Whether you know it as Dragon Quest or Dragon Warrior, Yuji Horii's enduring role-playing series has been delighting fans and inspiring adventurers consistently since 1986. Like its Square-Enix stablemate Final Fantasy, each Dragon Quest is a standalone story, with shared elements and lore connecting it to other entries; in another similarity with Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest's seventh entry was the first in the series to be released for Sony's PlayStation after a string of Super Famicom successes.
Though Dragon Warrior VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past saw a North American release in 2001, Western fans were left hanging in 2013 when Japan's 3DS remake came and went with plenty of critical acclaim but no mention of an overseas release. Now, after three years and an impressive fan campaign for localisation, it's finally heading West, and we couldn't be happier; this is an inspired remake of a wonderful game, and one of the very best RPGs in the 3DS' already superb library.
At the opening fanfare of Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past, we meet our young unnamed hero in the sleepy fishing village of Pilchard Bay. It's a tiny port on Estard Island, a small isle dotted with only a few hamlets and the eponymous castle town of Estard that's also — as far as its residents are concerned — the only landmass on the planet. That's been the prevailing wisdom for as long as anyone can remember, though our hero — along with his adventurous companions, the royal Prince Kiefer and the rambunctious Maribel — has his doubts, thanks to some mysterious shards that look like nothing else on Estard.
After picking up a few of these pieces and placing them together to form a tablet, the young friends are quickly whisked off the island and find themselves in an entirely new place. Even stranger, once they manage to make it back home, they find the land they've returned from has surfaced as an island off of Estard's coast, but in a state several generations later than when they left it. With that taste of adventure, their destiny is sealed, and our heroes set off across the seas and through time and space to unearth tablet fragments, resurrect long-lost islands, and uncover the world-spanning archipelago around Estard — along with the mysteries behind its disappearance.
Rather than venturing off to save the world, then, in Dragon Quest VII you're heading out to restore it piece by piece, and the result is a wonderfully different form of RPG. In terms of the gameplay, that story setup manifests itself in a loop that — at least in the early stages — looks almost like a cross between a dungeon crawler and a story-based JRPG: you'll find enough fragments to form a new tablet, be taken back in time to that new island, meet the local populace and learn about their culture, their land, and their problems — often taking the form of a powerful monster nearby. After helping them out — by solving a dispute, dispatching a demon, or being there with the right item — you'll travel forward in time to modern Estard, and get to see the present-day version of that island pop up somewhere in the nearby sea. More often than not, the newly risen island will hide a few fragments of its own, kicking off the hunt for the next tablet, and the next new land.
That gameplay loop fits perfectly into the Dragon Quest trappings, which include a beautiful overworld to traverse, towns to visit, and fields, caves, forests and towers to comb looking for monsters, treasures and fragments. Even better, and in a huge update from the PlayStation original, all of these are now fully 3D; they're an absolute joy to explore, whether on foot, sailing in your trusty ship, or soaring overhead on a flying carpet. A beautiful sketch-style touchscreen map helps you find your way and now highlights fragments, a welcome addition which — along with a fragment detector which lets you know when one's nearby — enormously simplifies the fragment-finding process. Of course, many of these locales you'll visit in your quest for tablets are also crawling with monsters, and rather than random encounters they're now visible on-field; as in EarthBound and many modern RPGs, you can choose to engage or avoid them as you like.
Once you do square off against an enemy, the turn-based combat is classic Dragon Quest: snappy, first-person, and fun. Your party has access to normal attacks, Spells (which drain MP), and Abilities (some of which drain MP), and you can adjust your formation — putting characters on the frontline for more damage or in the back for better defense — use items or defend, and choose to either issue orders to party members or control them directly. In a sense, this is the basic battle system that's been helping JRPG heroes on their way for the past 20 years, but it's stuck around for a reason; it's simple and accessible. There are a few quirks that make it uniquely Dragon Quest, too: you'll choose all your party's actions before the turn starts, rather than controlling them one at a time, spells and abilities are particularly powerful, and multiple enemies of the same type will often glom together in groups that act as a single target — so that if you aim for 'Slime x3', your character will randomly attack Slime A, B, or C. Speaking of Slimes, the enormously endearing enemies are another Dragon Quest touch, and from the cat-sorcerer Meowgicians and big-hearted jellyfish Heal Slimes to gangs of armored Deathcargot, the baddies on the other end of the battle screen never fail to raise a smile.
We really enjoyed our time with Dragon Quest VII's basic battle system, but if that description leaves you wanting more, worry not; combat gets appreciably more complex later on thanks to the Vocation system. Once you rebuild a particularly notable building your characters will be able to take up different jobs which affect their stats as well as the spells and abilities they'll learn, as in Final Fantasy V or Bravely Default. From fantasy staples like Mages, Thieves and Priestesses to more imaginative employments like Jesters, Troubadours, and — our personal favourite — Shepherds, there's something for every member of your party, and experimenting with different combinations is great fun, especially thanks to the costume changes.
Vocations in Dragon Quest VII come in Basic and Advanced varieties, and while anybody can choose a Basic career, you'll need to master certain lower levels of employment (by fighting a certain number of battles using them) before unlocking higher opportunities. Leveling up the Martial Artist and Warrior jobs, for instance, will let a character promote themselves to Gladiator, an Advanced class that boasts the attack power of Warriors and the speed of Martial Artists; mastering the Dancer, Troubadour, and Jester tracks, meanwhile, will set you up for stardom as an all-singing, all-dancing Luminary. And while skills picked up in Advanced classes can only be used while on that specific job, spells and abilities learned in Basic vocations will stay in a character's repertoire even after a career change. There are even Monster Vocations you can unlock by acquiring enough Monster Hearts from fallen foes, so lifelong aspirations of professional Slimedom are finally within reach.
One thing that really sets Dragon Quest VII's Vocations apart from similar systems is the fact that you'll only come across them after you're quite a way into the game — around 20 hours or so. That sounds like it would make for a slow start, but we really appreciated the time; it makes sure you're truly used to the basic battle format before introducing any complications, and it also helps space out exciting discoveries, so you're still uncovering game-changing elements even after spending an entire real-world day in and around Estard.
In fact, pacing is actually a strong suit throughout Dragon Quest VII. Much has been made of the game's epic length, and it's certainly true - there are two hours before your first battle, and well over 100 standing between the opening overture and closing credits. But thanks to the vignette-style storytelling and episodic structure that tends to focus on helping a single town at a time, it avoids ever feeling like a Sisyphean slog. Instead, it feels like an epic collection of shorter stories, with connecting threads to uncover as you progress, and a subsequent culminating adventure through the new continents you've resurrected. While saving the world is quite an ask, bringing an individual piece of the planet back to the present is often an hour-or-two affair; not necessarily something that can be squeezed in on your morning commute, but just about perfect for an afternoon at home, or the equivalent of a few chapters of a good book before bed. In our view, that's a perfectly-sized chunk of RPG goodness, and that's why we'd wholeheartedly recommend the adventure even to players whose longest Activity Log entry is in the single-digits.
Along the same lines, this 3DS version of Dragon Quest VII includes a host of features that make it a great fit for portable play. In addition to an almost-anywhere quick-save, there's also a 'Story So Far' log that keeps a prose account of everything that's happened in the game from Day One. That's handy for coming back after a long absence, and there's also more immediate help in the form of 'Recent Developments', a menu option that jogs your memory on the last story beat, and 'Next Tablet Fragment', which highlights any info you might have on where to head for the next fragment. These all proved useful at one point or another, but our favourite hint system was pressing 'B' to pull up a Party Chat with a random member of our team — no matter where you are in the game, your fellow adventurers will have something fun, topical, or useful to say about the situation at hand, and are always ready to help you turn vague advice from NPCs into more concrete direction.
This thoughtfulness is mirrored in the controls too, which are perfectly set up for on-the-go exploration. Along with the standard D-Pad and Circle Pad cursor control and 'A'/'B' for confirm and back, 'L' or any direction on the D-Pad or Circle Pad will advance text, and 'L' lets you confirm in menus. This lets you play most of the game one-handed if you like, and that's a serious bonus in our book, making for far more comfortable couch-top and/or coffee-shop sessions. The shoulder buttons also rotate the camera in towns and the overworld, and 'Y' is used as a handy shortcut to pull up a list of shop inventories in towns, saving you the trip to the counter.
Less helpful is the slight but always-annoying cursor delay in menus, and the preponderance of menus in general; from battle commands and equipment to inventory and information, items you'll need are frequently buried several sub-menus deep, and it's easy to descend into menu hell very quickly. Cursor memory helps a bit in battle, but it still only starts at the sub-menu level; if you used 'Heal' last turn and want to again, the Spell menu will default to 'Defensive' and then 'Heal' once opened, but you'll still have to specify switch to 'Spell' first on that character's turn. It sounds like a small detail, but in a 100+ hour game with lots of battles, those extra seconds each round can really add up, and a 'repeat last turn' function would have made a huge difference. Other slightly annoying - and dated - design features include individual inventories for each character, and a sweet but long-winded save function where accidentally pressing 'B' saves and ends the game, which led to at least a few frustratingly unintended trips to the Home menu.
Rather more timeless, thankfully, is Dragon Quest VII's excellent writing. That's been a series staple for a long time, and this 3DS update knocks it out of the park, with a literary-lite tone that fits the epic worldbuilding quest perfectly. Party members are quirky and likable, and NPCs always have something new to say as events unfold. The narrative strikes a nice balance too, with some sad and surprisingly affecting stories, but lots of lighthearted elements and puns — there's an eggplant enemy named 'Wobergine' and the Shepherd vocation has an attack called 'Lambpede'. It's equal parts wistful and whimsical, and we love it.
The emphasis on eye dialect — spellings, word choices, and unnatural syntax designed to mimic spoken dialects in text — that débuted in Dragon Quest IV's localisation also makes a return here, and in our view, it adds quite a lot of personality to the proceedings, even if the mock-syntax occasionally veers into embarrassing territory. Villages borrow their speech patterns from all over the British Isles as well as a variety of other countries, so you might find yourself in a Northern-talking town peppered with 'nowt's, a Scottish-ish settlement with 'tae's and 'Och!'s, or other areas where residents toss untranslated German, Italian, or Irish Gaelic expressions into their stylized speech. It gives each locale a unique identity, and makes perfect sense from a story perspective; it also encourages reading the dialogue 'out loud' in your head as you play, which helps give real voice to characters in a game with no voice-acting. The only issue is that the variety isn't always mirrored in the rest of the presentation; for so many different towns, cultures, and dialects, there's a noticeably small pool of character models and musical motifs to go with it, so that the quick-talking Gaels of Ballymolloy and the Italic people of l'Area share the same town themes, the same architecture, and the same dozen-or-so NPC models.
On the plus side, that's just about our only complaint with the presentation; Dragon Quest VII is a gorgeous game, and the kind of remake PSone titles dream of. It's bright and appealingly colourful at every turn, with a great blend of chunky elements and rounded edges that bring the world and especially Akira Toriyama's distinctive character designs to life. Menus are simple white-on-black affairs, relying on retro charm — but combined with the occasionally bit-crushed sound effects, we think it works. The new 3D overworld, however, is all new, and it looks great, especially with the stereoscopic effect turned on. It's also detailed in a way that only your imagination could fill in in the 32-bit days: head towards a city from the field, for instance, and you'll see not just a generic 'town' marker, but the actual village — we were blown away when we crested a hill in the overworld and could clearly see Pilchard Bay's church tower and harbour in the distance, and catching a glimpse of newly risen islands on the horizon is incredibly satisfying. Sure, there's a decent amount of pop-up, and the frame rate dips a bit from time to time, but none of that matters in motion; Dragon Quest VII drew us in completely.
On a smaller scale, we fell in love with the animations and the massive level of detail poured into them; everything from each party member having an appreciably different gait to crab-like enemies walking sideways in the overworld points towards a huge amount of polish and care. The battles are perhaps where they shine the most — the hybrid first/third-person camera angle lets you get a great view of the enemy models from your party's perspective, but then zooms out to show your characters (with visible equipment) when they perform a spell or attack an enemy. It's a far cry from the blinking sprites and invisible party of the PlayStation version, and it's put to wonderful use — watching a Crested Viper slither up and seamlessly wrap itself around our Hero while performing a bind attack is a jaw-droppingly cool illustration of what a remake can do.
The variety is astounding, and each individual action has its own unique animation; enemies will react differently if they're knocked out by a regular attack, spell, or critical hit, for instance, and each vocation has its own special set of moves. It's not often that something as rote as attack animation makes us laugh out loud in games, but the 'miss' routine of the Peahooter — an bow-wielding elf held aloft by a trio of owls — where the owls accidentally drop their archer directly into the ground and then shake it off, is one of the most endearing things we've witnessed in recent memory. This detail carries over into the battle backgrounds as well, where subtly animated elements — like clouds slowly floating by or sparks popping off of lava flows — really add to the ambiance.
Of course, it would be impossible to talk about ambiance in Dragon Quest without mentioning Koichi Sugiyama's compositions, and for all its striking settings and characters, the music might just provide Dragon Quest VII's most memorable moments. Sugiyama's signature symphonic style resonates throughout, with bouncy battle and boss themes, overworld fanfares, sombre songs for dungeons, and plenty of playful and plaintive town tunes. It's anchored on several points of classical influence — from a Tchaikovskian overture to a castle theme that wouldn't feel out of place in Handel's Water Music suites — as well as showtunes and film scores, but it comes together as a recognizable style, and provides a wonderful backdrop for the adventure. Sadly, this Western localisation relies on MIDI renditions in place of the excellent orchestral recordings of the Japanese 3DS release — a definite disappointment, but these arrangements are still very high quality, and well worth plugging in headphones for.
Along with beautiful music, Dragon Quest games are known for providing a variety of ways to spend your time off the beaten path, and this installment doesn't disappoint. In true Golden Era RPG fashion, you'll find a casino where you can try your hand at card games and fruit machines, a bestiary to fill in as you travel, and plenty of 'Mini Medals' to collect and exchange for rare equipment. Even better, this 3DS update also adds an excellent StreetPass implementation that lets you trade 'Traveller's Tablets'. These special maps link to randomly generated, short-form dungeons that see you fighting your way through packs of monsters — some of which are exclusive to these areas — and beating a boss for a chance at rare spoils. You can set a Tablet to send out via StreetPass and receive them in kind from people you pass, or — in a very welcome addition for non-urban adventurers — trade them through SpotPass, by tossing a Tablet into the internet ether and receiving three in return.
Finally, you'll occasionally be able to direct defeated monsters with repentant hearts to the Monster Meadows, an elysian Chao Garden of sorts where they can live out their days in peace. You can visit them whenever you like, and send them off on adventures of their own, putting together three-monster parties to head out and search for Traveller's Tablets in different regions of the world.
An island-hopping adventure spanning space and time, Dragon Quest VII is a JRPG masterpiece. If you played the PlayStation version back in the day, this is as perfect a remake as you could ask for, with beautiful 3D graphics, a smartly streamlined opening, and lots of welcome quality-of-life updates. And if this is your first time in Estard, you're in for a wonderful surprise — great writing, a fun class system, lovely animations and a stellar soundtrack make for a fully engrossing adventure throughout. It's a massive game, but don't let that scare you off; with short story-style pacing and a huge variety of settings, speech patterns, and scenarios, it feels less like an epic tome and more like a shelfful of storybooks stuffed into a 3DS cart. This is an absolute pleasure, and a must-play for RPG fans.