The True King of JRPGs Part One – Dragon Quest IV-VI on DS Lite

Ah, Dragon Quest. The JRPG series that just refuses to die. The JRPG series that had the audacity to include the word ‘Dragon’ in its title despite featuring almost no actual dragons.

Whereas other JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Pokémon have transformed themselves beyond recognition to appeal to modern audiences and remain relevant, Grandad Dragon Quest sits stubbornly in the corner, chewing his tobacco and sticking faithfully to the old, proper ways.

The Dragon Quest series is almost 35 years old, exactly one year older than Final Fantasy. Yet, in spite of Dragon Quest’s obvious edge in experience and charm, it still pays second fiddle to Final Fantasy even today, selling half as many units in its lifetime and churning out 30% fewer mainline titles.

However, there are no false kings on this website. As the laws of primogeniture dictate, Dragon Quest is older therefore he’s the King, end of discussion.

We’re going on a journey through Dragon Quest’s long and varied history to watch how this most legendary of JRPGs evolved over its lifetime, spanning 11 games, 35 years and 200 real-world hours of my life.

In actuality, I’m only covering 6 of the total 11. The only games not covered here are

  • Dragon Quest I, II and III because they were only released on the NES and the Switch
  • Dragon Quest X because it’s an MMORPG, and we all know how I feel about MMORPGs
  • Dragon Quest XI because that was also only released on the Switch, and honestly, deserves a review all to itself.

I have elected to split this Super Mega Series Review into two halves to make them more digestible. Part One will cover Dragon Quest IV-VI and Part Two will cover Dragon Quest VII-XI.

What is Dragon Quest?

Dragon Quest is a classic JRPG series published by Square Enix. In North America, it was originally released as “Dragon Warrior” due to copywriting issues, until the US release of Dragon Quest VIII in 2005.

For most of Dragon Quest’s history, North American and European releases came many years after they originally debuted in Japan. Dragon Quest VIII in 2006 was the first Dragon Quest ever to be released in Europe – the rest of the PAL region releases were remakes of older Dragon Quest games sometimes more than 15 years after their original Japanese releases. This may have a lot to do with why Dragon Quest is mostly a Japanese cultural phenomenon and failed to penetrate western audiences when compared to Final Fantasy, which started releasing games in the PAL region is early as 1997.

The most unique thing about Dragon Quest is that each and every character was drawn by Akira Toriyama, who also drew the characters for Dragon Ball Z.

Now, let’s get something straight. There are two things that are universally true about all mainline Dragon Quest games:

  1. All Dragon Quest games are grindy. The only difference is that some are slightly more or less grindy than others.
  2. All Dragon Quest games are long. Even the shortest Dragon Quest games are 35 hours long, with the lengthiest taking easily over 100 hours.

So if you’re looking for a short, punchy game to play on a long flight, Dragon Quest is not the franchise for you.

If you’re already a fan of JRPGs wanting to explore more of the genre, or if you’re looking for a meaty, quintessential series to introduce yourself to the world of JRPGs, then I heartily recommend that you proceed.

Dragon Quest IV Chapters of the Chosen

Our adventure starts with Dragon Quest IV Chapters of the Chosen, originally released for the NES/Famicom in 1990 but remade for the DS in 2007. This is the first instalment of the “Zenithian trilogy” of Dragon Quest IV, V and VI, all of which share a nearly identical graphical style and user interface (plus their stories are tied together, albeit in a vague and insubstantial way).

The Zenithian trilogy games all have that classic 90s RPG aesthetic – minimalistic user interface with no quest log or objective markers, limited battle animations and sparse, sometimes cryptic dialogue – and Dragon Quest IV, being the very first of this new generation of Dragon Quest games, is the most basic of them all. Some of the party members feels quite superficial with little of the meaty character development I expect from an RPG, and the game sometimes does a poor job signposting where you’re supposed to go next to advance the story.

Having said that, Dragon Quest IV was a mover-and-shaker upon it’s release – it’s a multi-narrative which, in 1990, was a style that had never been seen before on the NES. You take it in turns to play from the perspective of each of the six main party members and go on a unique adventure with them, after which they all meet up and go through the rest of the story as a single party.

Multi-narrative games are something you either love or hate; personally, I think the way Dragon Quest IV approaches it’s multi-narrative is very strange. Each time you finish one party member’s storyline and move on to the next, the slate is wiped clean – that is to say, you’re back at level 1 with no money and no equipment. You have to level this new party member up, grind monsters for experience and money to buy better equipment – you know, the standard opening act for any JRPG – and then once that party member’s story is finished, it’s back to square one with the next party member. Rinse and repeat six whole times until all the party members have finished their individual questlines; then the real game begins, and you get to actually keep the money, skills and equipment you earn.

I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy playing the introductory opening hour of JRPGs – in fact I find this one of the most pleasurable parts of JRPGs and prefer the early stages of the game to the end-game the majority of the time – but I don’t want to play through it six times in a row. Especially not when I don’t get to keep my money, skills or equipment.

I think the multi-narrative would have worked much better if the each “chapter” was level-scaled – for example, if Alena took players from levels 1-10 and then Meena/Maya took them from 10-20 and so on – but level-scaling as a concept didn’t even exist until 9 years after Dragon Quest IV was released.

Overall, I find Dragon Quest IV’s disjointed multi-narrative to be it’s greatest weakness. Whilst Dragon Quest IV is the shortest and least challenging of all the Zenithian trilogy, it found it very difficult to remain engaged with the story when the first half of the game is spent grinding the same ten levels six times in a row.

Other Dragon Quest fans are smitten with Dragon Quest IV, touting it as one of the golden oldies. As I said, multi-narrative storytelling works for some and not for others.

Dragon Quest V Hand of the Heavenly Bride

Two years after the release of Dragon Quest IV, Dragon Quest V Hand of the Heavenly Bride hits the scene. Similarly to it’s older sibling, it was released in 1992 for the Famicom in Japan then remade for the DS in 2009.

Dragon Quest V is the proverbial middle child of the Zenithian trilogy family, but unlike actual middle children, Dragon Quest V is more confident, capable and grown-up then either of it’s siblings (no-offense to any middle children reading.)

The first thing that sticks out about Dragon Quest V is that it has a fantastic, coherent story and a strong theme that permeates the entire game – the importance of family in our lives. We go on a journey through the tragic and turbulent life of our protagonist who suffers through the loss of his close family, including his father who dies in a futile attempt to protect his only son – an event which is far more significant in the overall narrative than the “actual” story. Something about a demon king taking over the world? I don’t know, I wasn’t listening, I was too busy being emotionally affected by this heart-breaking coming-of-age story. Sniffle.

It’s a journey from boyhood to manhood; a story about a child growing up without a father, trying to make it on his own in a chaotic world, dealing with the loss of his family and, eventually, creating a his own. Dragon Quest V is the only Dragon Quest game that allows you to pick your own wife, have multiple children with her and then fight evil together as an awesome family-foursome.

Dragon Quest V’s story is genuinely heartfelt and uplifting – the best of any Dragon Quest game to date – but that not the only thing it’s got going for it. More generally speaking, the dialogue is much more fluent and engaging than in Dragon Quest IV, the quest directions aren’t quite as cryptic, there is overall improvement in the quality of the battle sprites, attack animations and party AI, but perhaps most notably, it introduces the ability to recruit monsters into your party.

There are 69 species’ of monster that can be recruited into your party once you defeat them in battle. Each species has it’s own strengths, weaknesses and abilities, with some being great healers, others being great physical damage dealers and other being great magical damage dealers. They can also be swapped in to you party mid-battle if your current line-up is defeated, offering a crucial second line of defence. However, they can sometimes feel like place-holders, since the monsters never get any lines of dialogue or play any role in the story.

Overall, Dragon Quest V had me hooked from the moment go and reinforces my view that the Dragon Quest formula works better the fewer protagonists there are. The monster recruitment system greatly reduced the number of human party members, allowing the writers more time to develop solid characters for the humans that are featured.

Dragon Quest VI Realms of Reverie

Three years passed since the release of Dragon Quest V before Dragon Quest VI Realms of Reverie was released for the Famicom in 1995. It boasted crisper graphics and more intricate sprites. It is also the longest of the Zenithian trilogy by a solid 10 hours on average, and boy, did I feel every one of those extra hours.

When it comes to story-telling, hopping straight from Dragon Quest V to Dragon Quest VI was quite a comedown – Dragon Quest VI isn’t nearly as mature or poignant as Dragon Quest V. Whilst the premise is pretty quirky and had great potential – hopping between the real world and the alternate dream world, trying to work out which is which – the day to day story-telling experience consists mostly of a string of weak questlines daisy-chained together; mini-quests designed only to give you more monsters to fight rather than engage you in any way; filler, for lack of a better word.

What Dragon Quest VI does have is a very versatile class system. In previous Dragon Quest games, classes are intrinsic and can’t be altered – a healer character will always be a healer, and a melee character will always be melee. However, in Dragon Quest VI you can change each party member’s class or ‘vocation’ as you see fit. The more you fight as a particular class, the more mastery you will gain in that class. You will learn spells and abilities specific to that class, as well as acquiring buffs and debuffs to certain core traits such as strength or speed.

Eventually, you will gain enough mastery in one or more vocations to access intermediate or advanced vocations, which are much more specialised than the basic 9 beginner vocations. For example, if you master the warrior and martial artist beginner vocations, you will unlock the gladiator intermediate vocation.

The most interesting thing about this class system is that if you were master the warrior vocation then respec to the martial artist vocation, you get to keep your warrior skills, spells and abilities. Therefore, it is not only possible, but it is positively encouraged to switch vocations in order to give your party members a broad range of talents to use in battle.

Of course, the drawback to this class system is that it necessitates a lot of extra grinding. Unfortunately, mastery is not tied to a characters level, it is instead tied to the number of encounters fought as a particular vocation. That means slaughtering a whole lot of slimes to grind those mastery points. A whole lot.

Overall, Dragon Quest VI’s greatest sin is that it fails to stand out. Love it or hate it, Dragon Quest IV was unique for its multi-narrative; Dragon Quest V has an amazing story; Dragon Quest VI has…? It’s hard to say. Apart from the vocations system, which was an innovative feature that obviously worked well enough that it stuck with the series until Dragon Quest X, Dragon Quest VI is hard to pin down. That’s not to say Dragon Quest VI is a bad game, but the bar for quality is set very high for this series. Perhaps too high.

To be continued in Part Two…

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