Welcome back to the second half of this Super Mega Series Review of Dragon Quest IV to Dragon Quest IX. You can find the first half of this review and some background on the Dragon Quest franchise, here.
Dragon Quest VII Fragments of a Forgotten Past
The year 2000 – dawn of a new millennia for us and a new era for the Dragon Quest franchise. With the Zenithian trilogy out of the way, the franchise took a 5 year hiatus before debuting onto the PlayStation for the first time. It was then reincarnated onto the 3DS in 2013, which is the version I’ll be talking about today.
Dragon Quest VII is best known for being one of the longest JRPGs – nay, one of the longest games – of all time. A single playthrough can take upwards of 100 hours; this is the only game in this review I didn’t finish and, honestly, I don’t even feel bad about it.
Its ridiculous length might seem daunting, but Dragon Quest VII’s world design actually lends itself well to a long, drawn-out story. Dragon Quest VII is set in an archipelago-style world; each island is unlocked and explored one-at-a-time and has its own self-contained quest arch. This is a much more forgiving way to experience a content-heavy game like this one because it allows you to play in short bursts and take lengthy breaks in-between completing islands. In other Dragon Quest games, it’s easy to forget where you’re supposed to go or who you’re supposed to talk to if you put the game down for too long. In Dragon Quest VII, you can clear an island, take a break for a few weeks, then pick the game right back up and move on to the next one.
Dragon Quest’s story also revolves around time-travel, which is great because the time travel concepts always work really well in JRPGs (Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy XIII-2, etc.) Everybody loves ‘time shizz’ and that’s just a fact.
All that being said, a stupidly long game is a stupidly long game no matter which way you slice it. Not to mention the fact that the quest arches themselves, as entertaining as they might be, soon start to repeat themselves. After only 10 hours of playing, I had already lifted multiple curses, sealed away more than my fair share of ancient evils and reconciled more star-crossed lovers than I could count.
The biggest problem with Dragon Quest VII’s story isn’t its length – it’s that it lacks a clear direction. Most Dragon Quest games have a “baddie” that you work your way towards defeating – a demon lord, a dark god, an evil mastermind, etc. – but Dragon Quest VII’s final boss is barely ever mentioned until after you’ve cleared all 18 islands, which could take you more than 60 hours alone. 60 hours of grinding through individual quest arcs with no clear goal and no real sense of urgency would test anyone’s patience.
Overall, it’s obvious that the developers of Dragon Quest VII went for quantity over quality here. If you’re already a fan of the Dragon Quest formula and just want as much Dragon Quest as you can get your paws on in cartridge form, then this game will certainly give you your money’s worth of content, but there’s no way I would recommend Dragon Quest VII to new players. The developers certainly did a fantastic job of upscaling the graphics onto the 3DS though – this the second-best looking Dragon Quest game on a handheld console to date (and the first-best if we don’t count Dragon Quest XI as a handheld game).
Dragon Quest VIII Journey of the Cursed King
Dragon Quest’s first and last outing on the PS2 came in the form of Dragon Quest VIII Journey of the Cursed King released in Japan in 2004 and released in Europe 2 years later. It was rereleased on the 3DS after almost 15 years in 2017.
A lot of people rate Dragon Quest VIII as one of the best, if not the best, Dragon Quest game ever made, and I can sympathise with those people if for no other reason than this: the writing and dialogue are without a doubt the best the series has to offer, and the developers had to know it too, since Dragon Quest VIII is one of only two Dragon Quest games to feature fully voice-acted cutscenes. Dragon Quest VIII’s dialogue is so entertaining it’s practically unskippable. It really lets the characters’ personalities to shine through like never before. Our protagonist still doesn’t say a word though… some things will never change.
Dragon Quest VIII’s story is also one of my personal favourites mostly because of how straightforward it is. Dragon Quest VIII seems to have learned from the mistakes of Dragon Quest VII and wastes no time in introducing the villain, giving the narrative greater structure and clipping along at a better pace. Saying the story is straightforward isn’t the same as saying the story is uninteresting; Dragon Quest VIII’s story is actually quite weighty in places, and focuses heavily on mystery and intrigue.
The question most often posed about Dragon Quest VIII isn’t whether you should play it – because that’s an obvious ‘yes’ – but rather how you should play it. The original PS2 version has a lot to recommend it, including an absolutely stunning instrumental soundtrack from the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. Anybody who has played Dragon Quest XI at release and then played the Switch rerelease knows exactly how much of a difference the orchestral soundtrack makes compared to the digitised one. A lot of players report a greater sense of adventure and possibility in the PS2 version, but I suspect a lot of that comes down to the nostalgia a lot of players have for the original.
On the other hand, the 3DS version makes a tonne of quality of life changes that I personally couldn’t do without, including having visible monsters instead of random battles. This gives you the choice of avoiding monsters entirely if you just want to get from A to B, or only targeting a specific type of monster which comes in handy if you’re trying to grind for a certain item for an alchemy recipe. Speaking of alchemy, this is the first Dragon Quest game to include it – it allows you to mix weapons, armour and items together to create new ones – but whilst the PS2 version makes you wait for your alchemy recipes to ‘cook’ (which was tedious as all hell), alchemy is instantaneous in the 3DS version. The 3DS also gives you the option of ‘quick battling’ which speeds up the battle animations. I was so thankful for this one because the animations in the PS2 version were painfully slow, and made grinding even more of a chore than it had to be.
All in all, whilst the debate rages on, I think it’s pretty clear that the 3DS version offers the player greater utility and convenience, even if it is a shame to have to compromise on the quality of the soundtrack. By this point in the franchise’s history, Square Enix are really starting to nail the Dragon Quest formula.
Dragon Quest IX Sentinels of the Starry Sky
Dragon Quest IX was released, aptly, in 2009 exclusively for the DS Lite, and no sooner had it hit the scene, it was breaking the mould. Not only was this the first time a Dragon Quest game had been released on a handheld console, it also shuffled about Dragon Quest’s core identity, giving it a reputation as somewhat of a dark horse.
Dragon Quest IX put the “RP” into RPG, giving the player more control over their adventure than ever before, specifically in relation to your party members. Whereas other Dragon Quest games ask you to make the most of the party members you’re given, Dragon Quest IX allows you to design your party members from scratch. You can create 3 party members for your line-up from a selection of classes that suit your playstyle – for example, I always have my protagonist as a warrior, and my party members as a martial artist, a mage and a priest as that’s the combination that always worked the best for me.
Whilst I absolutely love the control this party customisation gives me, the only downside to this is that your party members are no longer really ‘characters.’ They never speak or appear in any cutscenes, they have no backstory… they feel more like hired bodyguards or maybe indentured servants than companions. Traditionally, interacting with Dragon Quest’s fun and unique party members was an integral part of what made the franchise so charming; some people find its phasing out in Dragon Quest IX to leave a gaping hole that no amount of extra features can fill. Whether or not this bothers you depends entirely on what kind of experience you’re looking for or what kind of experience you’re used to.
If Dragon Quest V’s story is about family, and Dragon Quest VII’s is about playing with time travel, then Dragon Quest IX revolves around life, death and the afterlife. You play as a celestrian – an angel, basically – who fell from the heavens and lost most of your angelic powers, all except the ability to interact with spirits. Most of the game’s quest arcs deal with death so if you’re into that kind of macabre motif, as I am, you’ll find plenty of it here.
Some fans complain that Dragon Quest IX looks like garbage on the DS; whilst it naturally doesn’t compare to the quality we see in the later Dragon Quest remakes on the 3DS, and it is true that the mix of 3D and 2D sprites might be a bit off-putting for some people, by and large I don’t see the problem. On the contrary, I love the fact that you can actually see the weapons and armour you have equipped on your sprites. It might seem like an insignificant thing but it’s one of my favourite parts of the game, because it’s like a visual representation of how much you’ve progressed throughout the game.
I’m prepared to own up to the fact that I have a serious soft spot for Dragon Quest IX – it was the first Dragon Quest game I ever played, and it made a lifelong fan out of me – so I might have overlooked a lot of its flaws. But even when I put my sceptical-cap on and think sceptical thoughts, I still think it’s one of the best entries in the franchise. It’s not too long; it’s not too short; it’s not too difficult; it’s not too easy. It’s also much easier to get hold of than most other titles on this list. All of this makes Dragon Quest IX the best title from which to launch yourself into the Dragon Quest franchise.
Videogames Make Me Happy concludes…
Here we are at the end of the review. Usually these ‘deep-dive’ style lists end with a summary of all the soaring highs and crushing lows of a franchise’s history. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I’m unable to do this for Dragon Quest because of how bloody consistent it is.
The truth is that there’s very little to choose between any of the Dragon Quest games, with no clear highlights but no obvious stinkers either. Times change, genres come and go, but the Dragon Quest formula survives. If you liked the Dragon Quest games of 35 years ago, there’s a good chance you’ll like to Dragon Quest games of today too. Where you choose to start on your journey depends entirely on your taste; every game in this list will offer you an delicious, gourmet JRPG gameplay experience, it’s up to you to decide which particular flavour appeals to you the most.