For many, the Dragon Warrior/Quest franchise has a great deal of meaning, nostalgia and history. I remember playing Dragon Warrior on the NES when I was a young whippersnapper. I also remember that when faced with a choice at the end of joining the last boss or killing him, I decided to join him. The screen acquired an orange glow and my Nintendo froze. Was that what was supposed to happen? After my orange experience, I never touched a Dragon Warrior game again.
Dragon Quest IV, a Square Enix port of the original to the DS, presented an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the franchise. Having just run through the remake of Final Fantasy IV, I had high hopes that Square Enix would have scrubbed through the original and done away with any lingering issues to create a superior RPG experience, as they had in FFIV. While the makeover was not as extreme as FFIV received, the original game experience has enough strengths to compete with today’s DS RPG options.
Unlike many RPGs that seem to repeat many of the same gameplay pitfalls, DQ4 has a few notable strengths. Perhaps the most interesting in terms of plot is that the start of the game plays out over multiple chapters giving backstory to each of your party members: what’s motivating them and why they are meeting up with the main hero.
The actual plot is pretty routine, with the lord of the underworld awakening and the prophesied hero plus his merry band being the one(s) who need to kick his ass all over again. Followed by cake. But the actual party members have a bit more depth, ranging from pedophile (I mean child saving) Scotsmen with horrible accents to revenge-driven slutty sisters. I may be making some loose interpretations, but the general idea stands.
On the topic of your merry band, DQ4 blessedly gives experience to the entire party, regardless of who is active, after every fight. This is a significant improvement over RPGs and tactical RPGs that, for whatever reason, feel the need to punish you into grinding the entire party up, or neglecting anyone not in your starting party. While you still need to grind for cash to properly outfit them with gear, not being punished by who you choose is a huge boon.
All is not gooey and delicious (like a slime) in DQ4, however. Possibly the most glaring gameplay issue is the fact that many enemies, particularly bosses, have high resistance to damage spells, rendering mage characters largely useless. The fighter class characters simply attack–over and over again. As a result, battles tend to be a combination of endlessly attacking and using a few select defensive spells–there isn’t a whole lot of variety to be had in characters or their skills. This tends to wear on you as the game goes on. Eventually every battle becomes mashing the same few buttons with the only strategy being if you need to spell shield AND physical shield.
While the introductory chapters are fun, every time you start a new chapter, your characters are level one, which leads to a repetitive grinding of new characters complete with buying the same items. It might have been eased somewhat if characters started a few levels over one, with a few skills, so as to make the chapter starts less tiresome.
Lastly, and perhaps most unfortunately: the games’ plot direction falls apart once your party is united. The initial chapters are fairly well constructed, with clear directions on where to go next. But once you have your full party and get the ship, which signifies near-total access to the world map, figuring out where to go next can be tricky.
Often the next step clue-giver is a random person who will change what they said previously to tell you where to go next. Although it’s easy to travel the world thanks to a spell that allows instant teleportation, things are complicated by a day-night cycle that changes which townspeople show up and what they say. As a result, I found myself referring to a FAQ, not to find secrets, but to figure out where the hell to go. This is not a good thing.
Despite these flaws, for some reason DQ4 hangs together and is an enjoyable game. It does grow wearisome by the end, but you’ll be invested enough to play through the pain and finish the game. Another bonus is that there is a solid thirty plus hours of gameplay, only ten of which you will spend trying to figure out where to go next. The $40 pricepoint of a Square Enix DS game is a bit steep, but given the solid playtime, if you’re a fan of the franchise or looking for a solidly enjoyable, if vanilla, RPG on the DS, you should give DQ4 a try.