Many years have passed since the west has last seen a game from the beloved Dragon Quest series. Its presence outside of Japan has certainly been a lackluster one much to the frustration of fans, myself included, around the globe. On top of all this, it has been even longer since a Dragon Quest game on a console has come westward with the last one being Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King for the Playstation 2, and that was released a decade ago!
The Dragon Quest series has definitely had a bumpy ride over the years, but one of the latest games in the franchise has found its way to international shores once more with a unique spin-off - Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below.
Primarily developed by Omega Force, known for their plethora of Dynasty Warriors games, I was intrigued in how their formula would mesh with the Dragon Quest world. After all, this wouldn't be the first popular series to mix itself with their style of games - Gundam, One Piece, and even The Legend of Zelda have all recently received entries created by Omega Force.
Despite multiple efforts to vary up the nature of their hack n' slash blueprint, persistent criticisms of Omega Force boil down to both the repetitiveness and re-skinned feeling of their products. Thus, the true mystery behind Dragon Quest Heroes for players, especially fans, is if it's able to breakaway far enough from the typical Omega Force approach to carve out a fresh gameplay experience in the Dragon Quest universe.
Upon starting the game, players will have the option to choose between two protagonists: the overly tactical Luceus and the eagerly headstrong Aurora. The choice ultimately doesn't affect the central storyline and ending, though a handful of scenes at certain parts of the journey will be altered to suit the main character's perspective. Plus, the chosen protagonist can never be swapped out for another party member which makes their identical functionality, moveset, and core abilities understandable.
Quite frankly, the overall storyline of Dragon Quest has never deviated far from classic saving-the-world scenarios. The plot progression of Dragon Quest Heroes is no different in that respect; travel to new lands, solve the core conflict in that region, and recruit party members along the way.
Dragon Quest Heroes, first and foremost, absolutely nails down the look and feel of a Dragon Quest game. Akira Toriyama's character designs are brought to life on the big screen more vividly than ever before. Even though the game contains a grand total of 13 playable characters, which may seem relatively low, almost every character operates differently from one another with their own unique skill trees, weapon sets, and special attacks. The only characters that have an identical arsenal are Luceus and Aurora. Other than that, the roster consists of memorable characters and fan favorites from Dragon Quest IV, Dragon Quest V, Dragon Quest VI, and Dragon Quest VIII.
Everything about the game's visuals is a love letter to fans, both new and old. Iconic enemies like slimes, golems, drackies, and rockbombs are just a tiny sample of the many enemy types players will encounter in Dragon Quest Heroes. When characters talk with one another, special artwork portraits reminiscent of past Dragon Quest titles bring fans down memory lane. The most significant thing that stands out about the visual design of this game is in its user interface.
The fundamental gameplay systems in Dragon Quest Heroes is a far departure from previous entries in the series. Unlike the standard turn-based battles that the Dragon Quest series revels in, Dragon Quest Heroes features real-time battles with a player's party of four freely moving along the battlefield and actively dealing damage to enemies on the fly. Basic combat consists of normal and charge attacks that can be seamlessly chained together to inflict damage upon nearby threats. Characters have the ability to jump and can also attack in mid-air. Eventually, players will have the ability to enter a powered-up state and unleash massive ultimate attacks that annihilate virtually anything it touches.
Skills can also be used at any time in the heat of battle at the cost of MP. Armed with a total of four skills, it's up to players to utilize a character's skills effectively and efficiently. Some deal raw damage such as Aurora's Cold Fission that rounds up unfortunate enemies into a fierce ice tornado. Meanwhile, Alena can create multiple copies of herself to triple the amount of attacks that she can deck out! There are even skills that buff an entire party's stats or inflict surrounding enemies with specific status ailments. All the pillars of Dragon Quest battles are in place with an action RPG flavor to them.
Each and every single character has had a ton of love put into them from the way they move to what their roles were in their respective Dragon Quest installments. Jessica from Dragon Quest VIII is heavily invested in devastating magical attacks and healing while keeping enemies at bay with her whip. Dragon Quest VI's Terry swiftly deals with foes with his unreal speed with a sword, and Bianca of Dragon Quest V fame prefers dealing with her enemies from a safe distance thanks to her trusty bow and arrow. No matter which character you decide to play, the animation transitions for each character's moveset is a visual treat because they move so naturally from attack to attack.
What ties all these elements of combat together is having the ability to switch between any of your party members instantly and seamlessly at any time in combat. Feeling a bit tired of controlling Aurora? Then take control of Yangus for a bit and whack enemies around with his gigantic axe. Is your party low on health? Tap over to Jessica real fast to initiate her party-wide healing spell and continue playing with another character as she's dancing away!
Another significant part of gameplay comes in the form of incorporating Monster Medals into combat. The game features a strikingly absurd amount of defense missions from protecting a gate or fending off oncoming attackers from a group of individuals. Whatever the reason is, the game will more often than not place the heroes in a situation in which they must defend something or someone from multiple sides. Your party alone is not enough to deal with the incoming waves of monsters.
Higher-leveled monsters consume more slots in a player's medal bag, but they can be upgraded via sidequests. This adds an additional layer of strategy amidst the chaos but make no mistake, the combat in Dragon Quest Heroes may be frantic, but I found it to be extremely satisfying.
Game structure in Dragon Quest Heroes revolves around accepting different types of missions, whether it be advancing the plot, completing a sidequest, or simply grinding. A central hub in the form of a flying fortress, The Stonecloud, allows players to prepare their party for their next ordeal. Players can swap out party members, level their skills with skill points obtained by increasing their level, and outfit them with the latest weapons and defense orbs to further develop their ability to slay monsters in a timely fashion.
There is also a crafting system in which new items can be created from ingredients found in combat. Sidequests can also be managed here along with a mini-medal shop that sells even greater rewards. It seems overwhelming at first, but Dragon Quest Heroes definitely does not lack in terms of content and options.
Another element that heavily caters to Dragon Quest fans in Dragon Quest Heroes lies in its audio direction. The overall score of this game is fantastic - not only does it look and feel like a Dragon Quest game, it also most certainly sounds like a Dragon Quest game. Koichi Sugiyama's memorable style of grand tunes graces its way into Dragon Quest Heroes sculpting the appropriate mood and atmosphere of the accompanying visuals. Additionally, the sound effects of the game reinforce a sense of remembrance of past titles especially the nostalgic tune that plays when saving a game at the Chapel inside The Stonecloud.
Unfortunately, the biggest downfall in Dragon Quest Heroes is its lack of variety in mission types. This game ultimately contains a whopping number of two types of objectives - either kill all the monsters or defend something from an incoming assault that also ends when all the monsters have been defeated. Throughout each level, there will be certain monsters that open up portals for monsters to pour out of. Kill these annoying pests to close the portals and end the incoming wave of enemies for that particular route.
Even though the game does such a great job at providing the player a ton of options of how to handle any given combat situation, the missions themselves aren't all that engaging especially when the only thing that spices them up is when a new enemy type is introduced or a certain gimmick is required to complete the mission.
With a disappointing number of mission types, the game eventually began to felt quite cumbersome. As a result, collecting and placing Monster Medals at tactical positions is a mechanic that quickly becomes tiresome after awhile. It's exciting to see a high-leveled mini-boss fight on your side for the first 3-4 times, but after the 23rd or 24th time... not so much.
Another thing that bothered me was that the story in Dragon Quest Heroes just lacks the sense of adventure from other Dragon Quest titles. While the character interactions themselves are amusing, the flow of the plot overstays its welcome. Its tale heavily drags itself by the last quarter of the game and significant encounters that feel like they pave the way straight directly to the climax are littered with even more defense missions.
Since every mission takes you back to The Stonecloud immediately, there's a minimal sense of consecutive progression. For example, the party completes a large room that leads to the final section of a dungeon but before opening that door, the player is taken back into The Stonecloud and has to select that specific mission once more before actually starting it which sadly breaks the build-up towards it.
Trying to find a specific enemy to fulfill that type of sidequest also proves to be a bothersome experience because there's no easy way to track them down unless players go to the world map, select a specific area to look at that region's available missions, and then press Start on them one-by-one to see which monsters show up. It's a time consuming process which could've been rectified in a number of ways, whether it'd be the quest description stating where those enemies could be found or the world map having a master display of enemies populating a certain part of the world.
Overall, Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below provides a new take on the series. Its filled to the brim with ideas that stray away from what other Omega Force titles have with an emphasis on more contained spaces for tower defense missions, instead of wide open battlefields capturing bases. The base of design philosophies in this game are solid, but there is much room for improvement especially in the mission objective department. While the main story clocks in at around 15-20 hours, a myriad of sidequests and a New Game+ mode will keep players busy for awhile.
It's absolutely awesome to see Dragon Quest back on a console once again, but there are considerable edges that need smoothening out. Square Enix has already announced that a sequel is in production; it will be quite intriguing to see what that'll improve upon. In the meantime, Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below is a worthwhile game to play to fill in that gaping void of Dragon Quest after all these years.
Versions tested: PS4