Given Dragon Quest's huge popularity in Japan, it's surprising that, other than one OVA-length manga adaptation from 1996, there hasn't been another film based on the series. Last year, that changed with the release of Dragon Quest: Your Story in Japan, a film version of the 1992 Super Famicom classic, Dragon Quest V. I played this for the first time last year and quickly understood why this entry in particular is so beloved by fans. It perfectly captures the growth of a single character over many years and is emotionally impactful.
Before I start, if you haven't played Dragon Quest V, then I don't recommend watching this movie. Your Story isn't just a retelling of one of the series' most popular entries; rather, it relies on the viewer's knowledge of the game and the viewer having experienced their own story. Yes, that does mean you'll know what's coming most of the time, but part of the fun is seeing these events play out on the screen. The core of the game is about growing up, from a young child to a father, and watching your character (and the world) change over time. Your Story attempts to convey these emotions on screen, and while it's got the charm, it misses a lot of the emotional depth of the game.
Easily the best thing about this movie is how it looks. Dragon Quest: Your Story is utterly gorgeous. Rather than use a traditional hand-drawn anime style, Your Story controversially forgoes series artist Akira Toriyama's art and adopts a Dreamworks Animation-esque CGI style. Directors Takashi Yamazaki, Ryuichi Yagi and Makoto Hanafusa all have experience making Japanese CGI films or working in visual effects on video games, and each of them have done their best to capture the charm and love that this series is known for. Each screen bursts with life and colour, and the animation is crisp and fluid. Spells and explosions pop on the screen, and the characters are incredibly expressive, just like in the video games. The monsters, however, still use Toriyama's style as a base, which causes a bit of a clash with the human characters, but they look so darn good that I found it easy to brush aside.
Another thing you might need to adjust to is the dub. We're used to British dubbing for the Dragon Quest games, and many of the locations in them are based on European cities and towns, with the localisation often giving the inhabitants distinctive accents. NYAV Post has chosen to go for a straight American dub, and while I was initially let down, I ended up pleasantly surprised at how good everyone was. The cast all do a really great job of bringing their characters to life. Yuri Lowenthall as the main hero Luca and Jason Marnocha as the villainous Bishop Ladja in particular deserve praise for adding depth and personality to an avatar character and a truly terrifying and manipulative figure, respectively.
On to the story itself: the plot stays pretty faithful to the game. It starts off with the hero, Luca, as a child and follows his life right through to adulthood as he goes on a quest to save his mother. The film retains the three-arc structure the game is so famous for, but here it's much more condensed. The first arc is squeezed into around five minutes of screen time, and that reduces the emotional punch of many later events. Character introductions are glossed over, and major events are either shown in 16-bit style or happen in a flash. It establishes the story of the film, sure, but the childhood arc in the game is so important for setting up an emotional connection, and its condensed nature affects the film as a whole. A particular character death is one of the biggest letdowns; it's particularly upsetting in game, but here it happens so fast it feels like an afterthought — just a single note in Luca's own character development.
In fact, the film itself serves as an example of why it's so hard to adapt a 30-hour RPG into a 1 hour 40 minute film. Many of the characters suffer as a result of the the film's attempts to squeeze only the most important parts in, and that makes the pacing of the whole thing feel off. One character in particular who suffers from this is Harry, prince of Coburg. While he does appear once as a bratty and annoying child, the film quickly skips forward to the next arc, where Luca and Harry are enslaved, and this section once again glosses over their relationship and, importantly, Harry's growth. In the game, Harry's transformation from a spoiled kid to a noble leader is wonderful, and his relationship with the player is strongly established. Here, it's not present at all. Many key moments and locations don't even make an appearance in the film; some of them are among my favourite parts of the game, so their absence was really disappointing, if understandable.
The marriage part of the film is also a mixed bag. Here, Luca's childhood friend Bianca is finally given her chance to shine as a fiesty, determined and strong character who has a great friendship with the hero. I wish the film had shown them as kids together, rather than squeezing it into the 16-bit section at the start, as it would have helped give them even more chemistry as adults. The scenes between Luca, Bianca, and Nera (the Duke of Mostroferrato's daughter, whom Luca also meets in his childhood) are all sweet and funny, but the way the film pushes Luca towards one character then does a complete 180 on his feelings is really odd. It's an attempt to capture the indecisiveness the player might be feeling at this point in the game, but it comes across as awkward in the film.
On the other hand, there are some wonderful scenes that made me smile like a complete idiot and reminded me of other parts of the game that I loved. In the film's training montage when Luca is left on his own, he's shown taking on many monsters, including a group of Metal Slimes, which I remember toiling against many times in many different Dragon Quest games. It also highlights DQV's monster-recruiting mechanic, showing Luca befriending a slime and giving him a nickname, just like you do in the game. Localisation choices from the series are also retained here, with all of the puns and names kept intact. It's magical moments like these that managed to keep me invested.
Why, then, does Your Story drop the ball by the ending? The third act manages to keep up the charm, style and action well enough, but the ending made me feel like a rug had been pulled out from under my feet. It's bad enough that the fight with Ladja seems a bit rushed, but the ending is bizarre enough that it left me walking away from the film unsure what to feel.
Without spoiling what actually happens, the ending tries to sell the movie as a love letter to the DQ series: that the reason people play these games is to experience stories they can become a part of and go on wonderful adventures. Personally, I don't think the film needed to push anything at all — certainly not a separate agenda that breaks the story and all the established rules. Surely the act of watching Your Story is already a show of love from the fans who want to experience DQV in a different way. The ending also changes the meaning of the entire film, right at the last second. Even days after watching it, I'm not sure why they went with this twist.
Regardless, I think fans of Dragon Quest V will enjoy watching Dragon Quest: Your Story. It's an easy-to-watch film with a ton of heart and joy, and I had a lot of fun viewing the action scenes, relishing in the beautiful visuals, and generally just reliving the game all over again. But the uneven pacing, awkward handling of certain events, and ending that's incredibly jarring nearly spoiled it for me. Instead of being a delightful experience, it just ended up being pleasant. As an attempt at squeezing an epic RPG into a feature film, it's a solid effort, but there are better ways to celebrate an excellent game and series.