Dragon Warrior II (NES) review
"And so it is that the first few hours of the game are spent growing accustomed to the battle system made famous in the original Dragon Warrior (sans the beautiful backdrop), then getting used to the change as a second warrior joins your party, then adapting yet again when you find the third. Itís a fetch quest of the oddest sort. Itís hard to question the validity of finding others to strengthen your group, yet the game throws curveballs in your face with the frequency of a Yankees pitcher."
Picture for a moment a vast prairie. It stretches ocean-like to a Western sea, while to the north and east, thin green lines that are forestation serve as a base for mountainous crags that scratch at the sky itself. There are deserts. Swamps. Caverns and abandoned towers. This is the world of Dragon Warrior II, the second in Enixís storied franchise and the subject of the review. Sadly, this undeniable draw--this towering accomplishment that means you are almost certain to enjoy many elements of the game--is paradoxically its Achilles heel.
As the game opens, youíll witness a king and his daughter, relaxing in their castle garden. Suddenly, monstrous demons appear as if from thin air. They overwhelm the castle guards and soon almost no one remains but the king and his daughter. As the monarch prepares to protect his offspring in one corner of the structure, a soldier limps out of the castleís opposite corner. The wounded warrior trudges first north then east, through a mysterious cave, to a castle built along the edge of an ocean. There, he tells the aging ruler about the deeds perpetrated by the evil sorcerer Hargon. Itís here that you enter the story. Young and spry with much to prove, you decide that you will seek out your relatives and that together, the three of you will oppose the evil sorcerer and all who serve him.
Thereís just one problem: you have no idea where those pesky relatives are. And so it is that the first few hours of the game are spent growing accustomed to the battle system made famous in the original Dragon Warrior (sans the beautiful backdrop), then getting used to the change as a second warrior joins your party, then adapting yet again when you find the third. Itís a fetch quest of the oddest sort. Itís hard to question the validity of finding others to strengthen your group, yet the game throws curveballs in your face with the frequency of a Yankees pitcher. Or something.
A few hours in, the typical player still may not have found the prince of Canock castle, as the game likes to send you skipping around the towns that dot the mainland. ďOh, sorry,Ē someone might say. ďYou just missed him. Head on over to the Spring of Bravery.Ē Only they donít put things so casually. Itís more like ďI am loathe to report unto thee that thou quest to acquire for thine party the Prince of Canock Castle hath faileth. Eth.Ē At first the sight of another village nestled along the edge of a forest is exciting as you think to yourself that youíve finally found your quarry. But no, you havenít. Just another group of old men and women with cryptic clues.
So off you go, searching for another castle, or town, or cave. And most every step you take could be your last thanks to the brutal denizens that roam the land since Hargon made clear his plans for world domination. You might make it two or three steps after fighting a slug, only to find a vicious army of ants or gelatinous blobs (you tremble with fear at the mere mention of such beasts, I can sense) blocking your path. The frequency of these battles is inconsistent, so that a lot of preparation in the form of supplies is necessary even if youíre just making a short trip to a nearby town. Venture into a cave without a bushel of supplies and youíre as good as dead.
The thing is, you canít carry that bushel of supplies I teasingly mentioned. The reason for this is simple: no character can hold more than eight items. Those items may be limited to wyvern wings and bottles of medicine, or even a leaf from the World Tree. No matter the size of your items, eight is it. Even the armor and weapons you equip count toward this, as do keys you canít possibly leave behind for fear that youíll stumble across a silver door in the middle of some remote shrine. This means that you basically can carry two or three Ďdisposableí items per character. No more. And if you carry less, youíre daft.
Not that youíll often have the funds to carry more, anyway. Armor and weapons are ludicrously expensive. Even early on, when enemies are only dropping a few shillings per fight, youíll need to spend 180 copper for even the weakest of weapons (who in his right mind pays 180 pieces for a stupid club?). It can at times take an hour of level building just to fill your purse enough to equip your warrior, and suddenly you remember that you have another prince and princess to worry about. Exciting? Not really.
Much more tolerable are those moments where youíre not just walking in circles on a fund-raising crusade. The world in Dragon Warrior II quadruples the amount of navigable land from the original, and in fact includes that original world as one set of islands you can explore rather early in your adventure. Or later on, if you prefer. See, one of the things that makes the game cooler than a lot of what Iíve described so far is that in many ways, it is truly non-linear.
A few hours in (especially if you know what youíre doing), youíll cross a vast desert and climb a tower, then drop off it and over a canal to a port town where you can acquire a ship. The minute you do, the rigid structure you may have loathed up to that point just melts into non-existence. Suddenly, you can go almost anywhere you want. The only restrictions are the monsters that roam given areas, but because you can sail around the world collecting the best of weapons at remote towns, this hardly matters. Sea monsters also yield good experience, so in little time at all youíll be ready for some of the gameís more challenging areas.
And in case you wondered, yes. There are some truly challenging destinations. The Cave to Rhone is perhaps one of the most famous dungeons ever featured in an 8-bit RPG, complete with looping passages, hidden pits, and monsters so tough they sit around chewing on nails when theyíre not busy defeating foolhardy adventurers. Such moments, dark though they may seem, are when the game shines brightest. Thereís just something truly satisfying about scraping your way through such challenging realms. Imagine that youíre halfway through a dungeon. You can cast the ĎReturní spell if you wish, but all you really want is to get through the freaking cave. So you press on, gritting your teeth at each step because you know even one more encounter could spell your end. Then the screen flashes and youíre facing an assortment of monsters so powerful you wish you were wearing diapers. Do you risk flight and leave yourself open if they cut you off? Or do you try to strike first and harder, knowing your magic reserves are almost exhausted?
Even when youíre not in the middle of such a quandary, the game constantly forces micro-management and careful strategies. Part of this is thanks to the mysterious runes you must uncover before you can reach Rhone (where Hargon resides) at all. Yes, the game is one big series of fetch quests. But somehow, it manages to keep things fresh as you work to drain canals, find rogue thieves who disappear from their own prison cells, cut short the workings of an insane clown, assemble a magical suit of armor for your princess, or even recover the lost weapons your ancestors used to defeat the Dragonlord all those years ago. There are a ton of places to explore and puzzles to solve. And because things are mostly non-linear, you can do it all at your own pace. This is a world that pays you to explore it.
So like I said, the scope of this world is both the gameís main flaw and its greatest strength. I loved not knowing what would happen next as I trekked across barren wastelands. I loved finally figuring out where to find certain keys, assembling armor, and finally reaching Rhone itself. That all outweighed any irritation I felt with the inventory system or the sometimes overbearing monster encounters. This sort of thing is timeless, and youíll either love it or hate it. Me, I love it.
Staff review by Jason Venter (Date unavailable)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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