Do you know, of all the reviews I’ve found tough to write, I don’t think I was ever expecting a Dragon Quest review to be one of them. I mean, I know I’ve enjoyed a lot of these games, so surely articulating my thoughts shouldn’t be a problem? In fact, I really struggled with this review for a while, but I think I figured out why; it’s because Dragon Quest IV is by far the most Dragon Quest-y release in the franchise we’ve yet come across in this jaunt through the series, and if you’re into these games then you most certainly know what that entails. I’ve said it time and time again across these reviews that Dragon Quest has a well-deserved reputation for changing at an extremely slow pace. It prefers to lightly revise and refine its gameplay elements rather than reinvent itself with every new entry, and nowhere has that been more apparent so far than here.
Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen (Android, DS [reviewed], iOS, NES, PS1)
Released Feb 1990 | Developed: Chunsoft | Published: Enix
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 27 hours
The game’s primary gimmick is given away in the subtitle. As it implies, the game is presented in chapters, with each one following a different group of heroes who are destined to come together to the aid of our protagonist. They each embark on their own quests with their own goals in mind, but eventually all of them converge after our main character steps forth into the world. This is such a wonderful format for this kind of game because it gives each party member a clear moment in the spotlight and provides a platform for some solid character development and writing. It says a lot about the era I’ve grown up in that I was approaching everything with an air of wary cynicism; because we control quite a varied array of characters during these chapters I found I was unconsciously keeping some of them at arm’s length as I realised I was trying to predict who I assumed would die or be otherwise booted out of the adventuring party come the hero’s entry into the game. Dragon Quest IV is from a different age however; it’s not interested in subverting all my expectations, and instead I was very pleasantly surprised when I reached the stage of the game when each party joined up with our hero and I had a massive choice of party members who covered a ton of different builds and archetypes.
Each chapter pertaining to the titular chosen largely progresses as pretty standard mini quests, with dungeons to explore and a boss to hone in on, but don’t let that fool you into thinking these aren’t substantial parts of the game. In fact, these are fully fleshed out adventures, with each one expecting you to jump headfirst into the usual loop of trawling towns for information, grinding through waves of enemies for gold and experience points, and delving into dank dungeons. Each character’s motivations and quests are unique to them; the soldier Ragnar investigates a monster who has been abducting local children, the boisterous princess Alena defies her father’s wishes and sets out to prove her strength, and the twins Maya and Meena leave their life of entertainment in order to avenge their father’s murder. The best of these chapters is by far the one focused on the wily merchant Torneko Taloon, who begins the game as a tired assistant in a weapons shop, but harbours dreams of becoming the greatest merchant in the world. To that end, his entire chapter plays quite differently as you dive into dungeon-crawling with the intent of plundering and gathering loot to sell in order to set yourself up with some property and a business in a bustling city; the only end boss in Torneko’s chapter is poverty. In a game which mainly builds up to a dramatic conflict with an army of monsters, this little side-story of mercantile mastery certainly stands out as a highlight.
As mentioned, the idea here is that each story points their respective characters into the eventual path of the main character. The way the overarching plot is foreshadowed is beautifully done, with hints dropped about a legendary hero and or various marauding villains who are terrorizing the world. Before too long we start to hear of the ominously named Psaro the Manslayer, a warlord who commands the monsters that prey on innocents and burn towns to the ground. Psaro, in a fit of genre-savviness, has heard about a prophecy of a hero destined to defeat him and decides to get the drop on it by razing their home village and murdering everyone he can find there. Naturally our hero survives, of course, and sets forth on a quest of revenge.
I think after the escalating threats of the previous two games I was expecting Dragon Quest IV to do the same, but surprisingly it defied that; instead we spend quite a lot of time digging into Psaro as a character and what made him the way he is, granting him an impressive level of nuance compared to previous Dragon Quest villains. It’s good that Psaro gets this much character development because, as so often happens with silent protagonists, once Chapter 5 starts and our entire party is united in stopping him, they all lose their voices and their character arcs all come to an abrupt conclusion. Some versions of IV include the ability to chat to your party members and let them give their insights and reactions to various locations and circumstances, but regrettably the DS version of the game cuts it; this means that while the DS release is one of the most up-to-date ways to play IV, the cost of losing your characters’ emotional development is a high one to pay. Thankfully the latest Android and iOS releases do restore that so you don’t have to try and source an older NES or PS1 copy to get the best experience possible.
As is the Dragon Quest standard, the moment-to-moment gameplay is rigidly traditional, of course; there’s little here in terms of reinvention and experimentation with the JRPG mould, but instead IV represents a refining of the turn-based combat and dungeon crawling of the previous three games. Pleasingly, lots of little improvements from Dragon Quest III have been retained, such as the day/night system passing outside towns and the time of day in turn affecting the strength of monster parties you fight and the lives of the NPCs in towns, with most shops closing during the night while bars open up and attract the townsfolk in. As before, this gives a tangible sense of reality to Dragon Quest’s world.
Just like with previous games, you find yourself on a scavenger hunt for a group of special items needed in your quest, but it only really becomes a thing in the final chapter of the game once the party has all banded together, and it’s also a lot more neatly worked into the plot progression as your hero gathers up pieces of legendary equipment to defeat Psaro. I think I prefer it this way, to be honest; while hunting down mythical, magical weapons is a staple of the series, in IV it’s worked into the plot in a more satisfying way. In the earliest titles often you’d be left with hunting pixels for hidden, absolutely plot-necessary items – hardly the most exciting time – and while it got a lot better by the time III rolled around, in retrospect there were still points where it felt like I’d found plot-relevant gear as a result of side quests or world exploration. That has its own charm, for sure, but in IV the legendary weapons you need are clearly interwoven into the world as national treasures or sealed away deep in caves or tombs, waiting for an intrepid adventurer to find them. Perhaps doing this makes the game seem more linear to some, but to me it helps craft that tangible sense of the world existing, and I find that a key facet of what fuels my enjoyment and immersion.
I’ve talked extensively before in these reviews about the predictability of Dragon Quest, but IV is perhaps the first one as I’ve worked through the series where it’s felt especially notable. I said in my preamble that this game is the most Dragon Quest-y yet, and that’s not an idle comment; the first three games were preoccupied with establishing the identity of the series, but in IV it feels, for the first time, like that identity is fully extant and the game is happy just to sink into it and let it guide the experience rather than spend any more time forming and shaping just what it means for a game to be a Dragon Quest title. What this turns out to be is a super straightforward turn-based JRPG, so combat, leveling, grinding is all precisely as you expect it to be. Most of your time is going to be spent grinding for levels and money in order to beef up your party and gear them up in the best stuff, while combat encounters are strictly turn-based as you input your party’s commands and then wait for them to carry it out. Well, I say you input commands to your party; for some reason a choice was made during development to not allow the player to control their party members. Instead you set broad party tactics and rely on the game’s AI to do the right actions at the right time. The problem with that is, of course, the game’s AI doesn’t do that, and instead the NES version of Dragon Quest IV has a reputation for party members making terrible decisions. It is, generally, the problem with mucking up a good system and taking control away from the player. Thankfully, the subsequent remakes of IV – first on PS1, and then later on DS and cellphones – fix this and let you control your party by default.
Speaking of the party, we return to the system first seen in Dragon Quest II where each member of your team roughly embodies a specific class archetype, rather than creating characters and selecting classes, and because you get a huge roster to pick from there’s a ton of replayability and opportunity to chop and change to find your preferred party. You don’t even need to have the hero involved by the endgame, although you probably will, given they get easily the best stats, equipment, and magic as they level up. I suppose it might make for a fun challenge to turf the hero out and rely instead on your other party members, but I’m not sure that’s something I’d choose!
If I was really going to be picky, I’d say that perhaps IV could’ve done with a little more content to get stuck into. This is maybe a slightly unfair complaint to bring to bear but when the combat is the main part of gameplay, it can go one of two ways; either you can consider it as a complete and fine experience, or you can feel like it’s crying out for something more just to add a touch more colour to fill out the game. There is a casino for you to muck about in, I suppose, but it’s a minor addition and hardly enough to fulfill the vague sense of wanting something extra. I certainly don’t ever feel the compulsion to grumble about games being linear; quite the opposite in fact. I tend to find linear JRPG experiences can be far more engaging because they wind up more tightly constructed, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for having a grumble at IV for not really offering much outside of the main quest.
Tiny grumbles aside, the thing about Dragon Quest IV is that, even though it’s been a few weeks now since I finished it and began writing this review, the game has stuck with me. When I point out that it’s predictable in its gameplay, I wouldn’t blame anyone for taking that as a complaint, but for me that familiarity represents a comforting thought, and it’s helped IV stay in my head constantly. While I think I might prefer III purely for the level to which it defined the franchise, I still rate IV extremely highly, and I don’t think it’ll be too long before I find myself reopening its glorious chapters.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.