The original Dragon Warrior – the old US name for Dragon Quest – was the first RPG I ever played and finished, at the tender age of four. While it may not be the main compelling reason that I got into the genre (That would be Final Fantasy 2 on the SNES), it’s anyone’s guess as to why I’ve never been interested in looking at the rest of the series. Sure, I played about halfway through Dragon Warrior 7 (which is actually a good 60 hours of gameplay, mind you), and I played a demo of Dragon Quest 8. But, what about 2-6?
I’d always heard that Dragon Warrior 4 was the best of the series, so when it got re-released here as Dragon Quest 4: Chapters of the Chosen, I decided to take the plunge and try it out finally. I have to say, it’s a very antiquated game; but, I still enjoyed it pretty thoroughly.
Dragon Quest 4, as stated, is a remake of a game that’s about sixteen years old. As such, a fair amount of things have changed. Some are obvious cosmetic things, such as there being 3D backgrounds and more detailed characters and environments. Others are quite grandiose, such as the Quicksave option, or the ability to control other characters manually in battle. Apparently, in Dragon Warrior 4, once you started playing as the main character, the remaining characters operated on AI, leaving you at their mercy. I could see this being annoying, but it has changed since then, thankfully.
“Wait. Did you just say ‘once you start playing as the main character?’” Dragon Quest 4 doesn’t start you out playing as the hero of the story; instead, you play from the perspective of other characters, following their own personal pursuits. They all find out one way or another that they are destined to meet with a Legendary Hero and aid him on his quest to save the world, and their chapters end as soon as you guide them through their short adventures. Eventually, you take the role of the nameless hero of the story (I named him Four – an idea I got from playing the Dragon Quest 8 demo which named its main character Eight).
Four’s village is wrecked by monsters who come to kill him, but his fellow villagers allow him the chance to escape with his life. He learns shortly before his departure that his destiny is to meet up with seven others, and stop the evil Psaro from destroying all humankind. It’s generic, and antiquated to boot; just like most older games, you have to take the initiative to find out where to go/what to do next in almost every case.
The gameplay isn’t much different in that regard. The game uses random, turn-based battles for its combat. You choose between a physical attack, magic spell, item, or defending yourself in each turn until the fight is over. The only neat gimmick of Dragon Quest 4 is that, after getting all eight main characters together, you can switch characters in and out of the battle between turns, so long as you’re on the world map. In fact, if all of your characters in the main party fall in battle, the remaining four characters will enter the battle in place of your fallen characters. Beyond that, DQ4′s combat is vanilla turn-based RPG.
So, the story and gameplay are anachronistic. I don’t mean to say that this is bad, though. A lot of games try – and fail miserably – to do what DQ4 does, especially in regards to turn-based combat. Most RPGs with old-school combat try to make their combat too cinematic, and it takes way too long as a result. To add insult to injury, these games usually don’t require you to think too hard – I beat many bosses in Golden Sun, for example, by just mashing the attack button and never healing, without anyone dying.
What helps Dragon Quest 4 stand out amongst other games of its ilk is that it cuts out all the unnecessary fat. The combat goes incredibly fast, because there isn’t much to look at; it’s almost like playing a text-based RPG with a pretty picture in front of your face. Also, the bosses can be really gnarly if you don’t think about what characters you use, and even the random battles near the end of the game will cause you to think a about using a strategy besides ‘mash the fight button’ if you want to get through the dungeon with any MP left for your casters (because they’d be healing a lot, otherwise).
The game also makes very good use of all eight characters, making none of them completely useless. Even though there’s no new innovations, and the random battles are quite frequent, it never feels bothersome to engage all those countless enemies in combat, because the game never wastes your time. More games should think about trying that out, for a change.
It ain’t perfect, though. In terms of story, you can reach the end without really understanding the intentions of the main villain of the story. It’s understandable to leave certain things for you to find out, as this game does; however, that’s kind of a biggie to leave as a purely optional bit of info.
Something neat about DQ4 is its use of dialects – each different region of the world employs a different accent for its inhabitants. This is a cool touch, but I have to say that the Russian dialect was terrible; it didn’t remind me much of Russian (The only reason I knew was because they called the King ‘Tsar’), and reminded me a lot more of the really old days of video games, where broken English was ubiquitous in every game you played. I took like 2-3 weeks to finish the section of the game where you have to visit the ‘Russian’ towns because it was so painful for me.
Also, what’s up with having no touch screen functionality? I never imagined I would be bothered so heavily by something like this, but DQ4 is screaming for it! Part of this is because of another one of this game’s big flaws – the necessity for grinding – which would be made nicer if you could just press the screen a few times rather than violently mashing the buttons. I will say, to the game’s credit, grinding was not nearly as imperative as I thought it would be, based on the other minimal DW/DQ experiences I’ve had. Once you start playing as the main character, you’ll hardly ever need to grind again.
Lastly, spells. Would it hurt to come up with better names? Sizz? Fizz? Frizz? Sizzle? Kafrizzle? I was positive I’d learn a spell called Foshizzle, but unfortunately, I must have not leveled up high enough. Also, the spell that brings a character back to life (called Zing); why would they give it such an absurdly low success rate? Expect this to happen at least once: Character dies. You use a healer to cast Zing on the dead character, but it fails. You try over and over again until you run out of MP, forcing you to leave the dungeon and go back to a town. Seriously, if you wanted it to fail that damn bad, just don’t give me the spell! Zing, indeed!
I’d hate to end this on a bad note, because I did like the game, so what else can I say? The graphics are nice – they look at lot like Dragon Warrior 7 on the PSX. This is probably because DW4′s first port was to the PSX, and the DS version is probably based on the previously mentioned port. The music, composed by Koichi Sugiyama, is wonderful as always. DQ4 has always been my favorite soundtrack of the series, and I must say, it’ll be a sad day when Sugiyama is no longer writing music for it.
Dragon Quest is a series that seems to build itself on the principle that less is more, and it’s not too hard to see why they get away with it; they know exactly how to pull it off! However, its best qualities are also its vices, as there are some functions of the series that are too jurassic for me to simply condone. The best thing I can say, however, is that none of these vices are dealbreakers by any stretch. The end result is that Dragon Quest 4 will bring nothing new, but you probably didn’t expect that. It’s a great game because it owns up to what it does. In the recent surge of games presenting themselves as intentionally antiquated experiences, like some sort of Art Noveau pieces, Dragon Quest 4 fits amongst them as a game that turns back the clock and does it right.
The presentation is decidedly old-school, but hardly anyone can do it better than Dragon Quest.
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For better or worse, it's very barebones. However, the streamlined, fast-paced nature of the gameplay, along with the actual need for strategy in combat, completely negates the usual tedium of old-school RPG gameplay.
Beautiful music from series veteran Koichi Sugiyama. What more can be said?
Just short of thirty hours are needed to complete the game. There are quite a few sidequests, however, including a long one in which you learn more about the game's main antagonist.
You won't find anything new or fresh here, but if that's okay with you, this game is wonderful. Throwback RPG developers should take a few cues from the Dragon Quest series.