Dragon Warrior IV (NES) review
"Against the game’s final bosses, it didn’t take long for me to realize that every move my hero made was crucial. Since my other characters tended not to cast healing spells until someone had one foot in the grave, it was up to me to keep everyone healthy. When a boss raised its defense to a level where even Ragnar and Alena could barely dent its hide, it was my job to magically remove that additional protection."
Back in the day, I played my fair share of role-playing games on the NES. While those games were, for the most part, entertaining, after a while, I started to notice the same flaw popping up time and time again. None of them had anything more than a bare-bones story. You were some guy (or group of guys) destined to save the world from an evil supervillain bestowed with a generic name like “Dragonlord” or “Chaos”. Thrilling.....
Dragon Warrior IV changed all of that for me. By today’s standards, its story might be threadbare and lacking in those “minor” details such as character development, but it still blew my mind when this game was first released.
I didn’t start out in control of the mysterious world-saving hero this time around. Dragon Warrior IV made me work to actually earn the right to save the world. First on my plate were a series of short, introductory missions designed to introduce me to the hero’s supporting cast.
Initially, I met Ragnar, a soldier investigating the disappearance of his country’s children. Obviously, his quest was designed to introduce a beginner to the game’s mechanics as only one of the three dungeons Ragnar went through was even remotely close to being somewhat akin to a challenge. Hell, in one cavern, you didn’t even have to fight a single battle as long as you stayed on the correct path (which was easy to do, as a voice warned you if you attempted to venture off said trail).
After I was finished with Ragnar, it was time to do quests with Alena, who (along with two comrades) was seeking to prove her strength; Taloon, a merchant looking to find the world’s greatest treasures and sisters Nara and Mara, out for revenge after their alchemist father was murdered by an overly-ambitious student. On the surface, none of these stories had anything in common, but they all were connected by the fifth (and longest) chapter.
Finally, I started out in control of my hero as he explored the remote village he called home.....until the forces of evil came and smashed the crap out of everything. Fortunately, my in-game persona survived that attempt upon his life and was able to move out into the vast world, find my previous characters and enlist them to help rid the world of a group of vile fiends attempting to harness the power of alchemy to recreate themselves as unstoppable godlike beings.
Maybe this game took an eternity to actually start the main quest, but it was a fun eternity. All of my hero’s supporting characters had some sort of background and a reason to be wandering the world. Instead of controlling a collection of faceless, anonymous drones, it seemed I was in charge of something resembling actual people.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that I have always been a huge fan of the Dragon Warrior series’ style of gameplay. While battles are plentiful, they tend to be short and sweet, allowing me to cruise through the game. Some degree of level-building is required to not get overwhelmed in certain dungeons or against certain bosses, but the action in Dragon Warrior IV moves quickly enough that doing so rarely feels like a chore. As is the norm in this series, there are plenty of towns and dungeons to visit. Most of the level-building I needed to do was accomplished solely by visiting every town and exploring every nook and cranny of those dungeons.
The fast pace of this game proved to be of great benefit to me, as I was worried when I first started this game. In my eyes, the most tedious part of any Dragon Warrior game is when one first starts. A beginning character with little money simply won’t survive for long in the wild, making it a necessity to fight a few battles and retreat to an inn until that character has both gained some levels and some new, superior equipment. With five chapters, Dragon Warrior IV forced me to undergo that process not once, but five times.
While I’ll admit that I probably could have thought of a more enjoyable way to start an epic RPG, I do have to give Enix credit for making the preliminary stages of the game flow more smoothly than I would have anticipated. Of those first four chapters, the only one I found myself getting bored with was Taloon’s, as he is forced to collect a slew of weapons to earn enough money to finish his quest. While some of what he needs can easily be found in a cave, he’ll either have to purchase the rest or wait for random encounters to drop them. Regardless of how I play the final part of Taloon’s chapter, it always feels unnecessarily long and tedious.
Other than that brief hiccup, Dragon Warrior IV is nearly perfect through four chapters. Unfortunately, Enix apparently got the bright idea that, once a player reached the fifth chapter, they’d only want to control the hero (with the computer in charge of his allies). The only positive thing I can say about this is that Enix did a better job pulling it off than I could have imagined in my wildest dreams.
I’ve played Super Famicom games like Tales of Phantasia, where I had to constantly micro-manage computer-controlled characters so they didn’t heal enemies by casting spells of the wrong element on them. In Dragon Warrior IV, the worst (unavoidable) offense I noticed was that my spellcasters occasionally would burn spells against enemies with high magic resistance. Meanwhile, the majority of stat-enhancing (or decreasing) spells were ignored. What is the point of allowing characters to learn magic that raises the party’s defense if they never use it? Another thing I had to be careful of was allowing characters to hold weapons with secondary in-battle uses. Ragnar might be my most powerful fighter, but if he’s constantly waving the Sword of Lethargy around in an attempt to put foes to sleep, his usefulness will decrease dramatically.
While I don’t particularly like this battle system, it actually does make things a bit more exciting at times. Against the game’s final bosses, it didn’t take long for me to realize that every move my hero made was crucial. Since my other characters tended not to cast healing spells until someone had one foot in the grave, it was up to me to keep everyone healthy. When a boss raised its defense to a level where even Ragnar and Alena could barely dent its hide, it was my job to magically remove that additional protection. Because of that, I can honestly say that the final boss fight in this game was one of the most intense battles I’ve ever fought in a role-playing game, especially during its last form, where even my best efforts seemed insufficient to keep my teammates healthy.
Little things like that help to explain why, of the four Dragon Warrior games on the NES, the final one is my personal favorite. While it possibly is the most technically-flawed of the series, it still provides a fast-paced and incredibly fun experience. When I think about this game, I don’t dwell on its flaws — what I remember are the memorable moments. I remember getting insight into the main villain’s character through dream sequences; traveling through a gigantic robot in order to cross a lake; going undercover as a monster to get needed information in their stronghold of evil; struggling to get through the game’s immense final cave and, eventually, finally finishing the game, realizing that I had played the best RPG the NES had to offer.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (December 02, 2005)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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