Reviews// Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past

Posted 22 Sep 2016 16:19 by
I have something of a love/hate relationship with Japanese RPGs. I love the idea of the epic stories, building a team, customising them and exploring a new world. However, I often hate the gameplay loop of interminable grinding to make my character's numbers go up enough so that they can be victorious against larger enemies. It is this mechanic that always killed JRPGs for me. It felt artificial, and frankly rather dull.

Fortunately, over the years there have been considerable improvements as developers have begun, to a degree, to move away from turn-based grinding. Dragon Quest VII, a remake of the PlayStation game released in 2001, eschews some of these innovations, sticking rigidly to the formula that has made the series incredibly popular, at least in Japan. The lack of innovation in gameplay systems, which remain largely the same in this release, feel rather irrelevant when the rest of the game is taken into consideration.

Visually, the game is functional, rather than impressive, although compared with the original PlayStation release there are considerable improvements. Characters are rendered in full 3D and although the models are rather basic it certainly adds to feelings of immersion in the world, as does the excellent musical score that thoroughly burrowed itself into my head. And that's what I want from an RPG, the feeling that I am engaging in a living, breathing world, where my interactions with characters have meaning, but it still feels as if the world will continue to exist without me.

Dragon Quest VII largely delivers on this premise, with some important caveats. For example, the game fails to take advantage of the New 3DS' hardware. Being able to use the second stick to control the camera would have been most welcome.

The sheer size of Dragon Quest VII is infamous. Estimates for how long it would take a player to reach the conclusion range from one hundred to two hundred hours. Strangely, the start of the game does not give the impression that it will require such a time commitment.

The game begins in the small fishing village of Estard. The player's character is the son of the best fisherman in the village who longs to follow in his father's footsteps and explore the ocean. The island upon which Estard is located appears to be alone in the world as there are no other continents. Rumours abound that there used to be other continents, but that in the distant past they strangely disappeared. There appears to be an element of truth to these theories when the player's father brings back a piece of an old map from a fishing expedition. This triggers the start of the quest as the player's character teams up with Prince Kiefer and the daughter of the mayor of Estard, Maribel, to find out what happened to the missing islands, the clue being in the subtitle of the game's name.

Unlike other games in the Dragon Quest series, Fragments of a Forgotten Past, initially feels rather linear. Because of the way in which the story is related the player is not able to immediately start exploring a vast open world. Instead it is unlocked a piece at a time and gradually becomes more open. Fortunately, the story moves along at a fairly fast pace, although by the ten hour mark I was beginning to wonder how it would be possible for the game to stretch significantly beyond thirty hours.

Then I began to get involved in some of the side quests. In Dragon Quest VII, these do not feel like traditional side quests, they feel like an integral part to the story as they flesh out the game world, adding depth to the characters and connections between party members. However, sadly this depth does not really extend to the other non-playable characters who generally appear rather two dimensional. It quickly becomes clear that although it would probably be possible to rush through the game to finish in considerably less time, this would be missing the point. The player's engagement with the wider world is what makes Dragon Quest VII interesting and fortunately it is so well integrated with the main story that it never feels like a diversion, but part of a wider narrative.

Although the mission and exploration structure of the game differ slightly to other entries in the series, game mechanics follow the familiar class system, whereby characters in the player's party can specialise in a specific type of class, for example Thief or Fighter. Once a class has been mastered it is sometimes possible to unlock more advanced classes with corresponding skills.

Naturally, it is best to try and create a balanced party so that any encounter can be effectively dealt with, however I sometimes find my patience wearing thin with this type of system. It still feels too reliant on number crunching, rather than skill. However, I would concede that creating an effective party is also a skill, although sadly one at which I do not excel. Another aspect of traditional JRPGs that I have always rather disliked was the inclusion of 'random battles.' I still distinctly remember dreading hearing the disc spinning up in my Dreamcast as yet another random encounter began in Skies of Arcadia.

Fortunately, Dragon Quest VII mitigates this slightly as enemies are visible on screen and are largely avoidable if the player wishes. Although these random battles are necessary for increasing the power of a player's group, the fact that they at least feel optional is most welcome and removes a lot of the stress of traversing maps. However, the grind, required by most traditional JRPGs, is still present and still feels like a way in which to artificially extend the length of the game.

However, one of the aspects that I found the most welcoming about Fragments of a Forgotten Past was how forgiving the game feels. Certainly it is still challenging, but it does not feel unfair, just extremely well-balanced and streamlined. Dialogue in particular never feels leaden, indeed the more recent entries in the Mario and Luigi series could do with following Dragon Quest's example.

Fragments of a Forgotten Past is a time-consuming but highly rewarding game that manages to successfully tread the fine line between celebrating what worked in the past and improving aspects that now appear dated. Although the game does feel rather formulaic, the world that slowly unfolds was enough to keep me interested.

Dragon Quest VIII has been scheduled for release some time in 2017, if anything that feels too soon considering the amount of content available in this entry to the series. Dragon Quest VII is not for everyone, the size of the game is rather overwhelming and the way it sticks so rigidly to traditional aspects of JRPG design can be off-putting. However, if time is not a problem then Fragments of a Forgotten Past is absolutely worth a look.

Pros:
+ An absolutely vast adventure.
+ Engaging characters.
+ Well developed world.

Cons:
- An absolutely vast adventure, almost too much content.
- JRPG traditions are still rather grating.
- Fails to take advantage of control improvements with the New 3DS.

SPOnG Score: 8/10

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