a certain number of times with that class, they will advance one rank, indicated by a star. Vocations are mastered once they have achieved eight stars. The rate at which characters increase their rank depends on the job itself. Most areas, especially early on, have a cap limiting how much a character can perfect their craft. After ascending past a certain level, encounters no longer count toward raising their rank. From the onset, there are ten classes available. With the right training, more will become available. Second and third-tier classes tend to require more effort to master than ones from the first.
Dragon Quest V was a notable entry in the series for allowing players to recruit monsters into their party. Although that’s not possible in Dragon Quest VII, monsters do play a larger role than simply impeding your progress. Later in the game, an area known as Monster Meadows opens. It’s a secluded area in which monsters can be viewed in their natural habitat.
After speaking with the caretaker, you are given an item that occasionally causes monsters to linger after a battle. You can then tell them about the sanctuary, and they will happily join. Some are easy to persuade while others prove rather stubborn. Which monster will potentially stay behind depends on the last one you defeat.
Moreover, upon achieving victory against certain monsters, there is a random chance that they will drop a heart. By using these artifacts in Alltrades Abbey, your characters will assume that monster’s appearance in battle. These vocations function identically to human ones with the added benefit of granting resistances the longer they’re used. These resistances vary wildly from reducing damage taken from elemental attacks to preventing the character from being afflicted with certain status conditions. Whether or not a monster will drop its heart or if they can be tamed is documented in a bestiary the heroes receive from a village elder.
Early in your adventure, you will discover a person who wishes to build a town. The community will evolve from a backwater village to a bustling city the more people you can convince to move there. Many unique rewards can be obtained through developing this community, so it pays to keep an eye out for potential residents whenever you can.
The gameplay of Dragon Quest VII will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played a JRPG from any of the previous console generations. In fact, it’s easy to dismiss this game as dated considering the visuals and old-school combat system. However, I think this actually works to the game’s favor. Especially among Square titles in the PlayStation era, JRPGs entered an experimental phase by fundamentally changing the way in which battles pan out. These creators deserve credit for wishing to innovate, but because many of these games achieved positive accolades, the average enthusiast could never tell if these ideas worked in practice without trying it out for themselves. In the best of times, they allowed newcomers to embrace a genre they may not have had interest in otherwise. In worst case scenarios, savvy players could easily use these systems to completely destroy any semblance of challenge the game may have presented, rendering it trivial. Because of this, it’s oddly refreshing to play a game made by people who may resort to a formula, yet know their craft inside and out. This isn’t to say Dragon Quest VII is a generic JRPG – far from it.
One of the problems with the vocation system in Dragon Quest VI was how it didn’t complement the idea of having such a large cast of characters. In this installment, you only ever control up to four characters at once, making it much easier to track their progress. There are also now three tiers of vocations to the sixth game’s two, and there is a lot of strategy involved in knowing which class to use in each situation.
It is a bit limited compared to Final Fantasy V, which implemented a similar mechanic, because each character has their own set of equipment, and their stats favor certain jobs over others. For example, the hero can equip swords whether he’s a warrior or a mage. On the other hand, what I like about this is that the characters are generally more flexible than in previous installments. Even spellcasters can inflict decent damage with a physical attack, allowing them to conserve MP for boss fights. I also thought the ability to gain monster forms was a nice touch. I feel it’s a pragmatic method of incorporating the popular monster recruitment mechanic of Dragon Quest V while ensuring the writers don’t end up with more characters than they know what to do with.
Even if it’s simplistic compared to dedicated games within the simulation genre such as SimCity, I liked the town-building sidequest. Similar to the mini medals introduced in Dragon Quest IV, it’s an effective method of getting players to interact with the world that doesn’t actively punish them if they elect to blaze through the story as quickly as possible.
It’s not a flawless experience, though. One of the worst aspects of this game would be the ridiculous amount of backtracking one must do. This isn’t exactly a problem endemic to Dragon Quest VII or JRPGs in general, but it does go too far with it at times. There are several instances in which you clear a dungeon, usually capping it off with a boss fight, only for a later development to necessitate going through it again.
I remember one particularly bad occurrence in which I made it to the end of a tower dungeon only to realize I forgot a key item. A bit later, I needed to climb the tower a third time to advance the plot. Normally, this wouldn’t bear commenting on, but this specific dungeon featured moving platforms that are tricky to navigate. It always makes sense in the context of the narrative why the protagonists must do this, but it fails to add any meaningful content. I can imagine someone who has little tolerance for JRPGs to see this as a deal-breaker. I think the gameplay is ultimately rewarding, but I couldn’t defend it if someone were to hold that viewpoint.
Analyzing the Story
The hero of this story is the son of a prominent fisherman. They live in Pilchard Bay on an island named Estard, which happens to be the only known landmass in the world. He has two friends: Maribel, the mayor’s sharp-tongued daughter, and Kiefer, the rebellious prince of Estard Kingdom. Although they all lead peaceful lives with conflict and war being entirely foreign concepts to them, these three young people sometimes tire of the normality. Maribel was once caught attempting to stow away on a ship commandeered by the hero’s father to see if anything exists beyond the seemingly boundless ocean. Meanwhile, Kiefer and the hero often sneak away from their parents’ watchful eye to build a ship so they themselves can discover new lands.
One day, the hero’s father brought back what appeared to be a fragment of a stone tablet. The three of them had found a dilapidated temple situated in the center of the isle days before. Inside the ancient edifice were many pedestals on which these stone fragments fit perfectly, appearing to form a piece of a map. As soon as they complete the image, they find themselves transported to an unfamiliar land shrouded in darkness.
The nearby village is in dire straits – all of the women have been abducted by monsters, and the town’s hero, Hanlon, is recovering from a critical injury. The protagonists are able to help heal the hero of his wounds and restore peace to the land. Upon their return, they are informed by the townspeople that a new island has been discovered north of Estard. They travel there using their ship and to their surprise, the land resembles the one they left mere moments before. The denizens of this community have a folktale detailing the exploits of a hero from ancient times: Hanlon. The protagonists question the citizens regarding the island’s sudden appearance only to be informed that it has always existed. With this information, they now have a clear goal: to find all of the stone fragments and restore the world to its rightful state.
Starting with the series’ fourth installment, the creators began to experiment with their storytelling. Dragon Quest IV featured a story that unfolds from multiple perspectives, the plot of Dragon Quest V spans multiple generations, and Dragon Quest VI had a dual-world mechanic where actions in one dimension often had an effect on the other. In the face of these drastically different ideas, there was one constant: an overworld to lend a sense of grandeur to the universe while keeping the player’s experience focused on the important locations. The concept of an overworld is so synonymous with JRPGs that the idea of one not existing when the game begins is inconceivable; there aren’t even any random encounters to fight.
One of the most basic tropes in fiction is that the villain makes the plot and the heroes react accordingly. This isn’t quite true in Dragon Quest VII. Certainly, the story revolves around saving the world, but the protagonists don’t really have a vested stake in this endeavor. They could go back to their tranquil lives knowing that in the present, no demons will ever attack their homeland, and yet they choose to undertake this perilous adventure. It’s one of the few stories I can think of in which the heroes’ actions have far more of an impact on the world than that of the villains, and it makes for an interesting change of pace. |Granted, it turns out the game’s primary antagonist sealed all of the islands away in the first place, but the protagonists made the decision to restore them long before they had heard of him.|
The heroes are notable for being markedly more talkative than their counterparts in older installments. More often than not, their precursors would have a few lines upon recruitment before falling silent for the rest of the game save for the odd event in which they’re directly addressed. Here, the cast members have colorful personalities that shine not only when they react to the many bizarre situations, but also with the new “party chat” mechanic. It’s staggering how many incidents result in unique reactions – they even provide commentary for certain pieces of NPC dialogue.
Dragon Quest VII also stands out among its contemporaries in that one could argue it’s not really singular large story as much as it is a compilation of smaller stories within the same universe. It’s creative because seeing these vignettes to their conclusion gradually builds a world in both the literal and figurative sense. |The heroes eventually learn of an ancient battle involving two deities: Orgodemir the Demon Lord and the Almighty. From here, they deduce they need to defeat Orgodemir and revive the Almighty, but despite now having an overarching goal, it still takes a backseat to restoring the damage caused by the conflict until it becomes an immediate issue.|
|The main antagonist himself is interesting in that while he could be summed up as a one-note villain not unlike those of the series’ older installments, he’s still memorable despite not making an appearance until the end of the first disc. This is mainly because he is characterized almost solely through the state in which he left the world. One rather macabre scenario involves a curse he placed on a prosperous nation in which newborn children transform into demons and attack their parents. The heroes had an idea of just how vile he was beforehand, but this act hammers home the extent of his depravity. He’s essentially the Dragon Quest equivalent of Satan, making the Almighty a parallel to God – as in the Abrahamic being. It may not seem like it, but it’s very unusual playing a JRPG from the 32-bit era where God is a force of good. Many contemporaries culminated in a battle against God or a clear pastiche to the point where it became a cliché when mocking the genre. While it’s true He takes a hands-off approach when it comes to saving humanity, it’s clear He has good intentions.|
Now, with all of the good things one can say about the story, it does come with a catch. Specifically, Dragon Quest VII is somewhat notorious for having absolutely glacial pacing. It’s difficult to contest this; you don’t even get into a fight until an hour or so into the game. Moreover, the vocation system that a majority of the gameplay revolves around doesn’t become available until roughly the fifteen-hour mark. You will be stuck with three characters for such a significant length of time, the uninformed player could easily suspect they missed an opportunity to recruit a fourth. Should you have the tenacity to see the credits roll, don’t be surprised if one-hundred hours have elapsed.
I appreciate that the individual scenarios are fleshed out to the point where they could be their own story, but coupled with the sheer amount of backtracking one must do to complete the game, it bogs down the experience to an almost unreasonable degree.
Drawing a Conclusion
It’s not terribly surprising Dragon Quest VII failed to reach the same level of popularity as any of the PlayStation Final Fantasy installments. Ignoring its lack of success in regions outside of Japan, Western gaming fans were still fully embracing the 3D revolution of the mid-nineties. Their zeal for the new direction in which gaming was heading inadvertently caused many quality 2D titles such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to flop during this time. Until the hype died down and they realized they shunned several classics, it wasn’t fashionable to favor a retro motif. It’s a shame Dragon Quest VII hasn’t benefited from this brand of retroactive praise, as I believe it to be an underrated classic.
Having said my piece, I also believe the task of actually recommending Dragon Quest VII to be a tad tricky. The story is equal parts epic and thoughtful, but it only barely makes up for the tedious portions. It was without any shadow of a doubt a game made for JRPG fans. If you love the genre, this game offers a solid experience, and you’ll probably rank it as one of your favorites. If you can’t stand them or even think they’re merely okay, it’s better to look elsewhere. For that matter, this is not a good installment for newcomers seeking to delve into the series.
If you have decided to give this game a shot, don’t try the original PlayStation version; despite the impressive localization efforts, the translation is decidedly stilted. It’s understandable there would be some issues in this regard considering a team of twenty translators and five copyeditors had to sort through over 70,000 pages of text, but the overly literal translation still breaks immersion. Fortunately in 2013, Dragon Quest VII was remade for the 3DS, ironically marking the first time it saw the light of day on a Nintendo console. The low sales of the series made the now-merged Square Enix hesitant to translate it, but thankfully, fan interest renewed the prospects of seeing an official Western debut. They were fully realized when Nintendo themselves stepped in by taking over publishing and translating duties – the plans coming to fruition three years later. This remake is entitled Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past. If you’re at all interested in checking this game out for yourself, this is the definitive version. Random encounters have been largely eschewed; instead, monsters appear on the map, and they will run away if you overpower them, making the obligatory backtracking much more tolerable. Furthermore, the visuals have been improved, characters level up faster, doing away with the need to grind, and a myriad of other minor touches go a long way in cutting down much of the filler present in the original.
It couldn’t have been easy for Mr. Horii and his staff to live up to the lofty expectations of their fans, but I can say with absolute certainty they were able to meet them.
Final Score: 7/10