Friday, August 07, 2009

Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride

Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride
RPG - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 Saves
1 player / WLAN Knick-Knack Exchange

Dragon Quest IV-VI make up a trilogy, but the starting point of V occurs a bit in the future compared to the events of IV. The games are tied by having the same worldview and history, rather than an immediate continuity. As the first DQ I've played since the first NES game, Chapters of the Chosen was a pleasant surprise. The actual game was solid, with meaningful battle choices, a healthy dose of exploration, a pleasant story, and charming interactions with townsfolk. I was worried that Hand of the Heavenly Bride would be too similar to enjoy, but were my suspicions unfounded?

As expected, when I first started playing DQV, it was a bit disappointing. It's not that the game was bad, but since DQIV did such a good job of everything already, V seemed completely unnecessary. The story is a bit different, focusing on the adventures of one particular person rather than a variety of heroes. This is handled in a different way than most RPGs, because the main hero is completely central, and will diverge paths from other characters he partners with. So the premise is fresh, and is entertaining in its own right. Other than that though, the games are remarkably similar. The only gameplay difference from DQIV -> V is the addition of the ability to recruit monsters and have them as party members. The spells you can choose and even most of the equipment is carry-over, so I was completely convinced that V was the same as IV.

As I played on, it finally hit me. V isn't the same as IV at all. In fact, there are a few areas where V is clearly -worse- than IV.

Most people seem to notice instantly that the musical composition isn't as good as its predecessor. The tunes are less memorable and aren't interesting enough to listen to apart from the game.

Worse than that is that poor continuity in the story. One of the major things in the game is that you have a choice of a marriage partner. Depending on who you marry, I presume people will talk to you differently and events will play out according to your choice, which is quite nifty and helps you feel like you're a part of the game world. What isn't as cool are the huge gaps in dialog-logic, like when my wife goes missing for years on end, and her family never even talks to me about that? It's those gaps that really ruin the otherwise convincing situations these characters are in.

Worser still are the design decisions that handicap the gameplay. One thing that I loved about DQIV DS, and Grandia for that matter, is that you're able to rotate the camera and designers will hide things so that they're only visible from certain angles. In DQIV, some of the mini-medals and other objects were obscured in the default view, but rotating the camera can reveal their presence. The rotating camera felt integrated into the game. Not so with DQV. You can rotate, but there's no point to it all. To be fair, there are some doors and ladders that can only be seen if you rotate the camera, but other than the 2-3x in the game where that occurs, the rotation feature is simply tacked-on. Because of that, I felt as if the exploration of dungeons and towns was far less interesting.

Also the ability to recruit monsters is completely mangled by its sloppy execution. First of all, it has the same problem as other monster-recruiting RPGs. You get a monster, and you have no idea if that monster is actually any good. Just like regular characters, they will gain spells and skills at certain levels. So maybe a monster sucks at low level, but at a certain point, they acquire this one awesome spell. But how do you know? You don't. So you end up grinding that monster and possibly maxing them out to see just how useful/useless they really are. You might level a char up to 30 and find out you've wasted all your time, since their final stats are weak and they lack good abilities. I fail to see how this adds any enjoyment.

Second, the interface to manage your party is clunky. You can only carry 8 characters with you (and use 4 in battle). So you can have your main hero, and 7 monsters if you'd like. Or 5 characters and 3 monsters. Or whatever combination of people/monsters you want. Only problem is... you can only change people in one town in the game. Monsters are similar, although there are about 3 locations in the game where you can swap them in and out. Unless you go to these specific locations, you are stuck with your current cast, and the other characters left behind will not gain any experience.

Finally, the funniest part of all is how you recruit monsters in the first place. It's essentially random! Whereas in SMT games an enemy might talk with you and your response might convince them to join you or in Pokemon, you beat down on an enemy and then toss a pokeball to capture them, here in DQV, you don't do anything. You simply kill enemies and maybe 1 out of 200 enemies you kill might randomly join your party. I've never seen anything so stupid.

Dragon Quest V confirmed my doubts about the series being able to sustain my interest. While I do respect the balanced core gameplay and the lively towns, DQV does nothing to improve on what DQIV already did. In some cases, the design decisions make it a bit worse. I will likely pick up VI just to finish off the trilogy, but I am absolutely convinced that if I never play another DQ ever again, I wouldn't be missing out.