Dragon Quest V was released in 1992, marking the debut of the popular series on Nintendo’s 16-bit Super Famicom console. Though its presentation arguably paled in comparison to that of Final Fantasy IV released a year earlier, it nonetheless continued the success of Yuji Horii and his staff at Chunsoft by selling millions of copies just like its four predecessors. It has since been declared by fans and Mr. Horii himself to be the series’ pinnacle due to its unique, forward-looking storytelling and novel monster recruitment mechanic. The latter would go on to revolutionize the industry over the next few years when several creators provided their own take on the concept.
As Chunsoft went on to develop a spinoff series known as Mystery Dungeon, the first installment of which cast a supporting character from Dragon Quest IV in the lead role, Mr. Horii joined a new company known as Heartbeat. Their first product was to be the sixth installment in the Dragon Quest series. Production of this game, entitled Dragon Quest VI: The Illusionary Land, proved to be rather troubled, and its initial release was delayed numerous times. The game was at last formally revealed in 1995 at the trade show Shoshinkai before being released a few weeks later. Owing to the large cartridge ROM used in this installment’s creation, Dragon Quest VI ended up selling for a steep price of 11,970 yen. In no way, shape, or form did this deter the dedicated fanbase, as the game went on to sell over three million copies.
Nintendo Power magazine once insinuated that the game was slated for a Western release in 1996 under the name Dragon Warrior V. However, much like its direct predecessor, it was not to be. The series’ lack of success outside of its native homeland, the fact that accurately translating text in a cartridge ROM already at its maximum storage limit into English was an impossible task, and Enix ceasing activities in North America all meant such an undertaking would almost certainly be unprofitable and therefore not worth the risk. Did their admittedly understandable business decision doom another classic to fall into obscurity in the Western world?
Playing the Game
Dragon Quest VI retains the familiar gameplay of its predecessors. It is a JRPG that encourages players to interact with the environment and characters within the game. Much like Dragon Quest V, this process has been greatly streamlined with the presence of an action button whose function changes to fit the context. Pressing it with no other characters or objects to interact with will cause the protagonist to search the area underneath his feet. Meanwhile, facing the direction of an NPC and pressing the button will cause them to deliver a line of dialogue. You can also bring up the classic field command menu if you’re feeling nostalgic, though it can be handy whenever you want to execute an action to which the button wouldn’t default. If you’re next to an NPC but want to search the ground, you can do that without having to wait for them to move out of the way.
Towns and other settlements are safe havens from the rest of the world, which is swarming with monsters, and each step in a hostile region has a random chance of triggering an encounter.
Battles in Dragon Quest VI operate on a turn-by-turn basis. You input an action for each of your party members, and a round of combat is played out. The agility stat plays a major role in determining the order in which each participant acts. When a random encounter occurs, monsters can appear individually or in a pack. How many of them are in a group is indicated by a number next to their name. Should you target a horde, the party member in question will choose a random monster to attack within that group. Some weapons and abilities can target multiple monsters. Whips can hit every enemy in a horde while explosion spells envelop the entire opposition. These are characteristics to consider when upgrading weapons; your boomerang may not have the sheer power of that new, expensive sword you’re keeping an eye on, but it can hit every monster on the field, significantly expediting combat.
As was the case with older installments, characters learn new techniques upon reaching certain levels. However, there’s a catch – soon after dealing with the game’s first major antagonist, they will cease to gain new abilities. This isn’t an oversight; for vanquishing this foe will unlock a shrine known as Alltrades Abbey. It is here that your characters are offered an array of vocations to choose from. These vocations are similar to the classes from Dragon Quest III, but this time around, the system is used to teach existing characters new skills rather than using it to create new ones from scratch.
Once a character has been assigned a job, their stats will adjust accordingly. Physical attackers typically gain high amounts of strength and resilience while magic users receive higher amounts of wisdom. From here, the character must participate in a select number of battles to increase their proficiency in a vocation by a single rank, which is represented by a star. A vocation will be considered mastered once they have reached an eight-star rank. Fighting weak enemies will prove futile, as each area has a level limit that prevents characters from advancing in their chosen field if they surpass it. Earlier dungeons tend to have lower level limits while later stages don’t have one at all.
When the player gains access to Alltrades Abbey for the first time, they have nine vocations they can assign their characters. More can be unlocked for a character once they master two or three specific classes. These classes are generally superior to the original ones, usually conferring greater bonuses while downplaying the weaknesses of the classes used to form it.
In effect, Alltrades Abbey is similar to the job system famously featured in Final Fantasy III. In 1992, the mechanic made a return in Final Fantasy V wherein it was expanded, allowing for greater levels of customization. As Dragon Quest VI was released a few years later, one could reasonably expect Mr. Horii and the rest of Heartbeat to provide a more advanced take on the concept. Although comparing the two is a bit difficult, I believe the vocation system of Dragon Quest VI is decidedly more simplistic. Final Fantasy V had new action commands with each class as well as passive abilities that provided perpetual benefits to the character who utilized them. In Dragon Quest VI, characters only gain new skills and spells, which are all retained after switching into a new vocation.
Part of what made the job system in Final Fantasy V work was that all of the characters could reasonably be assigned any class. They weren’t blank slates, as their stats had a small degree of variance, but they allowed for a significant degree of customization. This isn’t true with Dragon Quest VI; each party member clearly favors certain professions over others. The character who doesn’t gain MP until they gain more than five levels is never going to be a proficient mage. Meanwhile, the fragile character isn’t going to benefit from the fighter classes when they can’t even equip swords. If each party member is tailor-made for a specific role, a changeable class system comes across as superfluous.
It also doesn’t help that the class system itself is poorly balanced. Theoretically, each job has its own set of strengths and weaknesses that allow them to shine in different situations. Fighters have only one way they can damage opponents while mages gain power exponentially as their repertoire improves. In practice, this game heavily favors fighters over mages. This is because, as a stark contrast to other JRPGs, fighters are capable of striking more than one enemy at once. Not only can they equip weapons capable of doing this naturally, they will also learn skills that allow them to do this at any time without an MP cost. Meanwhile, the only reliable way mages can deal damage is to expend MP, which will drain in a few turns simply keeping up with their hardier allies. By the end of the game, their primary utility is to heal and strengthen their comrades while they do all of the actual fighting.
Despite my criticism of its class system, there are things I like about Dragon Quest VI as well. An improvement over Final Fantasy V would be its larger cast of characters, meaning that you can have access to every second-tier class at the same time. This is easy to set up as long as you know about the prerequisite classes ahead of time – and this information is provided within the game. Your characters can advance ranks and gain EXP even if they don’t participate in battle, cutting down on the tedium level grinding entails.
Furthermore, the protagonist has the ability to recall conversations. All one needs to do is to press a button after interacting with an NPC, and using the ability will replay the dialogue. The more levels the hero gains, the greater his memory becomes. Every time an elaborate hint was provided in previous titles, it often required taking notes on a physical piece of paper. This wasn’t so bad for computer games where one would invariably have a desk to write on, but it didn’t work so well for console titles. This feature is appreciated for trimming down the tedious backtracking in the event that one forgot the clue or the character who dispensed it in the first place.
Perhaps the greatest improvement to the series this game provided concerns its inventory management. Previous installments necessitated players to use a bank to swap items. This often led to instances where one could make it to the end of a dungeon only to be informed they needed an important artifact. Whenever this happened, players needed to exit, go back to the town the item bank was in, get the artifact, and complete the dungeon a second time. Dragon Quest VI introduces the bag, a universal storage space one can use to withdraw and deposit items at any time. Items in the bag can’t be used in combat, but it cuts down on the unnecessary backtracking one must do to complete the game.
All in all, the gameplay retains its signature style, yet it’s far more refined. It’s evident Mr. Horii and his team were starting to take cues from the artists they inspired, and because of that, Dragon Quest VI has a faster pace than its predecessors, which helps in keeping the players captivated.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following section of the review will contain minor unmarked spoilers.
The hero and his companions have made it to a stronghold on a desolate isle. Within this structure lies the Dreadfiend, Murdaw. He and his horde of monsters have been terrorizing the land, and these three brave warriors took it upon themselves to return peace to the world by vanquishing him once and for all. Tragically, when they find themselves face-to-face with the demon, they are absolutely no match for him. Telling his would-be adversaries to lament their failure as lifeless statues for the rest of eternity, he easily strikes them down one by one, and the battle is lost.
The hero of this story wakes up with a cold sweat from a particularly mortifying nightmare. When asked by his concerned sister, he tells her of his dream wherein he and two others unsuccessfully challenged the Dreadfiend, Murdaw. After having collected himself, his sister reminds him that he promised to run an errand for the mayor. Their village is holding its annual Mountain Spirit festival, and he must travel to the town of Haggleton to purchase a handmade crown to commence the celebration.
As he makes it to the town, he learns that the craftsman has been missing for a few days. Traveling to the northwest, the hero discovers the crown maker dangling above a large void. He selflessly pulls the man to safety, but ends up falling into the hole himself. To his amazement, he survives without a scratch, but winds up in a strange world where no one is able to see or hear him. He quickly escapes to his own realm, and for his bravery, the craftsman rewards him with a free crown.
During the festival, the hero receives a mysterious vision with a voice warning him that a great evil is about to take over the world, and he must leave his village to protect it from this fate. The next morning, he bids farewell to his fellow villagers as he makes his way to the Kingdom of Somnia. Little does he know that this quest will forever change his perception of reality.
Although Dragon Quest III cemented the series’ gameplay, Dragon Quest IV marked another significant turning point, for it was when Mr. Horii and his team began to conceive more ambitious scenarios. This evolution becomes apparent when examining every chapter in the series thus far. The series’ first installment featured a basic fantasy plot of a knight killing a dragon to save a princess while the fifth entry centered on a young man’s journey of self-discovery, taking place over the course of eighteen years.
Dragon Quest VI continues the trend by putting a creative spin on a concept that had been a staple of the franchise since the third entry: the alternate world map. Typically, this secondary realm served little purpose until the endgame where it served as the primary antagonist’s dominion, but Dragon Quest VI makes it clear within the first hour that the real world and the titular illusionary land, called the dream world in the official localization, run parallel to each other. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past explored similar themes wherein the relationship between these two realities often became relevant when solving puzzles. In Dragon Quest VI, it doesn’t have much of an impact on the gameplay, but it is nonetheless the basis for a majority of the story’s twists.
The biggest revelation would be that, despite having all of the makings of a demonic overlord, complete with possessing an ominous castle, Murdaw is not the primary antagonist. In fact, he’s defeated before you even unlock the vocation system, which is roughly a fourth of the way through the game. These events reveal that the hero’s dream actually occurred. Murdaw disposed of the three heroes by banishing them to the dream world, causing them to lose their memories. In this realm, they led vastly different lives until one of them was able to find his real-world counterpart turned to stone by Murdaw’s spell. After joining with the statue, his past life was restored – now supplemented with the experiences he gained traveling alongside the protagonist.
This is what distinguishes Dragon Quest VI from its predecessors and, indeed, most JRPGs. The hero’s primary motivation is to remember who he was. There is no shortage of antagonists the hero must face, and he’s informed that a great evil exists early on, yet they’re arguably not the main focus. It’s an interesting change of pace because even if the protagonists have to save the world in the end, what actively drives the plot is a bit more personal.
Even if the premise is creative, it does bear two problems. First and foremost, being only slightly aware of the story’s overarching goal means the plot takes some time to go anywhere. Dragon Quest VI takes thirty to fifty hours to complete depending on how you play, and a game this long needs to be as engaging as possible in order to retain the player’s interest. This isn’t to say it’s boring, but it does occasionally come across as directionless.
Related to this issue is that what to do next isn’t always clear. Once you obtain a ship capable of submerging itself underwater, the world opens up significantly. This design choice was possibly meant to hark back to a similar development in Dragon Quest III, but still doesn’t work. Exploring a giant landmass becomes tedious quickly once you factor in the frequent random encounters. To be fair, Dragon Quest VI does have a richer story than that of the series’ third installment so you do usually have a vague idea of what you’re working towards, but it’s not unreasonable to believe the uninformed player would wander aimlessly for a few hours, fighting monsters which ceased being a threat long ago all the while.
Fortunately, if you’re willing to work past the more tedious portions of the game, you’re rewarded with a creative story with characters who evolve it progresses. Once again, I marvel at Mr. Horii’s ability to give a definable character arc to someone who has no visible dialogue. It doesn’t quite hit the same emotional highs as this game’s direct predecessor, but even during the slower portions, there’s usually just enough intrigue to make curious players want to see things through to the end.
Drawing a Conclusion
Much like the series’ fourth and fifth installments, this game was remade for the Nintendo DS. Its overseas localization in 2011 under the name Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation signified its official debut in those regions. If you’re a fan of JRPGs, this game is every bit of a classic as its contemporaries, and you would do well to try it out when you get the chance. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, this could be a good one to start with. The DS version adds many new features such as the ability to talk with party members outside of battle, but I honestly don’t think you could go wrong with the Super Famicom original either, as it has just enough polish to make it worth playing.
Creating a worthy follow-up to a game as incredible as Dragon Quest V was doubtlessly a daunting task, but I believe that, for the most part, Mr. Horii and his team succeeded. It may not have had the same impact, but I applaud them for continuing to push themselves with each new installment even when they have a devoted fanbase whose members would demonstrably purchase the next entry without question. This level of ambition earned them that following, and it goes a long way in ensuring their works will stand the test of time.
Final Score: 7/10