When I began this series of reviews attempting to get through as many of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games as I could, I definitely had a few games in mind as the ones I was really looking forward to. Some of them were old favourites that I felt excited at finally getting to talk about, like Final Fantasy VII and IX and, eventually, Dragon Quest VIII; others though were ones that I’ve played bits of over the years but never sat down to finish. Dragon Quest V is one of those latter titles; I can remember picking it up on DS many years ago and playing through a decent chunk of it but, despite how much I enjoyed it, I put it down and never picked it back up again for some reason. It’s been exciting getting around to remedying that.
Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride (Android, iOS, NDS [reviewed], PS2, SNES)
Released Sep 1992 | Developed: Chunsoft | Published: Enix
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 31 hours
Working through the Dragon Quest series so far has been an exercise in taking pleasure in slow and gradual change. Prior to starting these reviews – indeed, prior to starting the blog in its entirety – I had already been familiar with a couple of entries in the franchise. Both I and VIII were games I’d beaten before, and titles like V and IX were ones I’d played a fair bit of without ever finishing them, but when your experience with a franchise is so fragmented, it’s difficult to get a decent sense of how the franchise developed and how the games you do play fit into it. I knew I liked V from when I played 20 or so hours of it on the DS as a younger person, but completing it and being able to place it amidst the context of the series as it evolves has been a transformative experience in terms of understanding just how much I love this game.
The single biggest thing that elevated my adoration of Dragon Quest V is the story. I think in general the franchise has had some fun plotlines: the original and its first couple of sequels get a lot of mileage out of keeping things simple, but I remarked back in my review of IV that the choice to explore a different way of playing the narrative out, with each chapter focusing on a self-contained mini-story centered around a different group of heroes, all of whom come together in the final chapter, was a marvelous way of doing things. V does something similar to its predecessor in that it tries to experiment with narrative structure as a means by which it can tell a more engaging and exciting story, and personally I think it succeeds incredibly well.
The big narrative gimmick of Dragon Quest V is that it follows our hero over the course of his life, from childhood to well into his adulthood. While playing I spent a while thinking about what about this game appealed to me more than IV, and I think that this structure is one of the things that gives V the edge over its predecessor for me. I thoroughly enjoyed IV’s chapters flitting between the different eventual party members and tying together all their disparate stories into one, but I think getting to see our hero here grow up, to suffer their traumas and exult in their victories alongside them, and to follow them as they grow is a more satisfying experience.
The game begins with our hero as a young boy returning to his tiny village home alongside his father, Pankraz. Your father is an adventurer, a grizzled but kind old chap, who makes a living wandering around towns and helping out with monsters or quests – y’know, hero stuff – but he also cuts a sombre and forlorn figure as he occasionally reminisces about his wife, the hero’s mother, who died many years ago. It strikes me that you don’t often seem to see characters like that; his gruff exterior hides both a very real pain that I’m sure many can, tragically, relate to, but also a deep warmth towards his young son. He’s protective but in a positive way, and once he learns that you’ve been going off to have adventures in the evenings or while he’s busy, he starts to take you along with him on his journeys and train you as a fighter. This is a JRPG prologue though and that means there’s an inevitable sense of dread that hangs over your time with him, a sense which is embedded by the gameplay; your hero spends plenty of time without him in the party early on as they learn to fend for themselves, and when he does join your party he very clearly has those “temporary guest star” features of being uncontrollable and significantly stronger than everyone else. When this introductory chapter ends and the unavoidable happens it’s hard not to be filled with an acute sense of sadness; rarely do JRPGs like this care to lavish so much care and attention on developing characters of Pankraz’s archetype.
Of course, our story doesn’t end there. After a 10 year time-skip we rejoin our protagonist as he finally gets set loose in the world. Things have gone to pot during our absence; once proud and friendly kingdoms have sunk into tyranny and empire-building, ever-stronger monsters roam the fields, and the sinister Order of Zugzwang (that’s a chess term defining when a player is forced to make a move, even if it destabilizes their boardstate, for the boardgame aficionados out there – get used to chess motifs, as all the villains are ranked according to chess pieces) exerts a cult-like presence over the world, drawing (or kidnapping) people in to swell their ranks as they construct a giant temple for some nefarious purpose.
I think one thing I like here though is that our hero isn’t some single-minded, shallow, standard model of fantasy protagonist. He doesn’t just set out with the goal of defeating the Order of Zugzwang; in fact, instead you find yourself taking on more small-scale goals which result in you pinballing all around the world and slowly building up to a final assault on the Order’s stronghold. Much of the story sees you going through major life events, such as a lengthy plot centering around your marriage to one of two (or three, if you’re playing one of the more recent remakes) bachelorettes, and even through to becoming parents. It means that although the hero is a silent protagonist, they are given personality by those around him, and you’re surrounded by characters that are full of life; it’s not too much to say that this is a showcase of some of Dragon Quest’s strongest character writing.
The inclusion of a party chat mechanic gives a ton of additional characterization, and is one of my favourite features in the game. That might sound odd or a little banal but it’s genuinely fantastic; there’s a ton of effort put into it, with hundreds and hundreds of unique lines of dialogue for every party member added in. They don’t just comment after some big event happens, but often they will have something to say about the dungeon you’re in, or even will comment on whatever has been said after talking to an NPC. I can’t even begin the work out how much of my playthrough was spent jamming on the party chat button after practically everything – I only have so much patience for extraneous JRPG text as often much of it is repeated, but the sheer amount of unique responses in Dragon Quest V was mind-boggling, and constantly kept me coming back.
Naturally, you can expect very traditional JRPG turn-based combat in Dragon Quest V. You can set tactics individually, but the default is just to follow your commands directly and I see little reason to ever deviate from that. You do need to be a little familiar with how the tactics menu works since a few enemies can force your party to adopt random tactics, which is both a right spanner in the works if it happens and buggers your turn up, and also a fantastically neat attack to be faced with. Thankfully it’s easy to fix but the first time it happens it’ll really throw you. I don’t know if it was just my playthrough, but I found the difficulty pretty well-balanced; there were a few tough encounters but in general if you have the patience for the grinding then there seems to be little that Dragon Quest V can throw at you which should pose many issues.
As with Dragon Quest IV, party characters don’t have classes but they do fall into rough archetype boundaries, so any dab hand at Dragon Quest will be able to recognize them. For example, our hero is a solid mix between strong physical attacker and also a potent healer, while each of the three available wife characters are a mage, a physical demon, and an all-rounder respectively. However, not actually that many human characters join you on your journey. Instead for large parts of the game you will be journeying alongside monsters. Our hero has a supernatural affinity for the monsters of the world and as such can recruit them to join his party. This is the first game in the franchise to feature monster recruitment, although it would go on to be a core mechanic in a relatively expansive sub-series, Dragon Quest Monsters. You’re probably thinking this sounds like a Pokemon clone, but you’d be wrong: for one, this predates Game Freak’s inordinately popular critter-catcher, but for two, it’s also not as robustly built as that.
The monster recruitment isn’t exactly a major mechanic with a lot of development in Dragon Quest V, but what there is works well. Basically after you defeat a party of enemies, there’s a chance that one of them will ask to join your team afterwards. Each monster has a minimum level you need to be in order for the chance to trigger, and the rates for a monster getting tamed are all different depending on the monster, with stronger ones having a significantly lower chance to get back up and work with you. Pretty much every non-boss monster can be recruited but because the rates are kind of low and it’s all a bit random you’ll probably only see a handful of them join up with you across the course of just getting through the game. It is however a big potential draw for completionists. Once in your team monsters act just like any other party member; they have to be equipped with gear from shops and they level up just like a human character, learning appropriate spells and abilities as they do so. Some have level or stat caps, so you might find a monster’s usefulness beginning to wane, but because of the randomness of recruitment you might not find yourself willing to do enough random fights to get something new in your party. In my case, I just stuck with whatever came along and only changed when a monster I thought was cooler joined – kind of like how I approach Pokemon really!
It’s probably pretty plain to see how much I found myself enjoying Dragon Quest V. While its gameplay is simple, it’s also excellently implemented, and it never asks anything overly complicated of you, which feels like a refreshing change from the modern games I’ve been playing. However, it also represents a quiet and subtle improvement over its predecessors, although it never oversteps the mark nor overdoes the changes. As is so often the case when it comes to a franchise as committed to old-fashioned JRPG standards as Dragon Quest, I suspect it won’t work to convince anyone not already in love with the genre or its conventions, but there are few games quite as finely tuned; V manages to do a lot with what it has.
Still, the thing that kept me transfixed was the writing. It’s rare to feel quite as invested in the plight and personality of a silent protagonist, but Dragon Quest V manages to pull that off with aplomb, and for me that is what elevates it beyond its predecessors and indeed many other JRPGs. The decision to structure the game around our protagonist’s life is inspired, and letting us live through the same tribulations and triumphs as him works wonders to reinforce a strong sense of empathy. While like any JRPG it eventually wants to concern itself with defeating an all-powerful force, the vast majority of the game is about the humanity of its main cast, and it’s that which I keep coming back to.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.