JRPG Journey 2021: Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past (Spring Bonus Game)
March’s game: Trials of Mana [“Seiken Densetsu 3”]
April’s games: Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2
I’ve heard it said that the first nine Dragon Quest games form a set of three loose trilogies. I can see why the first three games get grouped together, as each sequel is a clear evolution of the previous title. I don’t currently own IV, V, or VI (as I’m holding out for a potential Switch release), and I’ve been itching to try some of the newer games, so I decided to skip those three for now and instead play the third Dragon Quest trilogy, starting with Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past. Each of these games gets high praise practically everywhere I’ve seen, and it helps that VII, VII, and IX are all available on accessible consoles for relatively cheap (I was able to find each pre-owned for around $20–30 in 2020). I understand, however, that they form a trilogy in a very loose way, only connected by their focus on the Almighty, but I like the symmetry of the idea that there are three trilogies, even if it’s not quite true.
I also understand that these are three of the longest games in the series, and by golly, VII was a beast of a game. I finished the main story in 75 hours and had no desire to complete the two postgame dungeons, as they require extensive amounts of grinding for little reward. That’s OK, though — 75 hours is more than enough for a JRPG, and for this game it was too long, period. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Developed by Heartbeat and published by Enix, first released in 2000 for the PlayStation, and titled Dragon Warrior VII in the West (released in 2001 here as the last Dragon Quest game to have this moniker), Dragon Quest VII—hereafter referred to as “DQVII” or just “VII”—later got a 3DS remake by ArtePiazza in 2013 (2016 in the West), featuring brand new visuals and an updated vocation system, which is the version I played for this review.
As mentioned, Dragon Quest VII is a long game, but that’s not exactly a bad thing. Even 50 hours in, it continued to thrill me with how good it was at subverting expectations and introducing some sort of twist or plot element that I didn’t see coming, practically in every scenario. While Dragon Quest may be the most traditional JRPG series there is, the story vignettes here were anything but, and I enjoyed seeing how practically every character, event, and location tied into another somehow—sometimes not until hours afterward. I could tell the developers spent a lot of time planning this game, and it kept throwing new surprises at me, like getting the final party member around the 50-hour mark. The writing was solid too, as far as JRPGs go. It was often very funny, that’s for sure, and occasionally poignant, but I don’t want to spoil any of that here. To sum up this review: if you like Dragon Quest, you won’t want to miss this game.
The downside of the game’s length is that parts felt like padding, which is unnecessary in an adventure this long. The game is structured as an episodic time traveling tale, with the heroes unlocking an island in the past, taking care of some menace on it, visiting the island again in the present, then repeating with a new island. This is a solid concept, but the main story could have been shortened by a good 10 or 15 hours, by allowing you to Zoom when visiting islands in the past, removing backtracking during story sequences (which is occasionally done with a black screen skip, but not often enough), or providing better hinting at where to go next. And I don’t mean holding your hand—the problem is that DQVII often leaves your next step too vague. Due to the game’s structure, you’ll know that you usually need to do something on the current island to progress, but it grows tedious talking to every person in each town just to trigger the next plot point. While the game does provide hints, sometimes they’re buried in dialogue that’s easy to miss, or they’re only given in a vague way, such as one character mentioning a personality trait of another character that ties into the plot in a way that isn’t always clear. Furthermore, sometimes I thought I knew exactly who to talk to next, only to trek there and find I had missed a minor conversation with a secondary character that was required to advance the plot first. After around 50 hours, I resorted to using a guide just to get through the game faster, as it was started to test my patience. This, however, might be due to the fact that I finished the game in only a few weeks, often in marathon sessions, which is my own fault. I’d bet that if I had played the game in two-hour chunks over the course of many months, I wouldn’t have noticed these problems as much.
Let’s get back to the positives, though, because there are many. Combat constantly feels fresh due to the vocation system. Unlike in many JRPGs, Dragon Quest always does a good job of making almost every skill and spell viable in most situations, even regular battles (at least in III and VII, the only DQ games I’ve played with a job system). I went with the flow and tried to use every option as I unlocked them, and the creativity always surprised me—perhaps because I’ve only previously played the first three games, though. I used most of the vocations, each for good portions of the game, and it didn’t feel like many went to waste, although I did ignore all of the monster vocations, which let characters become monsters in the game and gain their unique abilities. These are meant as a way to let characters learn useful abilities like multiheal permanently, since abilities learned from advanced vocations are only available while their associated vocation is in use; however, I found the combat too easy to need these, and I felt as though I didn’t have time to spare grinding up more vocations than necessary to reach the ultimate class for each character (Hero, Champion, or Druid). In fact, my final character didn’t even reach his ultimate class in time for the final dungeon, so I spent a bit of time grinding him up, as I wanted to go in with a full team of ultimates—that’s just how I roll. Unlike previous DQ games I’ve played, the final boss was very easy, and I don’t even think I was over-leveled. Oh well.
The enemy variety is interesting and varied as all heck. Sure, there were lots of re-skins, but new enemy types were introduced constantly, all the way through to the endgame. I never got tired of what I was fighting, which is also true for previous DQ games I’ve played. Strong, fun enemy designs—with often clever, punny names—seem to be a staple of the series. In fact, I think this game may have the highest amount of unique monster designs of any JRPG I’ve played. Also, the sheer amount of items is impressive. There’s so much variety in gear and weapons, as well as creative one-off items and items with limited but clever uses.
One minor gripe I’ve got is how repetitive the game’s structure is, especially with how often you have to revisit areas, but again, I recognize I’m playing this game all at once instead of spreading it out over months. If I were a kid and only had this game, I doubt I’d complain about this. The game provides immense value for the money and also does a good job of throwing in new twists to this structure to keep it relatively fresh. I’ve avoided talking about the story much so far, which is intentional. It’s good, but not exceptional, and the vignette nature for most of the game means there’s not a central story to discuss in any significant detail. By the end, it’s more or less the standard JRPG “kill the great evil” trope that you’d likely expect.
Another complaint I’ve got is with the character models. There’s nowhere near enough variation. It’s bizarre how few there are and how often they’re reused, in fact. There’s a “tough guy” model with a Mad Max/fetish leather outfit that seems out of place almost every time it’s used, especially because this seems to be the standard model for most men. You get a lady doing the dishes complaining about her lazy husband, and he’s wearing THAT? It’s strange how it’s used so often. And in general, I would have appreciated at least some recoloring or minor tweaks for most of the models. This is the most disappointing part of the game. If it were a 30 hour adventure, it might be fine, but after that I grew fatigued by seeing the same small set of character designs over and over. It seems like the developers put plenty love into the visuals otherwise, so this is puzzling.
The music is great, filled with catchy, instant classic DQ tunes that sound especially enticing with headphones, but there’s not enough of it for a game of this length. It grew tiresome hearing the same songs over and over in every scenario, and new tracks become more and more rare as I progressed. There were some, even late in the game, but not enough considering the total runtime. Even just two or three more reoccurring tracks would have been a blessing. And I wish the battle theme had changed once or twice throughout the adventure. It’s a fine song, but not good enough to last for 30, let alone 70+ hours. After clearing several scenarios, I started to mute the audio and listen to podcasts or other music, except during story scenes. That’s a shame.
I want to end on a high note, though, because I do love this game: the visuals are fantastic on 3DS. I’ve seen screenshots of the PS1 version, and I can say with certainty that I’m glad I didn’t play that one. I’d go so far as to call it downright ugly, to be honest. The cel-shaded characters of the 3DS version, and the artwork overall, were beautiful. I rarely experienced any frame rate dips, and playing with the 3D effect on provided an even better experience — seeing enemies pop off the screen never got old. I loved how pronounced the effect is on damage numbers and spell effects. It’s a rare case of the often-maligned Nintendo system being put to its full use. As a heads up, though, when I play Dragon Quest VIII later this year (no, not next month—I need a break from DQ for now), I’ll be playing the original PS2 release.
In the mean time, I’ll see you at the end of April, when I’ll discuss Final Fantasy XIII, a game for which I’ve heard both heaping praise and woeful scorn. This should be an interesting one.