The Dragon Quest series is one of the most important console RPG franchises, perhaps even eclipsing Final Fantasy in terms of popularity. It is that popular that laws have been passed in Japan preventing the release of a game during the working week, for fear of lost productivity in sick days.
The series has yet to find that kind of success in the west, though with the release of the newest installment of the series on the DS - Dragon Quest IX - looming ever closer, Square Enix saw fit to revisit some of the classics to build some hype. Dragon Quest V: The Hand of the Heavenly Blade has arrived the DS, and is a very, very good sign of things to come.
The hallmark of the game is the story. The core game hasn’t changed since the original release on the SNES, and as such is quite archaic. Enemy encounters are random and combat itself is exceedingly simple. Further, players have very little control over a character’s development - a character will learn skill x at level y, and if you’d rather teach him or her z, then bad luck, you can‘t.
The story will keep you interested, however, right to the end. For its time, it was breathtakingly epic, and charts the journey of a young boy through various stages of life. Themes of revenge and betrayal, slavery and love are all covered, and while it’s no Shakespeare, the game’s plot is genuinely compelling.
Released a few months after Dragon Quest IV: The Chapters of the Chosen, DQV does offers a bit more gameplay variety in its very Pokemon-style monster collecting. As the hero defeats monsters, some will randomly offer to join the team. By accumulating a lot of the beasts, it’s possible to access a wide range of skills and build a large number of different teams to tackle obstacles. Compared to modern RPGs or Pokemon, the monster collecting is limited in scope, but DQIV, by comparison, is limited to the eight core heroes, and as such has dated much more poorly.
There’s a casino in DQV that offers up a few amusing diversions. Along with some standard slot machines and an gladiatorial arena where you bet on the outcome of a battle between some random monsters, there’s a racing track (which you can enter your own pet monsters into), and a basic board game similar to snakes and ladders where, with a bit of luck, you can reach the goal and win a big prize. There’s not much else in the game to distract you from the main storyline, but it’s enough for a brief detour.
Graphically the game is a carbon copy of DQIV, using the same bright, 2D-characters-in-a-3D-world art style that is pleasant without being overbearing. The soundtrack is similarly refined, containing some classic themes that will no doubt please the long-running fans of the series.
There’s no real reason to buy both DQIV and DQV, as the two games are so similar that, at times, you’ll forget which is which. With a more cohesive plot, and the monster collecting sideshow, DQV is the superior title, though, and the perfect interactive advertisement for how incredible Dragon Quest IX will be when it’s released in a few short months. Get that sick leave ready.