This now makes two years in a row I've been burned by the Musou genre leaking into my favorite franchises. Two years of high hopes for action spin-offs of The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Quest and two years of walking away shrugging my shoulders, wondering if I am a better person or not for merely having shown my financial support to a series I want to see more of.

I mean, that's why any Dragon Quest fan would buy Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below, right? Because Square Enix said something about maybe translating the Nintendo 3DS JRPGs that we all really want if we pick up this PlayStation 4 action game?

Oh, there are fans who genuinely were looking forward to this and have every expectation that it would be a good title? Well then… ahem… meh.

Sorry about the jaded cynicism there. It's really hard being a Dragon Quest fan these days, and Square Enix certainly doesn't help alleviate the anxiety of it all. Of course, that was the point of localizing Dragon Quest Heroes in the first place, as a sign of good gesture that better days were on the way, but that's sadly what I'm having a hard time taking from it.

I'm going to try my best to put these feelings aside though and be a bit more strictly objective about Dragon Quest Heroes. My emotions will get the better of me if I put my usual self into this review, and I think we're all tired of hearing my rant at this point.

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Stronger Links than Link

As mentioned before, Dragon Quest Heroes is a "Musou" title meaning it comes from Japanese studio Omega Force and revolves heavily around the idea of a single character performing flashy attacks to wipe out entire armies of monsters…. yadda yadda. We all know at this point. Light in weight, low on challenge, all flash and little substance. The core gameplay itself has changed very little since the days of the PlayStation 2, and if you've played one of these hundreds of hack-a-thons, you'll know what you're getting yourself into. Don't expect character with the insane depth of Dante or Bayonetta and you're all set.

It just so happens that Dragon Quest Heroes is a much better "Musou" game than Dynasty Warriors and even last year's Wii U hit Hyrule Warriors. In fact, it's probably the best game the series has ever put out.

Those who played Hyrule Warriors last year might remember that Omega Force tried to blend the The Legend of Zelda into its formula with the same kind of open world exploration that defines Nintendo's legendary franchise. The results were mixed thanks to the exploration being hindered by the flow of battle which must be constantly monitored in every Musou game. You can't very well go digging through dungeons with checkpoints being overrun by Moblins.

In Dragon Quest Heroes, Omega Force finally gets that stages don't have to be a battlefield! Checkpoints don't have to be recaptured to keep the reinforcements flowing. Timed events won't kill your troops if you ignore it for too long. Stages have been reduced to two main goals: clearing out enemies and defending a single point, much more streamlined objectives.

Game Over only happens when that point is destroyed or killed, or your characters are wiped out.

Because of the changes, Dragon Quest Heroes is a much shallower action game, but it is also one which lets the Dragon Quest elements take center stage. You'll be able to swap between four familiar characters at once, pulling off their classic techniques and wiping out Dragon Quest's unmistakable monsters. It's more than just an aesthetic as well since you'll be able to hunt for Mini-Medals, experience points, and items without the fear of a random checkpoint destroying your progress or mysteriously losing the battle despite feeling like you were doing such a good job.

Just make sure that one point remains safe every once in a while, and you're good to chop away at whatever you please.

Because of these changes, battles are naturally much swifter. Long gone are the days when a Musou conflict can rage on for the better part of an hour just to fail at the very end. Dragon Quest Heroes closes out at ten minutes max, and even if you lose, you are guaranteed to pick up from a point that you can still succeed from. Don't forget, you also get to keep all money and experience too, meaning death isn't a total death sentence in this game.

Dragon Quest fans all know that this is a staple of the franchise: punishing players enough to make them feel the pain of losing, but not crippling them or making them feel like their time was totally wasted. This is just one of the many ways Omega Force taps into the older games.

And yet, the main draw of Dragon Quest Heroes isn't even on the battlefield but rather the RPG underbelly it flashes while on shore leave.

Is that an RPG in your pocket, or are you just a Dragon Quest game?

The most important improvements to Dragon Quest Heroes comes from the fact that it actually feels like a classic JRPG. You have to be a true fan of the genre to see this as an improvement of course, but the grinding, training, and building levels all add a bit of substance to the flashy Musou style that exploration simply couldn't.

Characters level up and gain stats and new skills like they do in Dragon Quest. They travel the world, picking up items and gathering gold like they do in Dragon Quest. They can equip powerful weapons, alchemize loot, find majestic secrets, befriend adorable and evil monsters alike, and even complete quests assigned by an NPC, just like they can in Dragon Quest.

All of these pieces are centralized into a hub town that our heroes will return to in between fights. Hanging out here allows them to sell off loot, buy new equipment, pick up a few bonus spells, expand their character trees, chat with the friendly locals, and the odds and ends that Dragon Quest characters can do after navigating a dungeon or traversing a grueling portion of the overworld.

Mini-Medals can be scouted out on the battlefield and traded to superior items or alchemy recipes. Monsters who are transformed into coins on the battlefield can be registered in the bestiary. In fact, everything the team comes across is kept track of on the menu screen, so there will be a lot of collecting to do if that's your thing.

Dragon Quest Heroes also stars a whopping thirteen characters, meaning plenty of grinding for those who want to 100 percent this game, and nine of them come from the older Dragon Quest releases. Leveling them up, chatting with them, and bringing them onto the battlefield is the main point of this fan-service package after all.

Then there are the four original characters, who are surprisingly okay. Most of the time, the original characters in these spin-off games are just the absolute worst, especially when stacked against the iconic heroes from the past. However, our protagonists in this game work well as a duo. Luceus always makes plans and the hot-headed Aurora dashes his tactics to pieces by charging in without thinking. Alone they are forgettable, but thank goodness they have one another to bounce off of in the cutscenes. Good chemistry saves them… barely.

The only memorable one of the bunch is King Doric, who bursts with the laughter and enthusiasm of a old man not bound by limitations of age. He's rock solid and obviously strong leader both through the love of his people and massive biceps he uses to swing his clubs. Why does this guy need bodyguards when he is so invincible?

It's his passion for jumping from map to map that keeps this game flowing because otherwise…

Home is where the heart is, and this ain't home

Objectively speaking, this is a really decent game. It's shallow, can get repetitive at times, and the character trees don't have enough variety to inspire breaking out into other characters. However, what Dragon Quest Heroes does, it does well.

The problem comes from the game lacking any real heart. This is pure fan-service from beginning to end. I look at Kyril, Alena, Terry, and Yangus and all of these characters I've journeyed with over the years, but they aren't the real thing. The characters in Dragon Quest are nice, but they aren't really the stars of the show. Dragon Quest has always been more about seeing what twists and turns a story will take rather than the motivations of those that follow. Apart from Jessica and Yangus, the exceptions to the rule thanks to Dragon Quest VIII's unique storytelling, putting these characters in speaking roles just feels hollow.

The same goes for Omega Force's cheaply produced graphics. The teams tries to replicate the unmistakable design of Akira Toriyama, but they just come up short. Character models are lifeless and have a hard time blending into the dull hallways and lifeless green surroundings.

The whole thing looks like Dragon Quest, but it's not. Just like how Hyrule Warriors looked like The Legend of Zelda, but it's not. It might be the best of its kind, but in the end, it's still just another Musou spin-off. Hype that lead to believe otherwise fell deaf onto my soul.

If you are fine with that, then Dragon Quest Heroes should be enough to hold you over while Square Enix gets its crap in line. $60 is a bit steep I think, so you might want to wait for a sale. The RPG side of this bundle can maybe drag out to that value for the most dedicated fans.

For me though, it just makes me miss the JRPGs I love that much more. When pressed with a choice for the real thing or fan-service, I'll always choose the real thing. Since I don't have that choice, Dragon Quest Heroes is just… okay.


Disclaimer: We purchased Dragon Quest Heroes for the PlayStation 4 and played the campaign for 15 hours before writing this review.

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