Part of the point of working through a series like this is so I can, very self-indulgently, get to games I have already played before; I basically just made this blog to waffle about games that I love and needed some other stuff to fill it out! Dragon Quest VI, then, is the last one in this lengthy playthrough of Enix’s premier JRPG franchise for a little while that is new to me since the subsequent trio of games are ones I actually have played before. Still, it’s been a joyous journey to get to this point, tracking the evolution of the franchise and seeing how it reached the point of the games I already know.
Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Reverie (Android, iOS, NDS [reviewed], Super Famicom)
Released Dec 1995 | Developed: Heartbeat | Published: Enix
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 40 hours
We begin with a wonderfully evocative opening; probably one of my favourites in a Dragon Quest game so far. Your party is huddled around the embers of a campfire in a darkened wood. Our hero rouses from a restless slumber and trudges to a lonely clifftop jutting out over yawning black seas below. He is joined by his two companions, the hulking martial artist Carver and the snarky sage Milly, and together you summon up the courage to advance upon the looming fortress ahead. The silence that descends upon you as you enter the halls is deafening, with an eerie emptiness which sets the party on edge as you sneak through the castle, ready for encounters that never come. Finally you reach the throne room and raise your arms and armour ready to fight against the beast you’ve come to slay: the Dread Fiend Murdaw! Vast and scale-green, he squats upon his throne, looking down on your trio and cackling. You don’t even get a chance to attack; with a lazy wave of his arm he casts your bodies aside and begins casting a magic spell of incredible power. As his parting words ring in your ears, everything rushes to white.
Your hero lurches awake, as if from a terrifying nightmare. Thankfully he’s safe in his sleepy village, a tiny hamlet perched atop a cliff named Weaver’s Peak, where he lives an easygoing, idyllic life looking after his sister, palling about with his friend, Buddy, and running errands for the village mayor. After that opening though it’s hard not to shake the feeling that something is distinctly off. Dragon Quest VI isn’t the first game to pull this kind of prophetic dream opening, but it is one of the most effective at making you question it and the circumstances you find yourself in following it. The sense of unease it imparts upon you takes a long time to leave or be answered, and as a result the first parts of the game are an exercise in slow burn discovery. Naturally, things don’t stay easy and peaceful for the hero for long; after being sent on a task to a nearby village, the hero finds himself thrust into a dramatic rescue of a local craftsman but in doing so a huge hole that opens up in the ground below him and down he tumbles – not to his doom, but instead to another world far beneath.
You might think he’s dead though given he appears in a ghostly form; no-one can see or hear him, other than some animals sensing his presence. Before long you come across a path back to your own world above, and the first big gameplay conceit of Dragon Quest VI becomes apparent as your quest starts to take you back and forth between the worlds above and below. Both worlds are under the grip of terror of Murdaw, the Dread Fiend from the opening and so, like any hero worth their salt, your quest starts to take shape and focus in on his defeat. Along the way both Carver and Milly make a reappearance; although they can’t remember you, they have a nagging sense in their minds that the three of you were destined to unite and defeat Murdaw and so in grand JRPG tradition you need to take up arms, quest across both of Dragon Quest VI’s vast worlds, gather allies to your side and get in some good old-fashioned level grinding before taking on the dark lord that threatens the world.
For a series that relies so much on rigid, unchanging tradition, Dragon Quest VI might be the most typical game in the franchise that I’ve played for a while – the most Dragon Quest-y Dragon Quest, if you will, since at least Dragon Quest III. The three games which saw a release on the DS – that’s IV, V, and VI – all bring some interesting gimmicks, but VI is the only one of the trio that lacks a strong central identity to the way its plot unfolds. I suspect that’s part of why it’s sometimes considered the weakest of the three; in contrast, IV used chapters to create focused structure as you progress through the game, with each one focusing on a different set of characters and their own localized troubles before bringing it all together, while V used the structure of following one character across the biggest milestones of their life. Both of these made for exciting and engaging alterations to the framework of JRPG narratives, whereas VI kind of takes things back to basics.
That’s not to say there’s nothing good about the story; far from it, actually. VI showcases some frankly brilliant character writing as a way of exploring the relationship between the two worlds, which are mirrors of one another with different iterations of characters and towns appearing between the two. Although Dragon Quest worlds are always high fantasy, the world above in 6 is a bit more mystical, with more instances of weird magics being used to shape things, like the typical town of sorcerers and mages existing only in this world, whereas the world below is more earthly; it’s telling that the closest analogue to the magic town there is a town of ascetics and priests who spend their time communing with the gods.
It’s sometimes easy to confuse the worlds though. The two have distinct but definitely similar world maps, and occasionally it’s tricky trying to remember where something specific is across the two worlds. You even have to manage different ways of traversing the worlds; two maps means two different ways of traveling the waters, and two different means of air travel, some of which are only relevant or work in one of the two worlds. The series staple fast-travel spell, Zoom, has here been upgraded with an ability to instantly switch worlds which is super handy, but in true Dragon Quest fashion you have lots of back-and-forth questing so you’ll be spending tons of time dipping into menus to travel first between worlds and then to wherever it is you need to go; it’s that or go wandering around looking for the wells, holes, and staircases that act as natural portals between the two.
Of course, Dragon Quest is no stranger to doing things the slow way; you might say that’s perhaps the franchise’s calling card more than anything else. As time has progressed the games have gotten longer and that’s more apparent than ever in VI. How Long to Beat has the average runtime at around 40 hours, a significant increase on its predecessors and part of that has to come down to the pacing of major story beats. Some of the game’s features, such as the job system, don’t become available until at least 12-15 hours in, which is a hell of a wait for a mechanic that’s touted as a major part of the game! Despite that, I’d hesitate to call the game badly paced because I really don’t think it is; it’s just very thorough in its expectations. There are few towns you can simply pass through, for example; basically everywhere has a problem that only you can solve, and solve it you must. There are a few optional sidequests sprinkled about here and there, but most of the game is mandatory, but although you’re obviously trying to gear up to defeat Murdaw, there’s not really a sense of urgency about it. I guess he’s been doing his thing for a while now anyway and you wouldn’t want to rush in and get merked again.
Naturally, there’s only one way to go about dealing with that problem in a JRPG: level grinding! We’ve talked about the Dragon Quest franchise’s love of the grind before, but I’ve also definitely mentioned that I’m one of those weirdos that doesn’t mind it, as long as the combat encounters are at least a little bit engaging and in that respect Dragon Quest does generally do a good job. VI is, I think, maybe the most grindy game in the franchise since II, mainly due to a surprisingly high encounter rate; unlike II though it never stops being fun, which is a pretty critical upgrade. My idea of fun combat is obviously skewed by the fact that I like JRPGs and strict turn-based systems, which I gather is a personal problem and not something that everyone shares. Dragon Quest, then, sets itself up to appear as if specifically made for me as it continues to be religious in its devotion to ancient combat mechanics but that’s part of its appeal; while other franchises evolve and try new things, Dragon Quest has always stuck by small incremental changes rather than reinvention. With that in mind, if you’re not into turn-based combat or sifting through menus, as is ever the case, this latest iteration of Dragon Quest probably won’t be one for you.
As I mentioned earlier, the game has a job system, which any readers of Final Fantasy reviews I’ve made on here will know I love. Each character obviously has their own inbuilt stats which pushes them in certain directions; Carver is a physical bruiser, for example, Milly is a mage with a mix of support and offensive magics, and the hero, as is usual for Dragon Quest, is kind of like a spellsword. Once you reach Alltrades Abbey though you get the option to train your characters in any of the classes the game has to offer, so there’s nothing stopping you from making your squishy wizards into warriors or teaching Carver to live life as a dancer if you want. Most of the classes are pretty standard but there’s a couple of oddball ones, like merchant if you want to bring capitalism to this poor fantasy world, or gadabout if you like that one mechanic from Pokemon where they disobey you sometimes and therefore hate yourself.
Mastering the basic classes opens up stronger prestige classes, some of which take some creative combinations to unlock. Although it’s very much dependent on you wanting to put the time and effort into experimenting, I found that the 4 core classes of warrior, martial artist, priest, and mage, and their corresponding prestige classes of gladiator and sage, made up the bulk of my classes I bothered with. The end result was a party of essentially uber-folk who had insane health and strength stats but also knew all the useful healing spells so I can’t say I felt anything less than unstoppable for a lot of the time. As is usually the case with JRPGs, if you put the time into the grind, the game’s challenge tends to fall away although the high rate of fights in VI does mean that threshold takes a while to reach.
As I so often seem to say when talking about Dragon Quest games, I can’t see this title being the thing that sells you on JRPGs if you’re not into them already. Although there’s nothing overly challenging about it – that is to say, the mechanics aren’t especially complicated or obtuse, and neither is the narrative going to take you to difficult places – Dragon Quest remains a franchise stuck in a specific paradigm. I’m sure some folk who aren’t JRPG fans must’ve have played this and suddenly found themselves convinced, but I just can’t imagine it happening too often; it’s a series for extant fans of the slow grind, and VI is no exception. In fact, it’s the game where the franchise really starts taking it slower and slower in unfurling its wings; from here on out we’re going to see lengthier games and events taking longer to get going, further pushing the series into the realms of being only really playable for the JRPG fandom. It’s undoubtedly been a fantastic ride, and one I’m certain I’ll revisit in the future when I need an easygoing comfort game, but I can’t imagine it’s one for everyone.
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.