"Narrative strength is one of two important elements that make Dragon Quest V such an adventure. Monster recruitment is the other. As you wander the land, you'll defeat all manner of beasts that should be familiar to those who have been enjoying the franchise from the beginning. Sometimes, you'll have the opportunity to add those creatures to your army. They'll fight by your side, whether you choose a feisty little brownie or a healer or even a fierce golem. Much of the game is spent with only a few human companions available—as dictated by the furiously twisting plot—so your path to success requires that you cultivate working relationships with monsters."
Give or take a year, the time was 1994 and the place was backwoods Oregon. I was in high school--just barely--and I was looking forward to Dragon Quest V like you wouldn't believe. The first four NES installments have always ranked among my favorite RPGs of all time, so the idea of a new entry in one of my favorite franchises kept me awake at nights. I pored over the one screenshot in the back of a Nintendo Power issue as if by staring at it long enough I could bring the thing to life. The translation was almost complete, the brief blurb promised. Soon--oh, so very soon--the game would be mine!
Then, weeks ahead of releasing what may have been its greatest title of all time, Enix closed its doors in North America. Oops.
The disappointment lingered with me for years. I couldn't get over was how close we'd been to a copy of Dragon Quest V and now it would never happen. It felt very much like how I imagined it must be to lose a girlfriend (I was a lonely teen without much experience in that area, probably owing at least partly to my obsession with legendary heroes and turn-based combat). I'll spare you the heartbreaking personal details that followed--including a PS2 port that was never localized here in North America and my refusal to cheapen my first experience with such an important game by resorting to unsatisfying emulation--and skip right to 2009, when Square-Enix finally released a significantly enhanced port for the DS.
After a 15-year wait, my adventure began without fanfare on an unspectacular ship. Except for a few crew members and my father, a burly sort of fellow named Pankraz, I was on my own in the ideal fantasy world. Adventure and frightening circumstances might lurk around any corner, but I could always rely on my paternal figure to save the day. The setup didn't seem like the most promising start for an epic adventure like those I remembered enjoying so regularly on the NES, but I was willing to keep going. I'd been waiting for 15 years, after all. A few minutes as a runt couldn't possibly harm me.
As the game progressed, I met new people: a pig-tailed little adventuress named Bianca, a sweet little elf named Honey, a spoiled young prince named Harry and an adorable cat named Saber. As I traipsed around the world with my father, I bonded with those other youths. We shared adventures, whether that meant exploring a haunted castle or venturing into the realm of the fairies by way of ethereal staircase or something else entirely. I went from one mysterious situation to another and always there was the promise of shelter from Pankras if things got too hairy. The people told me that he was a legendary hero, that he had surrendered the throne to seek out the location of his vanished wife--my mother--but I knew him only as the man who sliced through monsters with his sword as if they were sticks of melting butter.
Then things changed and Pankraz wasn't with me anymore. That's the moment where I realized that Dragon Quest V is more than just the game I waited so long to play. It's something special, a bold twist for the series that must've been all sorts of wicked back in the mid-90s. It doesn't just tell the simple story of a hero who wakes one morning with amnesia and realizes that evening that he will save the world in time for breakfast. I love that sort of game--don't get me wrong--but here the dynamic changes considerably and works better for it. Events transpire over the course of around a quarter-century. You'll make lifelong friends, lose the ones who are important to you and find new ones to love even as the people around you murmur about a dark power and a hero that someday will save the world from annihilation. Is that person you? Perhaps.
Narrative strength is one of two important elements that make Dragon Quest V such an adventure. Monster recruitment is the other. As you wander the land, you'll defeat all manner of beasts that should be familiar to those who have been enjoying the franchise from the beginning. Sometimes, you'll have the opportunity to add those creatures to your army. They'll fight by your side, whether you choose a feisty little brownie or a healer or even a fierce golem. Much of the game is spent with only a few human companions available--as dictated by the furiously twisting plot--so your path to success requires that you cultivate working relationships with monsters. It's very cool.
Put aside the ambitious plot and the monster recruitment and Dragon Quest V mostly plays out like any other entry in the series. The mainstays all are here, from metal slimes that have ridiculously high agility and a tendency to run just before you can slay them, to a casino where you can bet on monster matches, down to little things like the Mirror of Ra from Dragon Quest II (here called by a simpler name: Ra's Mirror). I could go right down a virtual checklist and never miss a box. Those elements make a retro gamer like me feel all fuzzy inside, perhaps even tempt me to slap a 10/10 on the game and call it a day, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a couple of the game's flaws that don't have that same positive effect.
First up is the frequent difficulty in determining what you're supposed to do next. That problem goes away if you're ready to occasionally consult a FAQ and I'm sure it has existed from the game's first version, but it seems like something that this new localization could have gone a bit further to address.
Most of the time, the local townsfolk tell you all you need to know, including the location of the nearest towns or dungeons of interest. Sometimes, though, they're so busy establishing the local color that they forget to give you vital information. One particular incident that I encountered highlights the difficulty quite nicely. Several hours into my adventure, someone mentioned that I should see the town's night life. I dismissed it as a probable red herring, like the guy who joked about an ogre at the light house. Then I struggled through several dungeons before it dawned on me that the monsters were giving me more trouble than they should. I consulted a FAQ and found out that yes, I'd missed something important: the wagon that allows me to recruit monsters! A key element of the game flew right under my radar because I didn't read between the lines and re-visit a certain building after hours. I like the game a lot, but there are times when it relies too much on the old talk-to-every-last-villager-repeatedly mechanic.
Another issue is the way the game sometimes tries to make light of its more serious elements. I'm not in favor of soap opera drama, but Dragon Quest games (at least as localized in North America) have always painted a fairly bleak picture of life if the hero fails. There might be a few throwaway lines like the villager in Dragon Quest II that frets about his bad breath because everyone has gone underground, but there was otherwise little reason to chuckle. Here, there are numerous attempts at comic relief. Several of the monsters' names are puns or just odd--like the vulgar-sounding mother ockers--and the forced dialects from the DS version of Dragon Quest IV crop up occasionally. Dr. Agon reads like he came out of an episode of a Fox television series. The overall story and presentation remain suitably gritty, for lack of a better word, but I still got the impression that the translators were either bored or trying to appeal to audiences with shorter attention spans.
Dragon Quest V doesn't need to make such efforts to resonate with gamers, even in the face of all of its 21st-century competition. Whether you waited 15 years like me or you're just hearing about the game now, make sure that you make every possible effort to promptly add it to your DS library. The old classic that we never got to play is finally here and it's an adventure that we never should have been allowed to miss.
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 10, 2009)
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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