Saturday, November 13, 2021

Dragon Quest (Nintendo Switch)

 Dragon Quest I Akira Toriyama Art

Remember Thou Art Mortal

Back when my family owned a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), we had also gotten a subscription to the Nintendo Power magazine and with it a free copy of the game Dragon Warrior, of whose Japanese origin I was unaware, being a naïve young gamer, although it would definitely remain in my memory my first JRPG that I played to completion, when I was unfamiliar with the roleplaying game genre, and I wouldn’t discover its contemporaries such as the original Final Fantasy until later in my life. Decades later, I purchased the Nintendo Switch version of Dragon Quest, its true Japanese name that got changed in North America for early copyright reasons, for a meager price, and played it to completion again. Does it stand the test of time?

Much like the original Dragon Warrior, its latest version on the Switch follows a descendant of the legendary hero Erdrick, who brought light to the world of Alefgard once upon a time. Sometime before the game begins, the evil Dragonlord has kidnapped Princess Gwaelin of Tantegel, intending for her to become his wife, and the king tasks the protagonist with rescuing her and vanquishing the villain in his lair, which will require him to travel Alefgard to acquire special items necessary to create a bridge to the antagonist’s island, not to mention the sword and armor of the land’s ancient savior.

The narrative isn’t particularly spectacular, following the typical damsel-in-distress trope, although the background is good, and what really redeems it is the absolute care given to the translation, which akin to the 8-bit version uses medieval speech including pronouns such as thou, thee, and thyself, not to mention appropriate conjugations for them like “thou art.” Mercifully, the text virtually never descends into ye-olde-butchered territory and is almost completely grammatically-sound even with its medieval speech, although there is occasional vocabulary many Western gamers not completely versed in English won’t understand such as (simper). Regardless, the localization team did a wonderful job.

Much akin to the 8-bit version, the Switch iteration features randomly-encountered turn-based combat with incredibly-straightforward mechanics, putting the protagonist in one-on-one fights with a single enemy. The player chooses a command for Erdrick’s descendant, including attacking the enemy with his equipped weapon, using an MP-consuming magic spell, using a medical herb, or attempting to escape the adversary, which naturally doesn’t always work, especially against more powerful antagonists. Battles naturally end when either the hero exterminates the enemy or the foe completely eradicates the warrior’s HP.

Death doesn’t result in a Game Over and a trip back to the title screen as many RPGs tend to accomplish, but the hero reviving at Tantegel Castle with full HP and MP, and half the gold he was carrying lost, but he can store money in the thousands at the bank in Tantegel Town that survives his defeat, later on largely nullifying the death penalty, and the best obtainable weapon and armor in the game don’t cost money, which ultimately becomes irrelevant late into the game, except to purchase the best shield, medical herbs (which can actually somewhat reduce the player’s need to use healing magic, and the best armor gradually restores health as he walks), magic keys to open locked doors, and a torch or two to illuminate dark areas, also reducing the need to use the Glow spell that eventually wears off, torches never going out despite lighting a lower area.

The hero also obtains magic that can instantly allow him to exit dungeons, and chimera wings or the Zoom spells can return him to Tantegel, but unfortunately don’t allow him to teleport to other visited towns. I did occasionally upgrade my weapon and armor when I banked enough money so that I could survive the harder encounters, and there is admittedly early-game hell, with analysis proving the game to be unwinnable, under any normal circumstances, until the hero reaches Level 17, when he obtains the Midheal spell, with late-game foes such as the final form of the last boss dealing more damage at times than the protagonist can heal without the secondary recovery magic.

I was fortunate enough to beat the final battles my first try and had been a level or two after seventeen, although there admittedly some genuine issues with the mechanics such as the developers at times having worshipped the Random Number God, with foes sometimes taking their turns before the hero, and the game at times randomly choosing who goes first, how much damage he deals and receives, and so on. There are things, however, such as items that permanently increase the hero’s stats, a quicksave available outside Tantegel (where the player can perform hard saves) in case the player needs to break from the game, and Dragon Quest in the end is the kind of game one can definitely “git gud” at.

Despite the quicksave, control is one of the game’s weaker aspects, with things such as the absence of an in-game measure of playtime and maps for dungeons (though the player can bring up a map of the overworld), a lot of dialogue when shopping for equipment and items, and limited inventory with items outside medical herbs and magic keys not stacking (although players can store items at the bank in Tantegel Town). There’s also vague direction on how to advance the game, although talking with NPCs can sometimes give hints at what to do next, and one could sort of consider Dragon Quest to be a semi-open-world game. Regardless, there could have been better interaction with the player.

Inarguably one of Dragon Quest’s strongest aspects outside the translation is the late Koichi Sugiyama’s iconic soundtrack, with superb instrumentation that really enhances things such as the title screen theme, the save screen music that’s actually a variation of the main town theme, the regal Tantegel castle tune, the overworld track, and so on that all have extensions compared to the original 8-bit versions, with no bad music at all. Some of the minor music such as the leveling horns, the organ-laced defeat theme, Princess Gwaelin’s love theme, etcetera, also have a significant degree of memorability. There are rare weak points such as the lack of a change in battle music until the final form of the last boss and dated sound effects, but the game overall is very much pleasant to the ears.

However, the visuals, based on those from the 16-bit remake of Dragon Quest III, are one of the game’s more average aspects. Akira Toriyama’s enemy designs in battle are good, but there are many palette swaps, and they have no animation, fights also strictly first-person. The spritework is decent, with nice effects such as the swaying of the protagonist’s ponytail on his helmet, but new equipment doesn’t alter his appearance, and sprites generally don’t show much emotion. Buildings also have wholly gray-brick rooftops, and there is pixilation aplenty. Overall, the graphics never reach brilliance.

Finally, the first game is fairly short, with my ending playtime surpassing a little over five hours, but more unskilled players may make the ten-hour mark, depending upon how they play, with little lasting appeal after that.

Overall, the original Dragon Quest is a competent if generic Japanese RPG, although it’s actually not a bad entry-level introduction to the JRPG genre, given its straightforward but often challenging mechanics, superb soundtrack, nice backstory, and a great translation with medieval flair. It does have plenty weaknesses such as the fact that it’s unwinnable, under any standard circumstances, until the hero reaches Level 17, a total lack of in-game maps for dungeons, weak direction on how to advance the main game, the average graphics, and the general lack of lasting appeal. Regardless, the monetary and temporal investments aren’t too excessive, and it’s definitely a decent entry-level JRPG.

This review is based on a playthrough of the digital version downloaded to the owner’s Switch.

The Good:
+Nice straightforward mechanics you can “git gud” at.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Good backstory not forced down the player’s throat.
+Excellent medieval dialogue.

The Bad:
-Unwinnable until Level 17.
-No dungeon maps.
-Weak direction on what to do next.
-Average visuals.
-Little lasting appeal.

The Bottom Line:
A competent but largely generic JRPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 7.0/10
Controls: 4.0/10
Story: 5.0/10
Localization: 9.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 2.0/10
Difficulty: Slightly Hard
Playing Time: 5-10 Hours

Overall: 6.0/10

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