Monday, July 5, 2010
A Slime draws near!!!: Looking back at Dragon Quest VII
So I’ve decided to do something new, and have started a little side endeavor, blog, personal opinion, retrospective, or whatever you kids want too call it these days where I share my poetic insight and thoughts on some of the greats of the yester years of gaming. The first game I have chosen to chronicle in this fashion is one that probably in all likely hood isn’t considered a true classic by many, but one I think really needs to be given a serious look by all who call themselves hardcore JRPG fans, for it is IMO the king of that genre: I speak of no other than Dragon Quest VII. So set back as I attempt to expound on what makes this hidden gem worth seeking out, even in today’s market of HD 1080P CGI infused, loseless audio invoked cinematic JRPG madness.
DQVII is a weird little title because its greatness is and was obscured by a couple of facts that went against it at the time of its release. For starters its decidedly one of the most retro of all JRPGS too be released since the PSone era, outside its own predecessor’s remakes on the PSone. And when I say this game is a throwback, I mean it, simple but very well orchestrated MIDI tunes, some of the most primitive graphics seen in an big Psone release, and a very simple text based game play interface that saw no evolution from its humble 8 bit beginnings back when Horii tried pimping the game from Manga rags in Japan. Too say that this game received little love in the West is an understatement, it came about at the end of a generation in which Square an others had redefined the JRPG genre in the west and games like Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears, Grandia, Suikonden 2, Lunar, etc had etched into the Western gamers psyche and made the genre at the time the biggest in terms of sales, and DQVII at first glance just didn’t stack up too these titans of graphics and cinematic story telling and genre crashing evolution of staid old conventions. Weirdly enough this was purely a Western disdain for DQVII as per usual given the series, was a sales behemoth in Japan and went on too become its highest selling game. That is right loyal Batfans, for all you Final Fantasy fan boys out there, in the land of Nippon this game and not Final Fantasy VII is known as the best JRPG on the Psone and sold accordingly, much like its PS2 sibling, DQVIII was that console‘s highest rated JRPG and biggest selling game.
Too make the fact that DQVII was trying too ride in on the coat tails of these icons worse, it was released at one of the worst times it could be, smack dab in the middle of the launch of the Dreamcast and baited breath hype of the PS2, and in the same year that saw Final Fantasy 9, Vagrant Story, and Valkyrie Profile see store shelves. It was clearly over for DQVII before it even started, and most gamers here looked at the too retro too be real graphics and scoffed and spent their cash elsewhere, and most reviews decidedly marked it down for its far too primitive at the time trimmings and ideology. Even I, lover of all things old school, bought the game and after about 5 hours of game time on it, decided it wasn’t for me and set it in my collection too perhaps never be played again.
Flash forward 10 years and the industry and I myself as an gamer have changed, retro is now the in thing and gamers(and myself) lap up any little piece of retro classic morsel they can as games like 3D Dot Hero, Contra WiiWare, Megaman 9 & 10, and the numerous classic releases on both the Wii Virtual Console and the PSN store can testify too. So looking back through the looking glass with a newfound appreciation for the type of experience games like DQVII can provide: Where does this leave the game? A few weeks back I decided to see and once again see if I could find the magic that made DQVII the highest selling PSone game in history in Japan with less jaded, more insightful eyes.
So reverently took the game from its hollowed coveted spot in my Psone collection and gently slid the disc into my PS3 Slim, and prepared too be blown away….ermmmm maybe not so much. First things first, I decided that I really didn’t want to trudge through the beginning segments again so I transferred my old original save from my Chrystal green PSone memory card to a nice new Virtual card on the PS3’s HDD and continued the game from where I left off 10 years prior. Maybe not the best idea I ever conceived of, since I had absolutely no idea or even a notion of one, as to where I should be headed or even where I was in the game’s little universe. But I quick look over at the FAQ on old trusted gamefaqs soon had me headed in the right direction, pretty much like I was back in An Nasiriyah with a 10 digit. The boards at Gamefaqs might be mire hole of human stupidity and arguments against both our species intelligence’s and evolutionary rung on the Ladder, but hey the Faq’s section is spot on. So after getting my heading, off I was too see where my thought processes where now on this game.
First I must address the game play system and the game’s whole lack of evolution from its 8 bit peers. While this was a hindrance at the time of its release and quietly harmed its chances of success here, in today’s landscape it has helped it climb too a far loftier spot than it had now. Let us be serious, JRPGs are in a nose dive right now, and once mighty Square has fallen and seemly can do no right now with its Final Fantasy franchise in dire straits, its new IP’s like Infinite Undiscovery the very definition of mediocre, and others like Star Ocean a shell of themselves. Hell the best JRPG’s this gen have been Tales of Vespria and Lost Odyssey, two JRPGs on a US developed console, so too say that the fortune of that once unstoppable juggernaut of an genre have changed is just a wee bit of an understatement. The main cause for this is because IMO the developers of these JRPGs this gen have tried taken the cinematic direction that Final Fantasy VII incubated and which saw that embryo lash out fully formed in the era of the PS2 in titles like Final Fantasy X, and gone completely too far with it resulting in JRPGS far too lite on the actual RPG aspects and game play content in games like Final Fantasy 13 this gen. Too be honest this trend started last gen, which is why many of the more hardcore among the JRPG elite considered games that are more old school in their approaches like SMT:Noctrune, Dragon Quest VIII, and Persona 4 far better than the Square produced titles of last gen. In a time like ours now when game play has taken a back seat to an cliché laden anime infused on-the-rails like approach in JRPG’s, DQVII’s game play system in some ways now appears rather deeper than the ones we see now. This has a decidedly different reaction now from me, than it did many moons ago when it seemed so simple as too be childish in its deliverance.
Its game play system is turn based, text based and command driven, run, fight, cast, skill, item, etc, nothing fancy here but it gets the job done and as any older gamer can tell you, that simplicity belies its truth depth. For now you must plan out your strategies, be cognizant of what is happening and who your facing, and keep careful eye on your compatriots and their status at any given time. No setting a Paradigm here and letting a computer based AI fight your battles for you. And it doesn’t help that like in the JRPG fore-fathers of yore, the enemies in this game can and will ramp up without warning in their difficulty, and there fore grinding is an biblical like must. Also doesn’t help at all that saves can for the most part only be created in towns at churches and some of those can be distance from your present location, making it easy too die in this game and having a good walk back too get where you where before a Blue Slime off’ed you. At least the game is fair, and if you die you end up back at the last church you visited it with little penalty. If you have ever played a JRPG on the NES, SMS, SNES, Genesis, Turbo, etc, your getting nothing new here and you know exactly what too expect.
Special notice must also be taken too point out some of the homage played too past DQ games in the battle text, when space was at an premium and dictated that only four letters could be used too name characters by using that same system to name them in the status window during battles. Also the enemies are given a classic flare by using the old 8 bit naming convention of adding letters too the names too set them apart, such as Slime and SlimeA. Good stuff. Only real issue I have is that your never sure how far away from leveling up you are, since this info isn’t anywhere as too be found.
Too add to this wonderful nostalgic ambiences, there is off course the Job system in DQVII. Granted this doesn’t open up for quite a spell into the game after putting nearly 20 Hours into it, but at least unlike certain games, it doesn’t bore you by holding your hand in all things game related for those first 20 hours before opening up!!!! The classes start off simple with basic classes like Warrior and Priest, but as you rank up in the different classes you can merge them too create new classes like for instance the Warrior and Mage classes both ranked up too 10 open up the Ranger class. This is a very excellent and deep system, and unlike some JRPGs the skills you receive in one class can be used while ranking up another. You can also capture monsters Pokeman style, and rank them up as well. Very Nice!!!
The game setup is basic JRPG fare, you battle in turn-based battles against enemies that remain unseen on the world map till they attack, you search through caves and towns hitting look on your menu too find new items and equipment and open chest, you do a fair amount of back tracking and fetch quests, and you fight through hours of battles too gain a level or two and get the coin needed too get that sword that adds a measly +3 too your attack in order too hopefully subdue that boss in the crypt all in a story that can easily take upwards of 100 hours to complete. Too be fair this is a game play system that is pretty archaic and which some younger gamers might deplore, but I rather this than being led around like a angry toddler on a baby leash through the Mall in a game that tops out at 25 hours, its all about value these days baby!!
The story is of course pretty light fair with the general premise being that the original three party members(as per usual for the past 25 something years, of course I named my character Methos) are a lucky do getter group of friends who like too explore whatever crap they can on their little island nation and one day find a Temple that links the land past and present together, and they go on a little time jaunt too mend the world as best they can. Very little depth or character defining insight is too be found here and the story is told through some very simple and at times mistranslated from the original Japanese writing, but I guess that is better than some game that makes so little freaking sense, that it includes a in-game dictionary too explain each facet of it and even, still only barely makes any type of sense too anyone playing who might actually be sentient.
The graphics are of course pretty retro with what is without doubt the most primitive 3D graphic engine seen on the PSone, this game is blocky, void of real details in the backdrops, and feature some very poorly rendered 3d sprites for the characters, and very some really poor walking animation, but this was clearly a design directive as the developers wanted the graphics too be as minimalist as possible and too capture the look and feel of the older 16 bit titles and that said the aesthetics of the game are successful in that regard, and maintain a very colorful and charming look in a quirky way that grows on you after a while. The battles are done in the classic static 2D portrait mold as in all previous DQ games and many a earlier JRPG, and while not as detailed as those found in the more recent Nintendo DS remakes and no where near the godly battle scenes found in amazing Dragon Quest VIII on the PS2, they are still very nice and display Akira Toriyama’s designs very well indeed. They could use a little bit more animation because well nice looking the enemies feature hardly any at all and the spells are under-whelming at best , but given the retro 8 bit feel of this game, that would of probably hurt the game more than it would help. I must also mention that I played this game with the smoothing engaged on my PS3 and in 1080p, and this gave it a very pleasant clean look on my HDTV. Its no FFXIII or Demons Soul’s too be sure, but at the same time the game has a more charming and less sterile look than what those newer HD behemoths have on display, and harkens back too a more pure and innocent time.
I must also mention the one concession that Enix made too the Psone generation, the CG movies in the game. But please do not get your hopes up, the one’s here are no where near the quality of the ones found in the Psone Final Fantasy gamers or Xenogears, what is on display here is badly rendered, grainy, and not even up too the standards of the CG found in most Sega CD games.
On the audio side of the house the game, this game really shines. The MIDI tunes are very well done and give the game a very SNES like sound while sounding more haunting and complex at the same time. The music is for the most part just remade renditions of the music found in the older SNES games and their PSone remakes and has like every other facet of the game simply failed to evolve, but they were amazing too begin with so nothing negative here too whine about. They are IMO some of the best renditions that Koichi Sugiyama has produced, and this is one very appealing aural scores and features some very strong melodies to delight one’s ears. Nothing here is weak from the pleasant tranquil town themes too the more ominous dungeon themes, and the battle music is second only too the ones found in FFXIII and FF9 in my honest opinion and really add and drive the battles and add too their intensity. As a sidebar, anyone who has ever played DQVIII on the PS2, you will probably recognize much of the music here since both games share the same score, but the one in DQVIII has been re-mastered and played by an full orchestra in the US release so of course its just a smidge better quality wise. The sound effects also follow that line of thought, with almost all of them the same stand-bys the series has been using since its inception on the NES ad nauseum, but now more full sounding and in stereo. I found them invigorating, but I can easily see where they can be annoying after a while.
So looking back, its painful too think that I wrote such an excellent game off almost a decade ago, but maturity and the changing debacle of what is now the JRPG market has made be look and appraise this game with a fresh perspective that I lacked then and better yet, has led me too play a true masterpiece now when they are in such short supply. This game is a true gem of classic JRPG game play and a loving tribute too what is consider by the world as an whole the best JRPG series created, and the one that pioneered the entire genre too begin with. Anyone sick of the lackluster direction that Japanese developed RPGs are headed now are well inclined too find and play this amazing game now or forever live in remorse for having pass it up as I once did myself. In spite of all the missteps that Enix took with this game then and didn’t revise until DQVIII, they still created a stellar and brillant game that has aged better than expected, and is probably one that is better received now than it was in 2001.