Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Upon their graduation to a new platform, many RPG series have attempted to fully utilize the increased hardware muscle of their new homes. Some, like Game Arts’ Grandia series, have been nearly unanimously lauded for their upgrades, while others, like Square’s Final Fantasy series, have received much more mixed reviews of their transitions. However, Enix’s Dragon Quest series, the most popular RPG franchise in Japan’s history, likely won’t have the opportunity to draw either. The atavistic seventh installment of the series makes nearly no attempt to take advantage of the increased processing power of the Sony PlayStation; instead, Dragon Quest VII: Warriors of Eden retains, perhaps to a fault, almost everything that made its predecessors the highest-selling RPGs in Japanese history. In spite of its obvious presentation shortcomings, however, Dragon Quest VII turns out to be an impressive and enjoyable RPG experience for anyone interested in a deep and involved quest.
Dragon Quest VII’s storyline revolves around Alus, a young teenager who grew up in a small town called Fishbel. This fishing community is located on a tiny continent called Estard Island, the only land mass located in the oceanic world of the game’s setting. Alus grew up befriending a girl named Maribelle, the somewhat petulant daughter of the town’s mayor, and another youth named Kiefer, the prince of Gran Estard, the ruling kingdom of the continent.
Besides engaging in the usual teen activities, the three protagonists of Dragon Quest VII have developed a fondness for adventure and exploration. Although Estard Island holds little to interest the curious, it does house a mysterious set of ancient ruins, which Alus, Maribelle, and Kiefer have long vowed to someday unlock and explore. One day, they finally do manage to solve the puzzle of the ruins’ gate and manage to open the door to the vast labyrinth underneath.
In the excitement of this monumental event, our three heroes immediately enter the deserted ruins to see what lies within. On their way to the heart of the ruins, they find some bizarre broken pieces of lithographs. Not knowing what to do with the mysterious relics, Alus, Maribelle, and Kiefer just take them along, which proves to be a good idea, because the heart of the ruins contains four rooms which each have multiple lithograph stands in them, but no lithographs on the stands. Discovering that they have enough pieces to complete one lithograph, the protagonists place the completed picture on one of the stands. Without warning, they are suddenly transported to an unfamiliar forest setting, where they must find out exactly what has happened to them and why.
Dragon Quest VII’s storyline is one of its strongest individual facets, featuring an interesting and enjoyable event-based plot. Like Square’s Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest VII features time travel as a critical element in its plot, and like the aforementioned publisher’s Legend of Mana, the revelation of sealed lands is equally crucial. Fans of both of these Square titles should find a lot to like about Dragon Quest VII’s storyline.
The only weakness in Dragon Quest VII’s plot is that character development is on the weak side. All of the major protagonists in the game display their primary personality traits to an ample degree, but none of them are particularly well rounded or show sufficient depth to their psyches. Also, while the characters are likable, they don’t carry the charisma that many of the protagonists from other epic RPGs hold.
As mentioned before, Dragon Quest VII contains very little gameplay innovation when compared to other RPGs on the current (or even the previous) generation of game consoles. The area maps and world map are played from the familiar overhead perspective that is almost universal in present-day RPGs. Battles are randomly encountered and turn-based, with all commands issued before the generation of a turn. In battle, characters can use items, magic, and skills to aid allies or attack enemies. Players can either program characters to auto-battle with specific tendencies, or they can issue new commands to characters at the start of each turn.
Dragon Quest VII does, however, contain a job system, something not always seen in RPGs. Reminiscent of that in Square’s Final Fantasy V, the job system here allows characters to switch between different character classes freely, bestowing upon them varying attributes and allowing them to learn a variety of different skills and spells through combat as a certain character class. Dragon Quest VII’s job system is even more flexible than that of Final Fantasy V; characters can access all learned skills and spells regardless of current character class, and equipment in Dragon Quest VII is character-specific rather than job-specific, so characters don’t have to change their equipment when they change jobs.
In spite of its lack of innovation, Dragon Quest VII’s gameplay is extremely enjoyable, because it is executed so well. Commands are carried out promptly, and load times are for the most part infrequent and short. The encounter rate is almost always just right, and battles rarely ever drag on. Although some leveling up is required, the difficulty balance is strong, too; Dragon Quest VII challenges without being excessively difficult. Interaction with objects in the background is above average; characters can pick up objects and throw them, revealing hidden items. In the dungeons, puzzles often impede your progress, but these conundrums are well designed and never get excessively frustrating to solve.
Unfortunately, Dragon Quest VII’s control isn’t quite as strong as its gameplay. Your onscreen characters move in 8 directions, and while there’s no dash button, they travel at a good pace. However, they are overtly responsive, especially when you try to make small movements, so precision of movement leaves a little bit to be desired. The menus are adequately designed, but they are dull, and navigating them isn’t particularly smooth.
The camera system also proves to be somewhat inadequate. Players can rotate the camera in 45-degree increments, but it moves sluggishly and many camera positions are blocked in the dungeons. In towns, the camera can zoom out, but this panoramic perspective is for viewing purposes only; the camera zooms back in as soon as you move your onscreen characters. On the plus side, though, you can move the camera and your characters simultaneously, which saves time during exploration.
Visually, Dragon Quest VII is unfortunately at its weakest. Featuring sprites on polygonal backgrounds, the area maps are brightly colored but grossly lacking in detail. The superdeformed onscreen characters are similar; aesthetically, they’re among the worst that I’ve seen since the 16-bit days of RPGs. The animation in these maps is excruciatingly choppy as well. The world map features a 2D background instead of a polygonal one, but it suffers from the same problems as the area maps. It’s obvious that the graphics were purposely done this way to capture the feel of the earlier Dragon Quest games, but they still look really bad.
The CG movies scattered throughout the game fare just as poorly. Primarily involving backgrounds rather than characters, these FMVs exhibit noticeable graininess, choppy animation, and dull direction. Objects in the movies have a lot of trouble maintaining cohesion as well. Needless to say, the CG is well below the standards of its PlayStation peers.
Dragon Quest VII does fare a bit better with its battle visuals, however. The 2D backgrounds are static, the spell effects are extremely feeble, and your characters aren’t visible in battle, but the enemies are detailed and colorful. They are quite limited in their animation, too, but what’s there is surprisingly smooth.
Compounding Dragon Quest VII’s general graphical woes is its unappealing art. I’ve never been a big fan of Akira Toriyama’s character designs and overtly angular drawing style, but the characters in Dragon Quest VII are among his worst yet, bordering on the absurd. Alus looks like he should be at the North Pole making toys. Maribelle is more or less a spoiled rich girl, but she looks like a housewife. Only swordswoman Ayla holds any appeal at all, and her charms stem more from sex appeal than from creative design.
Another area where Dragon Quest VII has failed to evolve from its predecessors is its sound effects. The best-selling series’ newest installment features the same irritating beeps and scratches that represented the spectrum of sounds in the initial offering of the series. Although they’re a bit more full-sounding than their ancestors, they still really grate on the nerves after a while. Dragon Quest VII contains no voice acting, either.
However, the soundtrack is simply amazing. I’ve always found Koichi Sugiyama’s symphonic scores to be more technically accomplished than aurally appealing, but he puts it all together very nicely in Dragon Quest VII. The various town themes are the highlight of the score; they’re lushly orchestrated and hold some truly compelling tranquil melodies. The dungeon themes are almost as strong; they offer an air of mystery to your exploration there. The only weakness in the soundtrack is the jazz-influenced battle themes; although they offer a suitable backdrop to fight by, they lack the intensity and distinction that their equivalents in many other RPGs carry.
In spite of a few major flaws, Dragon Quest VII: Warriors of Eden ends up being one of the better RPGs available today on the strength of its well-executed gameplay, its exciting storyline, and its brilliantly composed soundtrack. Unless graphics and innovation are the most important aspects of an RPG for you, this one’s a must-have.
Dragon Quest VII: Warriors of Eden is scheduled for a Spring 2001 US release.