Dragon Quest VII is the original paint-by-numbers JRPG. Instead of throwing players into a huge, sprawling world they can explore from the off, it’s up to your band of heroes to restore each individual island one by one, journeying back in time to save them from the perils of the past so they might live on in the present day. The more you meddle with fate, the larger your world becomes, with each restored island filling in a new piece of the ever-expanding overworld map.
It’s classic time-travelling fare, and the sort of time-paradox story we’ve seen hundred times before in films, books and TV. And yet Dragon Quest VII stops short at what makes those stories so gripping, as each rescued world is simply a happier version of the one you left behind.
There aren’t any consequences to your actions and no cost you have to pay for having changed these people’s lives. Instead, everything is just fine and dandy, which rather makes the return visit a bit disappointing when you’ve spent so long bending time to your will. A statue would have been nice, you know, or a park bench with our names on it – is that too much to ask?
Admittedly, it probably was too much back when Dragon Quest VII first came out back in the hazy days of 2000 for the original PlayStation, but given that this new 3DS remake (which is the first time the game’s ever been officially released in Europe) has modernised the game in almost every conceivable way, you’d have thought a couple of small plaques wouldn’t have been beyond the realms of possibility. For much like the remakes of Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, the 3DS version of Dragon Quest VII sees what was once a largely 2D game transform into glorious 3D, providing a brand new coat of paint for this ageing PS1 title.
At times, you can see the 3DS groan under the sheer weight of its ambition, with object pop-in and frame rate dips in battle being regular grievances throughout. However, when each monster is so beautifully animated and the environments so overrun with intricate details, you soon learn to look past its flaws and revel in its hopping, sword-wielding kangaroos and smiling, googly-eyed aubergines.
It’s charming to a fault, but even the sight of its puckering, lip-smacking slugs aren’t quite enough to erase what’s arguably the slowest and most tedious opening I’ve ever encountered in a JRPG. Fetch quests and lethargic story exposition abound, and it wasn’t until about 90 minutes in that I even got to swing my sword (err, stick) in an honest-to-god fight.
Thankfully, the pace does eventually improve, and the superb localisation of each individual village (complete with European accents and regional dialects) does an excellent job at giving each place its own unique flavour and personality. Some island stories are more absorbing than others, but they rarely feel repetitive. However, for all the time it spends setting up the game’s central premise, it actually does a pretty poor job at explaining why you need to save these towns in the first place, leaving the overarching narrative feeling rather weak by comparison.
As a result, the whole game ends up feeling rather fragmented, with these small, micro stories never really feeding in to a larger, more cohesive whole. It might have held together better if there were repercussions you had to face on your second visit, for example, or even a new set of quests, but when each saved town sees you visiting the exact same locations as before (this time to find more stone tablets to open up new portals to the past) as well as the same round of blank faces, the lack of anything new and different makes it feel very much like you’re just going through the motions to get to your next objective.
Combine that with its wearisome opening and I fear most newcomers to the game will end up leaving a lot of Dragon Quest VII’s map unfinished. However, if you were one of the lucky ones who managed to play it the first time round, either by import or playing it overseas, then you’ll probably get quite a kick out of seeing the game reimagined in its new 3DS form.
That said, there are certainly more compelling time-travelling games around – Chrono Trigger and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D to name just a few – and compared to the likes of more modern 3DS JRPGs like Bravely Default and Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, Dragon Quest VII just feels a little too quaint and rigid to really stand out. It paints a pretty enough picture when all’s said and done, but this is one JRPG that simply doesn’t tolerate those who like to colour outside the lines.
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