If there’s one thing I’m really enjoying and finding myself getting nerdily invested in as I play through these early entries in both the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises, it’s being able to see the stark contrast in how each series approached the notion of evolution between its games. Even at this early point in their respective journeys, it feels clear how Final Fantasy wanted to revel in the idea of building in widespread and varied changes from its first game to its second, although of course one thing that came out of that process was that the innovations present in Final Fantasy II were not wholly successful, and the end result was a bit of a mess. Given Dragon Quest’s now well-earned reputation for only glacial change, will Enix’s flagship JRPG franchise make similar mistakes or manage to deliver an improvement on the fantastic original?
Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line
(3DS, Android, GBC [reviewed], iOS, MSX, NES, Super Famicom, Switch, PS4, Wii)
Released Jan 1987 | Developed: Chunsoft | Published: Enix
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 16 hours
As our game begins, we find ourselves in the throne room of a grand castle. Our father, the King, informs us of the terrible evil of a new darkness threatening the land of Lorasia (or Midenhall in later translations): the villainous cleric Hargon. As a descendant of the legendary hero Loto (or Erdrick – once again the text limits of my chosen console to play this on rear their ugly head) we step out, armed and armored, ready to quest again in order to save the world.
…yeah , this doesn’t sound terribly different to the first game so far. Hmm.
I’m being a bit facetious, of course. While Dragon Quest II might start in a similar way to its predecessor, and while its story in the broadest sense might follow some similar motifs or beats, it would be unreasonable to complain too much. After all, the first game’s narrative was just as much a recreation of a set of well-established fantasy tropes, and it used them to tell a fun, familiar story. Dragon Quest II continues in the same tradition, using recognizable fantasy ideas as the foundation of its story and trying to tap into the same sense of cozy familiarity. As I said back in my review of the first game, this is a niche that Dragon Quest fits brilliantly. In terms of expanding from the first game, Dragon Quest II is actually a much bigger and broader experience; while the plot might start the same way, as the prince of Lorasia fights his way across the world, he is quickly joined by two fellow royals – the prince of Cannock and the princess of Moonbrooke – although our cast are almost entirely silent, so there’s little opportunity for any meaningful character development. In general, if you’re after any kind of more in-depth writing, Dragon Quest II is still not likely to fulfill you despite the expanded effort made.
I mentioned just above that Dragon Quest II is a bigger game that its predecessor, but I want to linger on that for a second. I thought the first game was quite a compact experience, but the sequel certainly eschews that in favour of a game world that takes place over multiple continents, with a huge sea to sail and plenty of secrets to find. This means the game winds up as significantly lengthier than the previous entry, starting a grand tradition of games in the franchise getting longer and longer. There’s a similar issue here as in other games we’ve talked about here, such as Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda, in which the limitations of early gaming hardware results in games struggling to convey enough useful information to its players. Therefore, a frustration which arises out of this specifically in Dragon Quest II is that while the NPCs do try and give you what you need to know, often it’s not expansive enough, or obfuscated behind needlessly obtuse hints.
One of the worst examples of this is a quest in which our heroic trio are told of a hoard of treasure dumped at sea as its owner fled from monsters. While you’re given a vague idea of where the treasure is, the only solution is to set sail and manually search every single tile until you find it. Its the sort of thing a modern game would signal with a glow or something but even with the excuse that this is an older game this is still one of those game design choices that never should have made it to the final release. What is particularly unfortunate for Dragon Quest II is that the later stages of the game rely heavily on this brand of scavenger hunt for the plot to progress, and there’s only so far the excuse of it trying to promote exploration goes before it’s confronted by the wall of bad game design.
Of course, exploration can be a big motivator for players that enjoy the hands-off approach many older games adopt, and while I’d love to tell you that Dragon Quest II does that well, I’m afraid that would be a lie. Regrettably, it manages to bugger that up by making the random encounters both more numerous than is comfortable, and much harder than is necessary. Now, Dragon Quest II is a JRPG, and that means it’s going to be a grindy game, but even knowing and accepting that is unlikely to prepare you for the sheer weight of this game’s grind, or the deep disappointment that will come when you experience another total party kill and find yourself having list potentially hours of progress. Because this game tripled your amount of party members from the first game, it seems the developers took that as carte blanche to go wild with pushing the enemy mobs they throw at you. To that end, random encounters typically consist of much larger groups of enemies and they are often very fond of inflicting crippling, debilitating status effects on your party.
This push in power also makes the dungeons you take on into much more of a tiring prospect. While any self-respecting JRPG lover will, I’m sure, revel in dungeon exploration, the same issues that plague Dragon Quest II’s overworld also rear their head here. It doesn’t take too long before you’re trampling through extensive, maze-like, multi floor dungeons, and dealing with the game’s atrocious encounter rate. The need to grind becomes more and more pronounced, but of all the changes this game could have effected from the previous game, it’s a shame that the developers neglected to choose to speed up the pace. II is easily just as sluggish as the first game; it all comes down to a turgid loop of setting out from a town, slowly getting worn down by the constant random battles against huge mobs, and then either having to retreat to a town to heal up or soldiering on and trying not to die. Perhaps the game’s most infamous dungeon, the late-game Road to Rhone/Rendarak is the nadir of the experience, a too-long, too-hard, and too-encounter heavy slog that really drains you as you approach the endgame.
Still, it would be unfair of me to only use this space to complain, it’s just that because Dragon Quest II represents such a grand expansion in many ways from the first game that it makes the flaws stand out all the more. One of the most exciting changes I mentioned earlier is the introduction of a party to share in your adventures. Unlike its competitors over in the Final Fantasy series, our party here consists of three set characters, each with a specific specialty in combat; there’s no class picking or building your own busted setup here. Our noble prince hero is a pure warrior; he can’t learn any spells but he can and will tank shit like a right beefcake before smacking monsters with any sharp or heavy implement he can get. His companions are a little more varied; the princess of Moonbrooke is a mage, able to learn devastating damage-dealing spells, while the prince of Cannock falls between them, able to swing a sword and cast healing magic. This brings a level of tactical consideration to battles that wasn’t present in the first game, and does help mitigate the difficulty a tiny bit, if you can find a rhythm to defeat your enemies.
It’s also a much more open-ended game. While it’s true that the obnoxious encounter rate and frustrating difficulty works against enjoying the exploration fully, I do still think the lengths the developers went to with the inclusion of side content is admirable. If you can decipher the hints the game gives you (or, alternatively, if you can really indulge in exploring the world) you can uncover cool weapons and gear, useful items, and, obviously, previous levels that you’ve ground out. It probably seems a bit quaint – and I suppose it is – but for the time Dragon Quest II feels like it really pushed the boat out.
Ultimately though it’s hard to ignore the main experience to draw from Dragon Quest II is frustration, or possibly tiredness. No matter how into grinding you are, even the most dedicated of JRPG stans might reasonably balk at the sheer necessity of it in the face of the game’s challenge, not to mention the fact that it never seems to get appreciably easier despite the hours put into beating it. I’m loath to let it pass without praising it because it certainly deserves some, not least of all for offering a much grander adventure than its predecessor, and for introducing many elements that will go on to become series staples. However, that praise inevitably ends up in the background, obscured by the slog. While I’m sure the game has its fans, it’s also a notably dated experience that perhaps might best be left to die hard lovers of the series and genre.
3/7 – MEDIOCRE.
A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.