Is this game bad? Don’t be Yggdrasilly!
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: October 13, 2015
Tecmo Koei apparently wants to do for hack n’ slash action what Telltale is doing for adventure games – marrying its core gameplay to any interested parties in the hope some magic will be made. Hot off the heels of last year’s excellent Hyrule Warriors, the fundamentals of Dynasty Warriors pay a visit to Square Enix in order to bring us Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below.
The result? It’s very different, whether you’re playing because of Dragon Quest, Dynasty Warriors, or both.
Though there’s a nucleus of the button-smashing hack n’ slash combat for which Koei is (perhaps notoriously) known, the influence of Square Enix’s RPG sensibilities are deeply rooted within the whole experience.
Combat may be grounded in simple combo attacks, but they’re flavored by mana-draining spells – performed by holding down a shoulder button in conjunction with a face button. Rather than build upon strings of melee attacks like usual Warriors games, Dragon Quest Heroes expands its spellcasting and boasts a party of four playable characters that can be switched to at will.
Hyrule Warriors was already an impressive blend of The Legend of Zelda and Omega Force’s sequel-happy schtick, but Heroes takes the idea even further, working hard to create something that feels unmistakably Dragon Quest despite the constant battery perform upon hundreds of enemy peons.
Many of the game’s missions feel more like Tower Defense games than typical Musou stages, often charging the party with something to protect. While a handful of these take the form of dreary escort missions, most of them are cleverly designed battles in which you’re constantly trying to stem the flow of monsters while ensuring a key target doesn’t get destroyed.
Clever use of Monster Medals can help swing a battle in the player’s favor. Oftentimes, defeated monsters drop Medals which act as a means of summoning said monster. Some of these creatures unleash one-shot attacks, but most of them act as sentries, spawning on the battlefield as an allied soldier and guarding a position until defeated. Here, the Tower Defense elements really shine, as players are encouraged to use their minions as guards while they take out strategic enemy spawn points.
Naturally, you can only have a certain amount of Medals at once, so choosing the right beast for the right job is imperative.
It’s a fantastic new spin on the usual Warriors flow, replacing its regular “kill the enemy general” objective with something remarkably more strategic. Battles can get hectic, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in collecting monsters and unleashing them on their former comrades.
Sadly, monsters are a bit less effective at working for you than they are at fighting you. While the idea is to use minions as defensive sentries, a lot of them are rubbish at their job, which means that you can’t safely rely on them to protect key strategic areas. No matter how many or how powerful your guards, the protected objective invariably takes considerable damage whenever you leave to try and win the fight.
Sentries certainly help, but it can be annoying to have a hugely defended position and still find that your gate or magic tree root is getting inevitably battered by the opposition.
Quick movements and a keen eye on the battlefield (it helps to have a map), however, will ensure victory in most situations. It’s an intense game, perhaps moreso than any Warriors style game yet released, with not just mindless peons to take down but a regular influx of large, boss-tier opponents. Despite the anarchy, as well as the potential frustration factor of its defensive nature, Heroes remains an impressively well balanced game provided you keep an eye on the objectives.
Not all missions consist of defending a location. Some are more about fighting from one end of a map to another, and you can return to previous areas in an endless mode, hammering away at waves of monsters until you’re tired. There are also some proper boss battles to engage in and scads of additional side content piled on top besides.
What really makes Heroes stand out is just how much of the Dragon Quest spirit is lovingly preserved. A traditional alchemy system is in place, allowing for the crafting of accessories, while everybody’s favorite helmeted blacksmith is on hand to sell increasingly powerful weapons. Mini Medals are earned and traded for special loot, and there’s even a full-fledged Monster Hunter quest board, charging players with such tasks as killing a certain number of enemies or gathering a set of materials.
The option to switch between four characters in a single fight adds variety to any battle and evokes the feel of playing with a real Dragon Quest party in realtime. Familiar spells like Kabuff and Kasnooze are wielded by certain characters, and each hero has their own distinct playstyle with a series of unique and recognizable attacks.
Every playable warrior has their own skill tree with expandable attacks and stat buffs, as well opportunities for costume and weapon unlocks.
The “musou” system seen in regular Warriors games has been given a touch of DQ flavor, replaced as it is with Tension. Tension builds as a character strings hits together and racks up combos. Once the gauge is full, this tension can be released to give players temporary invulnerability, the power to use spells without consuming mana, and an ending coup de grâce that deals huge damage to everything on the screen. Tension takes a while to build, which once again gives it a more tactical edge – unleashing its power at just the right moment can be a critical decision.
I would have liked an option to move around the map at a swifter pace. While battlefields aren’t as huge as they could have been, it can still get tedious to slog around any given arena. As the game progresses, the main player character (able to be named yourself in time-honored DQ tradition) gets the Zoom spell, able to fly to key areas of each map, but even with this handy ability the lack of horses or even a Hyrule Warriors sprint can be a pain.
Mission structure is stunted as well. After every battle, you have to return to the game’s hub-world airship without an option to just move onto the next challenge. Most story quests have reams of text to get through before and after, adding to the sense of drudgery. It’s no dealbreaker, but Heroes has a tendency to risk its own momentum with a somewhat inconsistent pace and some ponderous mission progression.
Dragon Quest Heroes is massively entertaining and, like Hyrule Warriors before it, an impressive blend of two genres that go surprisingly well together. One weakness, however, is its story. While competently voice acted with a charming range of British regional dialects (Cor Blimey!), the narrative is impossible not to cringe at with its stereotypical framework of light versus darkness and the usual “friendship can accomplish anything” guff that accompanies far too many anime storylines.
It all gets a bit too twee for my liking, though there are some smart moments – the idea of monsters being former allies, and their nature being subverted in an unexpected way, is a unique idea I wish had been more of a driving plot point.
Oh, and Healix needs to just shut up. Shut up forever.
It would be a grave error not to say the game looks damn gorgeous. Akira Toriyama’s beloved designs look fantastic despite this title eschewing the usually obligatory cel-shading, and his range of cheerfully silly monster designs are brought faithfully to life. Colors are vibrant and bright, while attack animations are superb. Everything just looks so pretty and the impact of attacks have some real weight behind them. Recognizable DQ series music litters the entire experience, too, right down to the retro chime you hear whenever a mission is completed.
Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below is a beautiful game that does more with the Warriors franchise than the main Warriors games have done in a long time. Despite putting hours and hours into the thing, I’ve got plenty yet to do, and I’ve enjoyed every second of it so far. Aside from some poor pacing decisions and a rather limp narrative, Tecmo Koei has made lightning strike twice by merging two franchises together in yet another surprisingly brilliant way.
With its smaller scale, party-based character system, and variety of both magic and mundane attacks, this is a production that carries all the trappings of a Dragon Quest game in the shell of a Musou experience, with a large dose of defensive strategy and even a dash of Pokemon-esque monster collecting on the side. While not quite the revelation Hyrule Warriors was, it’s nonetheless another case of lightning in a button-smacking bottle.
Also, it has metal slimes in it. They’re a bugger to catch.
God, I miss Dragon Quest VIII.