There are a small group of titles coming to the 3DS in 2016 that will target a broad audience, but one Summer release in particular has engaged a dedicated group of RPG fans - Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past. The wait for localisation certainly made some rather unhappy, especially in Europe where the PS1 original never arrived, but it's now getting closer to making its mark.
We learned a little more about it and enjoyed around 40 minutes of hands-on time during a recent visit to Nintendo UK's HQ, and it became clear why it's so eagerly anticipated. It's true that this writer is no expert on the series - fear not, we'll bring one on board when the time comes for a review - but it's nevertheless easy to appreciate why it's on so many wishlists.
We were first shown the game in a presentation, and it's immediately clear that it'll be a title to engross fans for weeks and months, certainly until Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King comes around. The original on PS1 was an interesting case - known as Dragon Warrior VII: Warriors of Eden in North America - due to the fact it was the first time that the development team had worked with the freedom of CD-ROM storage. Rather than produce enhanced visuals and step up the game in a new generation, the developers opted to cram more content onto the disc using older 2D-style visuals. The result is a monstrous game that can be pegged at around 120 hours from start to finish. That's hardcore, by any standards.
It's a big game, then, and Nintendo is evidently keen to help the Square Enix title succeed in the West, partly due to an extended hope - presumably - that success will encourage more localised releases in generations to come. Considering this 3DS release landed in Japan back in 2013, too, we know that it's a title that's had plenty of time for polish.
When seeing the game in action it certainly stands up well - it's a title that's been reimagined with a 3D engine, including the ability to pan the camera left and right with the L and R buttons. The world itself looks rather attractive by 3DS standards, albeit they're not representative of a top-of-class effort on the portable. As a remaster it's obviously limited by source material, and the focus has clearly been on solid performance above visual glitz; in this case that's a good choice. Despite obvious pop-in and basic textures, it runs smoothly and also looks charming with the 3D effect enabled on the top screen, a feature we've learned can't be taken entirely for granted.
Actually going hands on we were put into a save that was part of the way through what is typically considered as Chapter 2 - this seemed to be the spot chosen as it was relatively light on dialogue and had plenty of exploration and battling, while still being early enough in the game to have forgiving difficulty. Having spoken to disaffected villagers in 'Ballymolloy', which we think is supposed to be Scottish but doesn't quite pull off the dialect, we headed to a tower in the East to defeat a boss and return abducted women and girls to the village. This is early on in the game, but as a sense of the scope of the title it was already preceded by a surprising number of entries in the handy 'story so far' menu that serves as a text-based recap.
The gameplay, when tackled at its simplest level without diving off into menus, has a conventional but enjoyable RPG hook. Unlike in the original release, enemies are now visible on the map as you explore, meaning we enjoyed the option of easy battles to level up or dashing past to objectives; guidance is also minimal. In fact we even spent about five minutes getting slightly lost in the tower, which featured a series of stairways that seemed to have no end, but it was undeniably enjoyable to simply explore and loot treasure chests while wondering where the heck the Boss could be located.
Initiating battles kicks off conventional turn-based fare, too, albeit with Dragon Quest's style at play along with full visibility of you and your allies on the battlefield. You can attack, use offensive / defensive / special magic, help and buff teammates and also set their tactics. In easy battles we simply encouraged all-out attack from our buddies, but in a slightly tougher late encounter we set them to 'watch my back' or 'focus on healing', and in general they did as we asked. Once more abilities and styles become available it's evident that battles will be interesting affairs.
In some respects, such as exploration and battles, Dragon Quest VII can feel like a new and ambitious 3DS game to newcomers like this writer, with decent visuals and strong design. Yet with the new is the old, and some aspects of the presentation feel rather retro, for better and worse. The overall UI (user interface) is certainly simplistic on the eye, with plain boxes and grids of text, albeit it's effective in communicating key details. As is expected with a game of this depth there are a lot of sub-menus, items, skills and more to deal with, and they're presented relatively crisply here. Yet there's also no getting away from the fact it's also rather bare-bones stylistically, almost over-formal in its look, lacking the flair and flourishes that can perhaps be expected.
In truth, complaints about the UI and menus being boxy and having boring font is hardly going to dampen enthusiasm for this one, and nor should it. Retro aspects are also a positive, too - playing with headphones we certainly got drawn in by the MIDI music, and switching rooms or areas also triggers a delicious Bit-based sound effect. Even if you're unfamiliar with the history and reverence that this franchise commands, this game does a great job of helping you appreciate that legacy through its subtle nods and winks.
Pleasingly, this is also a re-imagining that makes decent use of the 3DS hardware's capabilities. We've already mentioned the pleasing autostereoscopic 3D, but it's also nice to see the bottom screen used for a dynamic map and to display party details such as their health and ability meters. A feature that was mentioned as a potential treat is StreetPass, too, with hits that'll include access to more dungeons to tackle. Beyond that the experience can be customised in menus, such as options to speed up battle animations and adjust the overall 3D depth that's allowed on the top screen.
Based on our short time with Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past the impression is that this won't disappoint the eager gamers clamouring for its release. It's a smart overhaul of the source material that also employs a nice blend of old and new features. For those that want a lengthy, dramatic RPG adventure that features time-travel and many hours of gameplay, it'll be hard to look beyond this one.