Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dragon Quest V: Breaking New Ground While Staying the Same

akira toriyama: drawing the same characters over and over again since 1955 This game originally came out in 1992, but since many will be discovering it for the first time in the coming weeks it should be mentioned that HERE BE SPOILERS.

Dragon Quest V is often Dragon Quest as usual. The original presented barely an uptick in graphics and gameplay from its predecessor, and this new remade version reuses exactly the engine and many of the assets from the Dragon Quest IV remake that came out in the US in September, only a few short months ago. One could hardly call that progress in either case. In spite of its under-the-hood similarity to its predecessor, it did bring some new ideas to the table.

Dragon Quest IV and V are interesting because they were both conscious efforts to bend what were already becoming genre conventions. Most JRPGs feature The Hero (you) out on a Mind-Bendingly Dire Quest to save the world from the worst evil it has ever known, normally something with horns and “lord” or “arch” or “grand” or “fiend” somewhere in its name. The first three Dragon Quest games had used that as their basic premise, as have most all Final Fantasy games and others so numerous that naming them all would be pointless. DQIV and V still feature guy-and-band-of-companions save the world stories, but they present them in unconventional ways. IV made use of a “chapter” system – you played out five different chapters, playing the first four as the Hero’s companions to flesh out their backstories, and only in the fifth and last chapter taking control of the Hero and meeting those companions one by one in conventional RPG style. It takes a convention and adjusts it to interesting effect – with the game chopped up into smaller sections, it’s actually more varied and engaging than it would be otherwise.

Dragon Quest V mixes things up in a couple of different ways – the game begins with your father, pacing in the waiting room, waiting for you to be born. When the game hands control to you, you’re now a young boy, travelling the world with your father and going on adventures behind his back. Your dad is soon ambushed and killed before your eyes, and you’re sold into slavery. The second portion of the game sees you, now a young man, escaping from slavery, and meeting different women you can potentially marry – the one you’re supposed to end up with was a childhood friend, and this second part of the game ends with you pacing the room waiting on your children to be born, much as your father did some twenty years before. In the third part of the game, you travel around with your children, who are now the same age as you were when you started the game, and your son is the Legendary Hero born to vanquish evil.

It did things few game stories had done in 1992 – the game introduced themes and motifs, and capitalized on them. It was purposefully cyclical and self-referential, and then toward the end it told you “oh hey, you aren’t the hero.” The gameplay stayed the same, but again, a fresh delivery of an old premise is sometimes all you need to breathe new life into it, and watching your character grow and mature fosters your sense of attachment to him – at the end of the game, you have quite literally been with this person and his family since birth. Most games are content to use flashback and cutscene for this sort of storytelling – few make you play through your childhood before letting you become an adult.

It should also be noted that Dragon Quest V was the first RPG to introduce monster collection and training as a core mechanic. At a certain point in your game, your character starts being able to lure monsters on the field into your party, and once there you could equip them with weapons and armor and level them up just as you would any other character in any other RPG. If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking about Pokemon, which took this idea some years later and used it to build a franchise that has since combined itself inextricably with every aspect of pop culture all over the world. Pokemon ran with it but Dragon Quest started it – few people in America knew about this in 1992 because this game never came out of here, so now I feel like a high schooler who liked a band before it was cool. Monster collection is tacked on to a load of RPGs nowadays, but my franchise did it before yours, dicks.

Though these are points of interest, the same things that make people dislike Dragon Quest are still present here. It isn’t a series that embraces change – you’re still wandering around exploring a big map peppered with nearly-homogenous towns and caves. Random battles still persist. Menu systems mock you with their archaic white-text-on-black-backgrounds. You’ll still have to wrestle with the level grinding. These are unfortunate/fortunate realities, and if you don’t like/like this sort of thing, the game isn’t/is for you.

If you asked me to give this game a score, I’d say “go to IGN and get your Goddamned score from them.” Interesting storytelling or not, you already know whether you’re going to buy this or not. I will say this for it – it’s my favorite Dragon Quest, and I’ve played them all. Any RPG devotees who haven’t played one of these games yet, this is perhaps your best entry point – go for it, and don’t look back.