Dragon Quest 7 review

Game Info
Platform 3DS
Publisher Square Enix
Developer Square Enix
Release Date Sep 16, 2016

For those who have never heard of Dragon Quest 7, a Japanese role-playing game originally released by Enix on the PlayStation 1, it's a game with one historically significant feature that has remained a part of its legend in the 15 years since it came out: its length.

Japanese RPGs are long by nature; they often sprawl out well past 40 or 50 hours of gameplay just to reach the end. For Dragon Quest 7, 40 or 50 hours would get you maybe to just about the halfway point. Maybe. It's lengthy enough to make otherwise comparable RPGs blush.

When you consider that length, it begins to make sense that Square Enix waited over a decade to remake Dragon Quest 7 for modern audiences, and that the publisher spent another three years relocalizing the game for North America. But within this remake, I discovered a truth about the nature of the game that I never fully understood when I first played it as a teenager. You see, it's not actually one neverending epic; rather, Dragon Quest 7 exists as a series of brief, mostly self-contained RPG vignettes, a collection that's especially well-suited to its new handheld form.

It's basically Quantum Leap but with dragons and slimes

In its lethargic opening, Dragon Quest 7 begins in a small fishing village, where the unnamed protagonist lives with his family. Over the course of a leisurely couple hours of trotting back and forth between a few locations, players discover the state of the strange realm they've entered: The tiny island of Estard is all that exists in this world. Everything else is water.

After some exploration, the hero and his two childhood friends, Kiefer and Maribel, discover some ancient ruins that have the power to transport them to other islands in the past. By solving problems and fighting monsters on those islands, the party resurrects that location in the present. The game essentially creates a loop where you slowly rebuild the world, island by island, city by city, by jumping into the past and fixing where things went wrong.

It's basically Quantum Leap but with dragons and slimes.

Each individual land that you visit in Dragon Quest 7 feels distinct from each that has come before. For one, the people living in those cities all speak in different accents and spurts of different languages — tidbits of French, German, Italian and so on, to help give each area a distinct flavor. But beyond that, each time you go into the past, you're given a short, fun, relatively stand-alone adventure story.

Dragon Quest 7 screenshot
it's the full arc of the average RPG crunched down into bite-sized pieces

These aren't especially deep or complex tales. There's one where a robot army is harassing a kingdom, and you have to infiltrate the army's base, or another where an evil force has put a village into a time loop, preventing a bridge from being constructed that would connect one continent to another. But Square Enix folds some touching moments into the details of these vignettes, such as the day-to-day drama of a visionary artist who is afraid to confront his daughter who believes he's dead, or a painful love triangle that ends in tragedy tinged by hope.

Beyond the appeal of the stories themselves, each time travel journey in Dragon Quest 7 provides everything I've come to expect from an RPG. They're packed with turn-based combat against goofy creatures, a few puzzles, a dungeon or two to conquer and, usually, a big boss fight at the end. They can last anywhere from a couple hours to five or six before you've wrapped up everything and warp back to the future. They could just as well have credits roll after each — it's the full arc and pacing of the average RPG crunched down into delectable bite-sized pieces.

More than anything, I just valued exploring each new scenario, talking to every character and hunting down every bit of treasure. Dragon Quest 7's world is littered with secrets — treasure chests, barrels that can contain items, locked doors that you can only access with the proper key. For a completionist, a game of this size was always going to be a challenge, but it encourages those tendencies by constantly rewarding players who stick their nose into every corner.

Dragon Quest 7 screenshot

If its structure and storytelling is ambitious and weird, Dragon Quest 7 is probably the most predictable in its actual gameplay mechanics. The game employs a form of very simple turn-based combat that has been the norm in the series since the NES days. Players have to make small strategic choices during each turn — like whether to attack the enemy, heal or cast a spell to buff defense — but options are generally pretty limited, and a lot of battles can be won by simply auto-selecting attack over and over.

It isn't until — I am not exaggerating here — 30 or so hours into Dragon Quest 7 that you unlock a system that adds a little more depth to the combat. Once you hit a certain point in the story, you'll travel to Alltrades Abbey. After an adventure set nearby, you'll unlock the ability to visit the abbey and change classes. You've got a wide list to choose from immediately — from the obvious stuff, like warrior and priest, to more interesting variations like jester and shepherd — and you'll also unlock more options as you progress. By the end, there are around 20 regular classes and another 30-some "monster classes" (which teach you the skills of the enemies you're fighting).

The class system's placement deep into the game isn't a mistake. It doesn't feel necessary to the game in a way that would have called for it to show up earlier, but it also provided something fresh to concern myself with at exactly the point where I was beginning to get a little bored with the straightforward battle system. Classes are also introduced at a point where Dragon Quest 7 begins to get a little more challenging; you can choose smart, obvious combos to keep things fairly easy, or you can challenge yourself by putting together parties full of the stranger and weaker classes.

Wrap Up:

Dragon Quest 7 ties together a bunch of fun mini-adventures into a lengthy, nostalgic package

In the end, not many people are going to play Dragon Quest 7 for a combat system that is serviceable but not terribly engaging. The pull of this game, the thing that kept me going even as the in-game counter ticked on and on, is found in its exploration, its simply drawn but satisfying characters and its short, tightly knit adventures. A massive, time-spanning epic exists within Dragon Quest 7, but in truth, this is not a multi-thousand-page novel; it's a massive short story anthology, each tale picked lovingly from the daydreams of a kid in a small town who dreams of fantastic journeys.

Dragon Quest 7 was reviewed using a retail copy provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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