Dragon Quest Heroes Review
If you’re short on time but you still require an explanation for the score, here’s a tidy little summation: The game in question is Dynasty Warriors with an attractive Dragon Quest skin. It’s an unsatisfactory and flawed blend of strangely linear exploration and fast-paced combat, with a mediocre story and merely average pacing. The developer is Omega Force, known for their work with Warriors but not known for role-playing games, which is why Dragon Quest Heroes is little more than an action game with a fair amount of depth. That being said, its attractiveness and generally accessible – and even entertaining – gameplay might be enough to keep you playing for a while.
The aforementioned skin is indeed appealing, all the more so if you’re a confirmed Dragon Quest fan. Of course, if you are an ardent follower of the legendary IP, you’ll likely be none too pleased with the gameplay but I’ll get to that in a minute. From a graphical standpoint, this is undeniably DQ. It has a distinct charm and cuteness that you don’t often see in large-scale productions these days, and that alone makes the game a little more interesting. It also helps that we see so many familiar faces from the past, which considerably increases the nostalgia factor. The only downside is that it’s not exactly polished or especially impressive; it’s really a visual display that might’ve been possible on PS3. This may or may not matter to you, however.
The sound is a little better, thanks to some surprisingly decent voice performances and those quaint (can’t think of a more fitting adjective) battle effects that complement the cutesy graphics well. The soundtrack is okay even if it isn’t especially inspired and when facing down hordes of oncoming enemies, the effects take center-stage, anyway. I think what most fans will want to know is, “does it sound like Dragon Quest?” Yes, the audio is just about right, provided your expectations aren’t particularly high. For instance, while several of the primary characters have good actors, there are some lesser characters that tend to grate. This is common with just about any JRPG experience, though, so I can hardly say the target audience will be disappointed.
Before anyone even bothers with the ridiculous assumption that I – or any traditional JRPG fan – thinks every single modern JRPG should be turn-based, let me clarify: I don’t care if you wish to update or try a new mechanic. Even the most established franchises have to innovate if they wish to stay relevant in a wildly competitive marketplace, which has indeed shifted its focus to the West. I’m not “bashing” Dragon Quest Heroes because it doesn’t use the old-fashioned turn-based system; I’m criticizing it because the real-time system it uses simply isn’t very good. Nothing about the combat is polished or deep enough to warrant a lot of praise and as fighting is the focal point, it’s hard to recommend a game with such obvious drawbacks. This isn’t about being “stuck in the past” but simply evaluating a modern product that doesn’t excel.
As I said above, this really looks and sounds like Dragon Quest. I think Omega Force really got the presentation down pat, despite the somewhat lackluster technical elements. The problem is that it feels nothing like DQ. Remember in Dragon Quest VIII when we explored a very large, open world map? It wasn’t exactly a sandbox environment like we have today but it was close. And in a world where open-world has become the accepted and expected norm, wouldn’t one assume that a new Dragon Quest, which had previously headed in that direction anyway, would be pretty open? Oddly, this game has a very linear feel that actually reminds me of Final Fantasy X.
If you recall, that game was criticized for its lack of a true world map, even though you could eventually go wherever you wished with an airship (which you didn’t actually control). DQH is similar in construction, in that you have a central airship hub – which becomes available in the first few hours of play – and you beat on monsters in certain sections of the world. The sections change and get larger as you progress but there’s not a lot in the way of exploration, nor is there anything to see or do besides blasting through enemies. It also reminds one of a Dynasty Warriors game, where you had some large-ish maps that were still finite, and your only goal was to trash every foe that came in sight. This gives the game a disjointed feeling and as such, you never feel as if you’re really playing an RPG.
You’ll soon amass a selection of well-known characters from the long-running DQ franchise, and each has a unique assortment of skills and abilities. This is where the game starts to really embrace the role-playing genre, as there are individual skill trees, multiple shops where you can bolster your physical and magical prowess, and plenty of treasure to find. This depth is undeniable and will give the micromanagement fiend lots of things to do outside of battle. You can decide who you wish to bring with you into combat and given the distinct styles and traits of each ally, you really have to think. Which team would be best in this particular situation? Should I just focus on these four characters throughout the game or should I mix and match? It’s always fun to get involved in these considerations, in my eyes.
But make no mistake; you spend the overwhelming majority of your time on the battlefield. This is where the freewheeling nature of the Dynasty Warriors mechanic makes its presence felt: You have two control options; one lets you just hammer on a couple buttons and unleash combos with ease, while the other – called Manual – requires the exact button inputs to execute your special attacks, ala God of War or some other action-centric game. You can switch to any of your allies on the fly, thereby allowing you to string together devastating attacks in quick succession. If you build the Tension of each of your characters, those attacks will be even more devastating. You earn Tension by whaling on hapless foes and when the meter fills, you can unleash a character-specific assault that annihilates just about any non-boss enemy.
At first, the game is too easy and then suddenly, about two-thirds of the way through, the challenge steeply climbs. Then you actually have to pay attention to what you’re doing, which is evidence of skewed pacing. But at least it forces you to think a bit more. However, this action system simply has too many glaring problems; first and foremost is the AI, which is mediocre at best. There were times when my allies simply stood around doing nothing with enemies bouncing around them, and the bottom line is that they really aren’t especially helpful unless you take direct control. To add to the frustration of real RPG fans, there is no AI strategy system in place; akin to the Gambits in Final Fantasy XII. Not being able to set an ally’s general strategy in a real-time situation is an absurd omission and only makes it feel more like Dynasty Warriors.
On top of which, the camera is bad. It just is. It needed to be pulled back a lot and as you don’t have an option to adjust camera distance (I couldn’t find it, at any rate), you’re constantly swiveling the camera in a desperate attempt to get a lay of the land. When there are dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of foes swarming all around you, it would really help to be able to see more than a couple feet around you, yes? The basic control is fine, if a little loose, but it really just hinges on you battling the too-close camera, ripping off attack after attack, building Tension for tough encounters, and finding some treasure here and there. There’s not much else to the game, which will be undoubtedly disappointing for DQ lovers. It doesn’t help that the narrative feels like an afterthought, which absolutely was not the case in past series entries.
There is some fun to be had, though. If you really get into the building of your team and the deep customization options, and you enjoy the simple yet occasionally rewarding combat, you’ll probably enjoy yourself. The issues mentioned here are not crippling; they don’t totally gimp the experience. In other words, if you deem such drawbacks minor, you’re far more likely to become engaged and entertained. That all being said, this isn’t Dragon Quest. It has the look of DQ and some of the structure of a role-playing game but at its core, it’s a slam-bang action game that isn’t deep enough to satisfy franchise followers – or any RPG fanatic, really – and not polished enough to appeal to action lovers. That’s why I don’t understand such productions: What exactly is your target audience?
Dragon Quest Heroes is Dynasty Warriors with an admittedly appealing DQ skin. It offers plenty of foes to strike down with a wide variety of cool attacks, lots of classic characters, and enough ally and party micromanagement to maintain some sense of role-playing and strategy. But the story falls flat, the pacing is off, and above all else, the combat mechanic is inherently flawed. The camera isn’t right, the AI is barely passable, and the strange linear structure just doesn’t fit. I suppose there are lots of reasons for people to look past the obvious shortcomings, and I imagine some hardcore DQ fans will enjoy the adventure. However, there are much better RPGs out there and there are much better action games; DQH makes a stab at being a jack-of-all-trades but as is so often the case, the result is a production that lacks focus, and as such, cannot shine.
The Good: That iconic and charming DQ style is here in spades. Some decent voice performances. Combat is accessible and can be lots of fun. Lots of depth in terms of off-the-field micromanagement. Classic DQ characters add to the nostalgia.
The Bad: Technically unimpressive. Mediocre AI and a lousy camera, both of which constantly affect the combat. No strategy system for allies. A mostly boring and uneventful story.
The Ugly: “If you have to go the ‘faster and dumber’ route, at least give us a polished mechanic.”
10/15/2015 Ben Dutka