Most of the discussion around the series these days seems to be a lack of localization. Not only is the newest “mainline” title Dragon Quest X missing in action, but several remakes of classic titles have been forgone. Has Square Enix given up on Dragon Quest in the west? Will Nintendo localize? OMG! Should I start my “localize Dragon Quest XI” fan campaign yet?
Hold up… Toss out that baggage for just a minute…
Here’s an actual Dragon Quest game coming down the pipe.
You might remember Tecmo Koei’s Omega Force – they recently collaborated with Nintendo for the well-received Hyrule Warriors. With the universe of The Legend of Zelda as a backdrop, the game combined the genocidal hack-and-slash of Dynasty Warriors with a roster of fan-favorite characters and settings from up and down the series’ pantheon.
It’s a similar job with Square Enix’s Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Trees Woe and the Blight Below, now available on PlayStation 4. While the combat has a look-and-feel much aligned with Omega Force’s home turf, much has been done to assemble a Dragon Quest-feeling experience.
Sure, the first thing that comes to your mind when I invoke the name of the series probably isn’t a fast-paced action-RPG where you’re offing a gorillion monsters in a single-blow. Most likely you’ve got an image of characters waiting patiently for their turn with bright-eyed monsters and their charming emotes. Maybe that’s doubly so if you’re on this side of the pond and Dragon Quest VIII or installments preceding were your last, if only, foray into this universe.
If you’re the type to indulge a boatload of hack-and-slash, then I think you’ll enjoy what the game serves up. Even if you haven’t touched a Dragon Quest or Dynasty Warriors game, I think Heroes has an appealing inroad for you if you’ve enjoyed a Drakengard or Kingdom Hearts title. Series vets will probably get a kick out of this interpretation too, save for those who cling too close to the vernacular.
“Inward to combat!”
Heroes opens into a cheerful world (segregated from its predecessors) where humans and monsters live side by side as friends. Protagonists Luceus and Aurora are captains of the Royal Guard of Arba, charged with the protection of the city, along with their healslime chum Healix. They are called into service alongside their King, Doric, when a great darkness falls over the land, causing monsterkind to turn against humanity in near-implacable numbers.
Driven from their home, our heroes learn that not only Arba is affected, but the entire world. Crossing paths with the inventress Isla and her airship Stonecloud, they resolve to restore the realm to order by uncovering the forces of light and darkness at play. World-hopping interlopers, which we know as characters from past Dragon Quest titles, bolster their ranks as the campaign continues.
The story here is completely paint-by-numbers and you’ll be able to predict the outcome of events long before they transpire. While Dragon Quest games have usually had simple stories, they’ve thrown players interesting bones here and there. Sadly, it’s about as dull as it gets in Heroes. There’s little intrigue in the setting and the elements that transpire around the cast. You proceed from point A to B and any modicum of peril or plight lacks any gravity.
Perhaps there was a desire to keep things a bit… elemental for such a sidestep in the series, but it could have done with a bit more effort.
That aside, there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
What does make the Heroes campaign enjoyable is the characterization of its (thankfully) non-silent heroes Luceus and Aurora as well as the cast of newcomers and returning characters. Luceus is a know-it-all and Aurora is impulsive, and while there’s little venturing outside of these tropes, their inoffensively-explored foibles are just enough. While it’s hard to say how you’ll feel about the child-like slime-slurping pun-spouting Healix, I’m willing to put myself out there and say it’s adorable. (If you disagree, send me hate mail.)
The original cast feel like personalities leading their own story (as trite as it is), rather than shoved aside when your besties from yesteryear join the team. On the subject of cameos: Alena’s silly, borderline-cartoonish presentation here was a favorite of mine. Characters like Maya, Yangus, and Terry also add an appropriate level of flavor without completely stealing the show.
The game’s villain, Velasco, is the dictionary definition of a moustachioed moustache-twirler, and the game never really uses him other than a roadblock to more important things. Kick him to the curb, and be prepared for another one of those “DARKNESS” fellows. That never gets old, right?
The characterization also owes a large thanks to the localization and voice talent involved, which is a bit of a step up than the usual fare. You’ll probably notice a few voices from this summer’s Final Fantasy XIV Heavensward, which was a marked improvement from its predecessor. I didn’t feel that there were any grating performances, and the varying accents used for the cast was nice – from a English-sheltered American’s point of view at least. Monster minion names also got a few chuckles out of me.
Heroes could have used is a lot more spice when it comes to story, but the characters that inhabit it (sans the villain) are at the very least warm bodies that will at least make you smirk every so often. The idea of a massive population of friendly monsters suddenly turning evil ought to spark something more out of our (altruistic?) heroes than a dime-turn to giddy genocidal urges (another game has had me daydreaming on the subject in video games lately), but you can’t lay too much at Heroes’ feet for doing what you do in Dragon Quest games: fight a fuckton of monsters.
If that’s all you need, you’re good to go.
The start of Dragon Quest Heroes will have you pick and name (if you so choose) one of two playable protagonists: Luceus (male) and Aurora (female). The character you select will be the character you control when you’re not afield on missions. Fear not, whomever you choose, the other will be available as a party member. Later on, the story will focus on your selected protagonist for a time, but don’t fret about missing any story beats. (There’s not much worth missing anyway.)
Heroes is structured in a long string of missions across its campaign, which will usually take you 10 to 20 minutes to complete barring things go south. For the first few hours you’ll make use of camp before boarding the Stonecloud between missions. If your play sessions are typically short, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem here. If they’re long, frequent return trips may put a dent in the momentum.
The airship will be your hub for the rest of the game, and it’s here you can select a destination from the world map, manually save your game, switch out your party members, shop for equipment, undertake quests, synthesize accessories at an alchemist, and so on.
Locations unlock on the world map by progressing through the story or collecting maps. While you’re not able to replay story missions per se, you can unlock encounters with the same foes without the window dressing.
Combat missions, your meat and potatoes, come in a handful of types. Most commonly, you’ll be defending an object or a NPC as waves of enemies make their way to intercept. Others including dispatching all enemies (ad infinitum) or taking on bosses. A bigger variety of objectives would have been welcome, as it all seems to blur together in a long play session. There’s an interesting spark when the game requires you to use Monster Minions in a cool way – but sadly, that’s limited to one short boss encounter.
You’ll control a party of up to four characters including your designated protagonist. Each character has a designated button for a normal combo (ground an air), dodging, blocking, and building tension. Hold the R1 button and you’ll gain access to a handful of magic-based spells and utility skills that use your MP pool.
You have the option of choosing between to control schema: the newb-friendly “Quick” which will let the game choose a context sensitive action with certain timings, and “Slick” which is direct, manual control. Switching between your four playables can be done with L1, and cycling through them is snappy – which is great in the game’s more hectic battles.
Switching up your party members goes quite a ways into alleviating the inevitable drag you’ll feel regarding the simple movesets. Luckily, every character has just a right-feeling fit – all of their attacks feel useful and have weight behind them, even if you end up spamming them to the end of the world and back.
While you have a paltry set of abilities on any one character, switching it up frequently is not only encouraged for your survivability, but maintaining a steady offense – thanks to the Tension system. By charging its meter to full, stringing combos or manually with the circle button, you’ll unlock High Tension status – which will make you invincible for a short period of time. Additionally, you’ll be able to use all of your abilities without MP cost, and can unleash a unique and devastating special move during the elapse of High Tension’s timer.
So effective is High Tension that your offensive strategy will start to build around unleashing it at the most opportune times. Unloading super attacks in the right location is quite satisfying. A legion of tough, annoying mobs blocking your path or harrying your charge melts away in a fury of particle effects – it never gets old.
Waves of monsters often emanate from nodes mawkeepers guard interspersed around the battlefield. It’s from these maws that monsters will flow, so it’s in your best interest to eliminate its respective mawkeeper as soon as possible. Making a judgement call on when to pursue them on escort missions may be the difference between victory and defeat. To this end, you’re aided with the Zoom spell, which will allow the two protagonists to travel between designated nodes on the map. You must unlock these nodes before you can use them, however.
When you defeat monsters, they have a chance of dropping Monster Medals, which will allow you to summon their friendly counterparts to your side. While they fight independently, you can deploy them at strategic locations defend against incoming waves of monsters. Some monster companions will also provide beneficial healing and buffs rather than fight, which can be a godsend when you’re low on resources. It’s quite useful.
Healing options are thin – they come in the form of Healstones which can be imbued with a single, costly healing spell courtesy of the Stonecloud’s priestess. You are also provided with a scant amount of Yggdrasil Leaves to revive fallen comrades – note that you can’t stock up on these at a shop, but must find them on the map (and only on the map) you’re currently playing on.
These elements reign in the player from getting careless on the offense, and there were several times where I bit off more than I could chew. If you do lose all four members in combat, you will retain experience and items earned, but will be sent back to the airship – where you must retry the mission to progress. Thankfully there’s an option to skip cutscenes, and you can re-watch any of them in Patty’s Place aboard the Stonecloud.
Like most Dragon Quest games, defeating monsters will earn your characters experience (any reserve party members also get a trickle) from which they will level up and gain points to spend in a skill tree. While each character (minus the two protagonists’ elemental affinities) has their own tree, there’s little by way of customization and experimentation. You unlock a character’s base moveset, a few secondary abilities, then modifiers to those abilities – the rest are bonuses to your base stats. The idea here isn’t so much what you unlock, but when you unlock it.
Outside of the skill tree, there’s lots of enjoyable finagling and fussing to be had with alchemy. Throughout your travels you’ll amass a collection of ingredients and recipes to take to the Stonecloud’s resident alchemist. With his aid, you can create a ton of accessories that bestow various effects, and upgrade them by crafting and fusing duplicates. Each accessory can hold up to three additional effects, and an element of randomness dictates what effect you’ll get. Fortunately, undesired effects can be overwritten by simply re-fusing the same accessory type. Stacking beneficial effects such as reducing the amount of time your character spends in the “Frozen” or “Sleep” status will come quite handy – as enemies will not hesitate to use them as often as they please and in rapid succession.
A host of sidequests are also available at the Stonecloud, and more unlock throughout the campaign. An Accolades NPC will also reward you with mini-medals for collecting the game’s trophies, as well as taking out a specific amount of monsters afield. Mini-medals can be exchanged for rare recipes, equipment, and ingredients. Straying off the story’s beeline path is not without reward.
When you complete the story, you’ll be able to continue your file after the credits roll, or you may opt to start a New Game Plus mode called “Flying Start” that will retain your experience, equipment, and so on.
Series character artist Akira Toriyama’s designs look great on PlayStation 4, with no apparent signs of dithering or obvious concessions on polygon count in character models. This art style combined with the game’s cross-generation amigo status with PlayStation 3 means that Heroes’ visuals aren’t going to push your next-gen console to exertion. However, consistent 60 frames-per-second gameplay in even the rowdiest encounters is a nice plus. The only downside is some of the cute monster characterization from Dragon Quest’s past 3D turn-based offerings is a tad lost when you’re pounding throngs of them to smithereens.
Environments aren’t the most interesting to look at, and aren’t technically impressive, but retain the series’ alluring, colorful simplicity. Series composer Koichi Sugiyama’s past library of music is the entirety of the Heroes soundtrack, which is great, but it’s a bit disappointing there’s no new tunes to behold here.
Familiar Dragon Quest jingles and chimes are abundant, and do well to give you a pleasant whiff of nostalgia every so often. A curious decision to pipe the game’s voices through the controller with no in-game option to shut it off. You’ll have to mess with the audio output to your controller in your PlayStation 4’s settings to deal with it. A minor annoyance, but worth mentioning.
Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below is an enjoyable game, aside from a few middling stumbles. The story campaign will take you anywhere from 30-40 hours. There’s at least another 20 in it for completionists. Like a lot of games chock full of distractions, everyone’s mileage will vary.
The lackluster story and setting is softly cushioned by endearing characters and their presentation, and series fanservice feels tasteful. Moment to moment combat can be quite thrilling, but longer play sessions may leave you a bit weary. There are plenty of rewarding avenues for those willing to explore the game further through side activities.
The whole package, despite owing much of its DNA to Dynasty Warriors, is carefully tailored to feel something that naturally spawned out of the Dragon Quest series – which is a wonderful feat given how the series has been so rooted to the ground for so long. I’ll be looking forward to what Omega Force can do with the upcoming sequel next year, and perhaps things won’t have to be quite as safe this next time around.
Whether you’re into this game because you need a stepping stone to Dragon Quest XI or you’re completely new to this universe and just want to smack the shit out of hundreds of adorable baddies, Heroes is highly approachable and entertaining.
“Very ok!” – Alena / 10
Disclaimer: A copy of Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below for PlayStation 4 was provided by Square Enix to Nova Crystallis for the purpose of review.
As of this post, Square Enix has announced a sequel: Dragon Quest Heroes II: Futago no Ō to Yogen no Owari (lit.: King of Twins and Ending of Prophecy)” , out some time in 2016 for Japan. For the latest developments on this title, stay tuned to our Dragon Quest series coverage Nova Crystallis.