Friday, December 1, 2017

Dragon Quest 7: The Neglected Best-Seller

Once upon a time, in the days before Mario, Pac-man or even Spacewar, there lived two men named Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. The pair had a fondness for miniature war games, to the point where they spent time creating their own. Together, they collaborated on a system of pen-and-paper fantasy adventure called Dungeons and Dragons. This was the codifier of a thousand gaming tropes and standards that came to be known as RPGs (role-playing games). RPG is a vague, messy label, and it’s been increasingly difficult to nail down what constitutes an RPG as games have evolved. But it’s hard to argue with games directly inspired by, if not outright ripping off, Dungeons and Dragons.

There were many, many such games even in the infant days of gaming*. But there were two in particular that reached such ridiculous popularity that they defined the genre for years to come. The second of these released was called Final Fantasy. It’s a long-running series with dozens of entries. It’s one of the most popular franchises in video games. You’ve heard of it, seen it, probably even played it. The first of these released was called Dragon Quest. It’s a long-running series with dozens of entries. It’s one of the most popular franchises in video games. Most of you vaguely recall the name, and that’s where your knowledge ends.

*Ultima, Wizardry, and many others commenters would yell “I forgot” had I not made this qualifying sentence.

Dragon Quest is the one about the Super Sayamen, right?

Dragon Quest is an unusual case in the world of video games. Despite being the 20th best-selling game franchise of all time, its audience is abnormally specific. According to this admittedly dated data, as of 2011 Dragon Quest had sold more than 50 million copies, but over 90% of them went to Japan. For a smaller franchise you could understand, but for one this large it’s unprecedented. This isn't exclusive to RPGs, either. If you look at sales for Final Fantasy, published by the same company, combined sales outside Japan are often even higher than local sales.

Some blame the franchise’s horrible history with localization. The general consensus is that they’ve been poorly marketed overseas, and Dragon Quest 5 and 6 didn’t have an official international release until 17 years after their respective launches. There’s also speculation that these games have elements less appealing to foreign markets. Whatever the reason, Dragon Quest has tremendous popularity in Japan, and almost none elsewhere. This is why, in spite of my notable love of RPGs, I had never so much as touched a Dragon Quest game*. Until now.

*Well, barring a spin-off.

For years I’d said “One day. One day I’ll actually play a Dragon Quest game.” But one thing or another was always in the way. Dragon Quest 7 was remade on Nintendo 3DS late last year, and I had nothing else to request for Christmas. I decided to give myself a push. Now granted, there was a word of warning going in. When I looked up Dragon Quest I encountered completely different recommendations on which game to play, as you get with every long-running series. But in particular, one of the most agreed upon sentiments was don’t start with DQ7. So let it be known, I was warned.

I didn’t listen.

"Dragon Quest 4 is a great example of the classic formula! Also don't play Dragon Quest 7."
"Dragon Quest 5 has monster catching and a cool story! Just don't play Dragon Quest 7."
"Dragon Quest 8 is more modern and has great characters! Dragon Quest 7: No."
"Mmhm, got it, thanks. I know EXACTLY which game to play."

Let me say some words in my defense. Commenters and reviews said to stay away because the game was extremely long, had a slow start and plenty of old-school RPG conventions. None of these put me off. I’ve dealt with all those issues in the past across a wide variety of games. The low points of other long-running series, like for example Final Fantasy, are harshly criticized. Look these games up and you'll find plenty of people calling them a dumpster fire at the diaper factory. Reactions to Dragon Quest 7 were much milder. They said it was unfriendly to newcomers, but it still gained praise and fairly universal high review scores. No one said it was outright bad.

At the risk of tipping my hand? Someone should’ve.

Dragon Quest 7 is an aggressively, excessively average game. It reliably nails the basics but fails to do anything wonderful. Then it grinds your face into that blandness for 100 hours, if you’ll let it. I did. Now I am not such a slave to the Skinner Box that I would do this for no reason. Maybe for reasons that aren’t great. But I do require some measure of quality to sacrifice so many hours to a game. And Dragon Quest 7 has plenty of quality points! But it has just as many poor ones, most of which have to do with repetition and homogony.

So let this be a warning: I get passionate about how dispassionate this game makes me. Though there will be positive points sprinkled throughout these articles, they will not be the majority. If you like the game, don’t think of this as invalidating your enjoyment. My point is not to make anyone feel bad, and I’m glad that others found fun where I found none*. Instead this is to vent my frustrations, analyze design, and make the occasional dumb joke. Well, that last point isn’t quite correct. The dumb jokes will be frequent.

*Okay, I found a little, but that didn’t rhyme

Alright, you’ve been warned. So now we’re free to delve into the game’s worst issues, tossing ourselves headfirst into pits of eternal suffering and oozing black stygian despair. Instead I think we’ll start off talking about pretty pictures.

Pretty Pictures

The art of Dragon Quest 7 is one of its few aspects I can praise without qualifiers*. The lead artist of the Dragon Quest games is Akira Toriyama, best known for the popular Dragon Ball franchise. I’m not sure what public opinion is on the man, though I’m sure the internet is ready to argue about it. I think he's a good artist, but admit he has his weaknesses. He doesn’t have a huge array of faces and that can lead to some human characters looking similar. But his monster designs are varied, memorable and expressive.

*Okay, I can’t tell someone what I had for breakfast without qualifiers. Without qualifiers by MY standards.

Here's some examples from google images, because capture cards are for the rich and competent.

The game has a carefree, cartoonish charm to it and the art is definitely a big part of that. I can’t speak for how things were in the original Playstation release, but the 3DS version is vividly colorful and extremely well animated. As with most 3D games, I only took a peek before going back to the lesser dimension. But what I saw worked fairly well with the game’s front-view battle system, and helped the already beautiful backdrops pop just a little bit more.

If there’s one problem with the art in Dragon Quest 7, its reusing assets. There are a very small number of NPC models in the game. I know this because they trot out the same ones again and again and again. Often times even important characters don’t get their own model, instead being the identical twin to a huge host of others.

The enemies have it just as bad, with palette swaps far as the eye can see. Now I don’t necessarily mind palette swaps, but even I have a breaking point and this game really pushes it with palette swap bosses. There are over 50 mandatory bosses in Dragon Quest 7. To be fair, many of them only have palette swaps after the boss fight, which is…slightly better? But between all those 50+ bosses, how many fights would you guess have original character models?

Four. Just four. One is the final boss. One is the first boss. One is a normal NPC. There are actually several fights with NPCs, but most just use monster palette swaps that kinda sorta vaguely represent the NPC in question. Only one gets an in-combat model.

This game is 100 hours long.

This is starting to bleed into my later complaints. So for now, let’s switch topics and talk about the game’s music.

Mostly Magical Music

The music of Dragon Quest 7 is an interesting conundrum. I enjoyed it, but that enjoyment comes with an asterisk. Before we get to that, let’s go over some songs I liked to get an idea of what we’re dealing with.

A good place to start would be Moving through the Present, the world map theme. The steady tempo and brass leads set a good tone for light-hearted adventure. I like the background strings that switch things up at 0:56 and the ones that tremble in and out at the start of the loop sound lovely. It's a pleasantly peppy march with a mildly memorable melody.

Days of Sadness is an example of my favorite thing in the DQ7 soundtrack: It has some friggin phenomenal strings. The way they ebb and flow through melancholy songs like this carries a tangible weight and emotion that I really enjoy. It’s a great tune that sends an appreciative chill down my spine.

For the sake of contrast, let's take a listen to Strolling in theTown. This cheery upbeat number is still led by flowing strings, just from a completely different direction. The trilling flute gives it a chipper skip in its step, and the piece as a whole has a relaxing, joyful warmth to it.

Echo of Horns Throughout the Castle is, well, exactly what the title says. It’s got a dignified, austere feel behind it that this particular composer excels at conveying. I like the way the melody is passed back and forth between instruments, and fittingly for the name the horns are particularly good here.

You know what else is particularly good? My seamless transitions into images. Speaking of: Music doesn't have visuals, but long blocks of text are boring. Have some random screenshots!

We started with a world map them, so let's end on one. Memories of a Lost World is the alternate map theme for Dragon Quest 7. It aims for a more subdued, melancholy tone than its counterpart. On one hand, a pretty significant chunk of this score is subdued, melancholy strings. On the other, as mentioned previously, they're my favorite part of it. I think the most enjoyable segment of this piece for me is when the lower strings come in at about 1:22. The way they take the lead while the higher strings echo afterward sounds fairly gorgeous.

And now that you’ve heard all that praise for the songs of DQ7, here’s the twist: I was not looking forward to listening to this. Not particularly dreading it either, but there was a definite lack of enthusiasm…until I actually heard it. Though not on the same level of fanboy gushing as FF6 or Bravely Default, I quite enjoyed the DQ7 soundtrack. Yet after playing the game, I thought I wouldn’t. Why?

As I see it there are three reasons. The first is that the game audio is MIDI, whereas the soundtrack is orchestral. Almost any score would benefit from this added fidelity, but I think it hits particularly hard for DQ7. The soundtrack contains a lot of graceful, subdued performances where all the subtle changes in volume, tempo and vibrato can make a big difference. This ties into the second reason, which will probably be more controversial.

I think the music of DQ7 is fairly…one-note. That sounds crueler than I’d like, and I suspect will get me some flack as composer Koichi Sugiyama is responsible for a huge number of soundtracks including most of Dragon Quest. Once I'd heard of his reputation, I almost felt retroactively guilty for not enjoying the music more. But that isn’t a productive attitude for criticism or understanding why we enjoy things. So though I’m open to others thinking differently, allow me to make my case.

Point one: Everyone who disagrees with me is a stupid moron with dumb opinions.

From what I’ve heard in DQ7, Sugiyama is very good at a particular style of classically inspired music. If you want to hear an ornately crafted assembly of lilting winds, full-bodied brass and strings smooth as silk, great! If you want to hear anything else, problems arise. I think the best examples of this are the game’s battle themes. The main one is fine, but feels lacking in focus. It seems to meander and keep backing off the pressure. The various segments of music shy away from developing a melody too long and don't feel like they naturally connect or build on one another. The boss theme is the same thing but worse, which is a problem since it’s supposed to be a climax. No matter how many times I listen it can’t get its claws in me, can’t provide the tension or melodic through-line to pump my adrenaline or keep me engaged.

It’s the same with the final boss. It feels like the conversation before a battle, not the battle itself. And these weaknesses aren’t intrinsic to orchestral music. An orchestra can easily do compelling fight scenes, from big stirring climaxes to fast-paced tension to desperate struggles filled with dread. And battles aren’t the only tone the game fails to represent. Everything in DQ7 is flowing and dignified. I never felt something was offbeat and silly, or brisk and casual. These examples are all orchestral. Yet despite that they strike wildly different tones in a way that feels lacking in DQ7, especially considering the size of the game. Which brings me to my final issue:

This game is 100 hours long.

Huh, that phrase sounds familiar…ah, probably nothing.

There are not enough tracks to go around in DQ7. The game has many, many locations and characters. Yet we’re only given about 30 songs to recycle between them all. No character themes, no themes unique to a single location, and the only villain theme does double duty with the general dungeon theme. This misses out on a major strength of game soundtracks.

A great part of background music is how it can enhance the emotions of specific moments, characters or concepts and anchor them in your memory. You can have some generic themes for general moods, but those only get you so far. As I’ve said and will say many times more before this is over, repetition is a serious problem in DQ7. When what few songs we have sound similar to each other, this makes things blend together even more. Taken in isolation, there’s some truly beautiful music here. I just wish it wasn’t so homogenous and stretched so thin.

We’ve examined with our eyes the sights of the Dragon Quest, listened with our ears to the sounds of Dragon Quest, and so our next step is clear: The smells of Dragon Quest! Join me next week as I activate my proprietary scratch-and-sniff controller and find out just how the slimy odors of DQ7 stack up to other popular – okay fine it’s gameplay. Next week we’re talking about gameplay. See ya then!

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