We’ll consider this a little “pre-review” since I am sputtering through this excellent game at my own pace and haven’t seen nearly enough to deliver a thorough opinion. Meanwhile, time is getting on, and I would like to get a few cents in their before this game passes from the spotlight.
Dragon Quest VII is now currently in the wild, and so far, signs are pointing at it doing fairly well. For some, they’ll be entering for the first time, finally getting to see exactly why this JRPG series has such a loud and supportive following. For others, it is a return to a beloved and revolutionary franchise that always changes just enough from release to release to make each game unique.
And with Dragon Quest VII specifically, what we have is a classically stylized game where the star is not the drama or even the main characters, but the world itself. Many who have picked up this game have noticed that its pacing is not what we’ve come to expect from video games as of late. This model of “buy, consume, move on” that gaming currently finds itself stuck in is exactly the sort of atmosphere that Dragon Quest VII will struggle to thrive and keep wandering attention spans.
For many, especially those who have only ever known the speed of modern video games, they will have to change the way they approach video games to fully appreciate what Square Enix offers here. Those who burn through Dragon Quest VII, running from objective to objective as they think about the next game they are going to play, miss out on the smaller moments that set the tone of this amazing experience. And even myself, a 20 year veteran of the JRPG genre, am having to make a few adjustments to compensate for the sheer enormity of the game.
With those adjustments made, though, it has been a fabulous ride so far.
Dragon Quest VII first launched for the PlayStation in Japan back on Aug. 26, 2000, and it promptly sold millions of copies, becoming the series’ best selling game in the process. When it came to North America a year later, the PlayStation 2 had already made its debut, and Sony was throwing marketing dollars into a game called Final Fantasy X. Needless to say, North Americans were not impressed by Dragon Quest VII’s sprites and cheap 3D world. The audience had neither the nostalgia of the Super Nintendo-era Dragon Quest games nor really a lot of memories beyond the first game they got for free from Nintendo Power.
Final Fantasy X’s dominance on the JRPG scene didn’t help Dragon Quest VII’s perceived image, either. Despite both being JRPGs, the two games couldn’t be any further apart in their progression. Final Fantasy X’s approach leads gamers by the nose through a very linear world, loaded with drama, heartbreak, humor, heart-pumping dungeons, sporting events, and more excitement than a good many action games. It very much followed in the footsteps of other linear JRPGs like classic hits such as Chrono Trigger, Suikoden II, and Final Fantasy VI, where the characters and the drama took center stage.
The millions of copies Final Fantasy X sold also prompted all other JRPG developers to follow in the same path, even with Dragon Quest VIII, which while not as linear provided far more investment in its leading characters than any other game in the series had done to that point. It is this brand of JRPG that has always done best on the North American market, one that pushes players through its stories and doesn’t really allow much time for reflection in the atmosphere, the music, and everything that is happening in the world around them.
Certainly, time can be set aside for this at certain lulls in the story, usually before the end, but it is hardly the main draw like in Dragon Quest VII.
Dragon Quest VII provides the exact opposite experience. The game opens up on a single island, and the world is at peace. Monsters don’t threaten existence or even merchants as they travel between the island’s two towns. People have no reason to travel over the ocean and explore the horizon, and the only time inhabitants do so is to bring in enough fish to feed the small population. The world is peaceful to the point of sterility, and it takes a few nosy children to realize that such complacency it quite suspicious.
From this setup, these kids set off on a quest that spans space and time, traveling to the past to find islands and villages that have been wiped out by cataclysmic events, and altering history allows these islands to appear in the modern world. Dragon Quest VII’s lack of a single dramatic plot is made up for with dozens of smaller “short stories,” as we’ll call them, letting the game unfold at the player’s pace. Villages are threatened by monster invasions, erupting volcanoes, rampaging robots, and even rain which turns citizens into stone! These scenarios all have their own characters, themes, climaxes, and dramatic tension free from one another like anime episodes.
Taking it even a step deeper, little story lines even appear in these short stories. My favorite example happens early in game when the heroes stumble across the volcano town of Emberdale, a culture obsessed with their unique fire deity, the Father of the Flame. One wife in the town loves fire so much that she believes using it in excess while cooking makes her food more delicious. Of course, her husband hates eating because she burns every meal. He loses weight and seeps into depression as the story moves on, and once the overarching problems of the village are solved, the wife realizes that fire isn’t all that is important in life and learns to properly cook.
And the husband can eat once again!
This little story is so easy to overlook because players have to actively seek it out. Only by talking to the couple in their house on the fringes of the town will players learn of this man’s struggle to swallow his wife’s cooking, and they’ll have to pay them a visit after each major event in this particular scenario to get the whole progression. And this isn’t the only mini-story either. Each of these islands has several charming little plots, and if you speed through the main story without actively engaging NPCs, you’ll miss out on them forever!
After restoring an island, players then seek out the island in the main world, find the puzzle pieces to unlock more islands, which means unlocking more short stories, more places to go, more characters to interact with. The reward for playing Dragon Quest VII is not dramatic moments, but rather, more opportunities for the world to flesh itself out. But you don’t want to do that just yet because the world has changed since your last adventure, and it’s time for you to find out how!
More NPCs have been added to the world with new outlooks on life, and characters who you’ve met before will start to change their attitudes. Some townsfolk who were against the idea of traveling beyond the island start to wonder if these new islands are worth visiting. A good many evolve and change over the course of the whole game as the world expands into a much larger global community. Your conniving Uncle Pike has new plots to make money from these new islands, your muscular fisherman Dad always has advice on adventuring, and even your party members have a reaction to every single line of dialogue in the game at the mere tap of the B-button.
Just to point out, unlike most time travel games, the characters in Dragon Quest VII do realize the changes in the world caused by altered history to the point where they even say “Wow, I never noticed that new island that lies in clear sight.”
Of course, once enough dots are connected, the player learns that there is an overarching sinister plot toying with different events in history, but the focus never travels from these tiny stories and how new emerging cultures affect those that already exist. The fun of Dragon Quest VII does not lie in merely completing its plot or even in its RPG combat. It lies in seeking out the difference you’ve made on the planet, talking with NPCs, hearing what they have to say in this growing world, putting off completing the next short story just because there is so much to be done between them. Ultimately, this proves to be the most time consuming part of Dragon Quest VII’s infamous 100+ hour length, but it is also the most rewarding sense of exploration I’ve received from a video game in a very long time.
I still have yet to uncover the job classes, toy in-depth with the monster tablets, explore all the social benefits, or complete a good number of islands, and from what I can tell, I won’t be completing them any time soon. I’ve been taking this game at its own slow pace, and I’m going to have to start slipping other titles in there as well. If I focus solely on Dragon Quest VII, like I do with most other JRPGs I play, it’ll be months before I get around to anything else!
And Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse just had to launch just a week and a half after this game! Fighting… the urge… to consume… everything…