Friday, December 8, 2017

Dragon Quest 7: The Turn-Based Traditionalist

There’s nothing wrong with tradition. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to what’s reliable. There’s nothing wrong with iteration over innovation. This is good for Dragon Quest 7, as it’s a traditional RPG that sticks to what’s tried and true. What’s bad for DQ7 is that it executes what’s tried and true poorly. This happens frequently.

Blatant Classism

Dragon Quest 7 uses a fairly standard class system for 80% of the game. You’ll note that, since This Game Is 100 Hours Long, it leaves 20 hours unaccounted for. This is how long it takes to unlock the bloody feature. In the time it takes to unlock the core mechanic for advancing your character, you have gone through a lengthy intro, several completely separate story arcs across time and space, and the entire development of a major character. If you’re playing in short bursts, like me during commutes to work, this takes weeks of real world time.

That’s not to say that there’s zero character progression before this. Your party still earns experience and levels up, increasing their basic stats. There’s a fairly standard array of equipment: A weapon for damage, a shield, helm and armor for defense, and an accessory for wild card bonuses. Only certain characters can equip certain things, and everyone learns a few set skills early on to compensate for the lack of classes. But what they don’t give you is options. It’s all set in stone and you don’t feel like you’re working towards a greater goal, which is half the fun.

It takes forever to unlock not just classes, but also a full party. You’d think that the story could get four people together by 20 hours in. Yet only three of four slots are filled when you unlock classes, and it’s something like a dozen more hours before that roster rounds out. Furthermore, you do eventually get a fifth party member*, but they don’t join until over 50 hours in! These luckless latter losers lack the lasting learning that leads to lots of levels, and their late leap into this lumps-and-lacerations lifestyle leaves them lagging behind. They let these lollygaggers launch with a little lick of skills, but these lackluster leavings are lesser than the lavishly lofty abilities of their predecessors.

*An awkward number since you always have to leave someone behind.

Lorry, I lon’t know what lot into me. You get characters too late and they’re underpowered and it sucks.

As for once you unlock classes? It’s alright. There’s a wide variety of jobs your party can take, with 10 available right from the get-go. Win enough battles and you’ll rank up in your class, earning new skills in the process. Enough ranks and the class will be mastered, and further classes can only be unlocked if you’ve mastered others. When you switch jobs, you can keep previously learned skills, but only if they’re from the first 10 classes.

Some of the classes are uh, more intimidating than others.

It’s basic, but it works. It offers a fair degree of customization for your party. The advanced classes give you specific goals to work towards. The jobs serve many different functions and have plenty of useful skills between them. That being said, the system has some issues.

One advantage to character customization is the ability to change your skills to suit a situation. If you’re trapped in the Dungeon of Drain Clogs unable to defeat the dreaded demon Derrierrant, suddenly that Plumbarian class looks a lot more appealing. But in DQ7, you can only change classes at a specific location in the world, which you have to manually walk/sail/fly to every time. Only some of the skills you learn are permanent, so it’s tough to change your party load out for specific situations. To account for this, most bosses in DQ7 are dull damage sponges that don’t require specific strategies. So um…yay?

Another advantage to customization is giving the player long term goals to work towards. Fighting ten thousand slimes is boring. Fighting ten thousand slimes to get to level 99 is better. Fighting ten thousand slimes to unlock a varied and interesting set of abilities is almost fun*. The problem is that, as previously mentioned, only some skills can be learned permanently. When you level up an advanced class then decide you want/need a completely different one, you’ve basically wasted your time. And it’s easy to waste your time, because…

*Your mileage may vary, some still call this madness. Heck, I would call this madness. But it’s a madness I understand.

This Game Tells You Nothing

There was a trend in older games to give the player very little information. In some ways this was positive, letting players strike out into the great unknown and naturally unravel problems in a way some modern games discourage. In other ways…well, let’s just say we’re lucky to have gameFAQs these days. Predictably, Dragon Quest 7 leaves out some information that it really should’ve told the player, especially for this remake made in 2016. Skills are a prime example.

Without looking it up online, you don’t know what skills you learn from each class. You don’t know how many skills you learn from each class. You don’t know what most skills do even after learning them, as their descriptions are just vague flavor text.

An example: The skill Call of the Wild reads in-game “Summons wolves to attack enemies.” The actual effect is that you attack four random enemies for damage roughly 1.5x your level (not attack) with a fixed accuracy of 75%. That level of nuance is basically impossible to determine through in-game experimentation. I had to look up multiple sources online to find one that actually included numbers. This isn’t even the worst example, almost every skill is like this.

Even the most straightforward leave me with questions. How much damage? What's the chance of causing confusion? How much do enemies resist confusion? How does confusion work in this game? Not even a vague adjective describing any of that.

I know this type of obfuscation is familiar to those who play RPGs, but that doesn’t make it a good thing. Most of these games come down to strategic decision making. Uninformed decisions run counter to what people enjoy in RPG combat. It’s more satisfying to learn a system and formulate a precisely crafted plan of attack than just picking options that have high numbers. What makes this even worse is that frankly, the skills in Dragon Quest 7 are wildly unbalanced.

Some skills do set damage based on level. Some skills hit all targets. Some skills cost no MP to use. Several skills, like Thin Air or Scorch, are all three! These completely destroy any sense of threat or challenge in normal battles. Bosses are harder to trivialize, but still bow to high damage or multi-hit moves like Multifist or Swords Dance. Beyond these showstoppers, about half the remaining skills are balanced, but boring. There's a decent variety of buffs, so that's nice. But there are also a lot of damaging skills that feel completely interchangeable. Some moves have elements but there's no clear indication of what enemies are weak to and it never felt like it made a difference*.

*Looking it up, it seems that elemental slashes do a whopping 1.3x damage to enemies with no resistance, and most enemies in DQ7 have low resistances to everything. So yes, elements are pointless.

Plenty of skills feel underpowered as well. Status moves are largely useless. Most enemies go down in one to three hits, and most bosses resist negative statuses. Even regular enemies frequently resist, and there's no way to tell if it's because they have a high chance of doing so or if you just got unlucky. Speaking of chances, I will now spend a paragraph being angry about Zing.

Death penalties can be difficult to balance in games. You have to punish the player if they fail, but don't actually want to. Fail states mean high stakes, but actual punishment is just annoying. So the ideal state of affairs is to keep the player an inch from failure, but allow them to succeed. Most RPGs accomplish this by letting you revive fallen party members, but at such low HP that flecks of wayward hellhound slobber will be the death of them. Dragon Quest instead decides to give you a resurrection spell, Zing, which only has a 50% chance of working at all. I find this infuriating. When things reach their most climactic and everything is riding on the line, I don't want to feel like any degree of strategy can be overwritten by coin flips. There's a time and a place for random events in combat, and this is not it.

I couldn't get any pictures of Zing in action, but I did find out that the crab enemies in the original were called CancerMan. So y'know. That's pretty great.

With that grievance aired, I'm about ready to move on from skills. But before we do, I want to discuss an alternate way to learn them: Monster Hearts.

Hearts of Darkness

DQ7 has monster classes that allow you to acquire the skills of enemies. Neato! It even allows you to learn these skills permanently. Peachy keen! Plus mastering certain monster classes can unlock other advanced monster classes. Goshes galoshes!  And the whole system is horrifically implemented. Gee willikerrrr, what was that last part?

Here’s how monster hearts work. First you need to find a monster heart. There are a few chests with them later on, but the only replenish-able source is grinding for incredibly rare drops off monsters. Then, you go to the class change temple. You can’t use the heart, give it to someone, or have anyone even acknowledge their existence. Instead, you put them in a character’s inventory, go to their class change menu, and scroll down to the bottom. The option for the monster class will be there, with no indication or fanfare. When you select it you’ll switch classes and use up the heart WHAT THE SLIME WAS THAT LAST PART?!

Are you kidding me?! Why would you do this?! What is your goal here?! Do you hate the mere concept of joy?! How many interabangs must I use to properly convey my outrage?! Seven?! Yeah, that sounds about right. So back on track: Making hearts consumable is an awful idea. They’re not some all-powerful silver bullet. The skills they provide are fairly normal and don’t need to be gated off like this. Doing so made me reluctant to use them at all, knowing my choices would be permanent. And if a character decides to switch classes midway through a monster class, to turn back they still need another heart.

Have I mentioned how hard it is to find these things? I’ve seen varied numbers on how often they drop, but most sources agree the default rate is less than one in a hundred. And that’s after you look up who drops monster hearts, because the game sure as hell won’t tell you. It barely tells you they exist. And keep in mind this is a drop rate, now a drop countdown. Even if you’re doing everything right, you could get bad luck and waste several extra hours farming the same thoughtless, no-challenge random encounters to get an item that lets you waste even more hours grinding battles*. All just to get some slightly-above-average skills.

*Mastering monster classes takes hundreds of battles each.

Although there is one other benefit: Your party looks hilarious.

When I first found a monster heart, I was actually excited. I didn’t know how it worked, but from context could tell it would confer some type of attribute from an enemy. Would it teach skills? Summon monsters in battle? Could monsters be caught as collectibles and turned in for some reward*? There were all sorts of possibilities, and with so few customization options early on I was thirsty for more. Unfortunately, monster hearts would leave me parched.

*There actually is a collectible monster part of DQ7. I’ll get to it another time…

Battlefield Blunders

I frequently focus on the negative aspects of a game, and when I say something positive it’s often very positive, like gushing about music I enjoy. When I say “I”, I mean “every critique that has ever existed”. This isn’t because every critic is bipolar, and neither is it because I’m a talentless hack. My demonstrable lack of talent has nothing to do with the actual reason: Extremes are more interesting to talk about. If something is “average” that more or less sums up what you need to know. Such is the case with combat in DQ7. It does nothing offensive, nothing remarkable, nothing unusual at all. It gets a half-hearted thumbs up. Now let’s talk about related issues that annoy me.

Item drops in DQ7 are a big disappointment. Like everything in this game, they take forever. The chance of an enemy dropping an item was the same as real-world people dropping something on me as they got up from the train, and about as rewarding. Once in a blue moon, the stars will align and the unspeakable Demon-dragon-horrorterror you slay will bestow upon you some paper clips and a subway coupon. Despite the fact that This Game Is 100 Hours Long, I could count the amount of item drops I got on my fingers. Yet they’re worth as much as a stranger's opinion on the internet. I’ve had hangnails more deadly than the weapons I found, and twice as valuable.  The consumable items were just as rare, but not fit to heal when a slime hugged me too hard.

The mighty beast is slain! You get 15,000 gold! You get 37,000 experience! It dropped a Rusty Iron Dagger!

And speaking of consumable items, the item shops in this game are awful. At the end of the game, I walk into a group of high-level stores to prepare for the final showdown. On display are dozens of rare and valuable weapons, shields, helms and armor. Each individual piece costs tens of thousands of gold, and I purchase enough to fully outfit my party of four. Armed to the teeth with mystical artifacts that would make the Almighty weep in terror, I waltz up to the item shop and request their most powerful healing item:

A medicinal herb that costs 8 gold, available in every shop in the game.

That’s right, those are the only healing items you can ever purchase. These shops also sell a few items that cure uncommon status ailments*, and that’s about it. Most items don’t even cost you triple digits. There are better healing items, but for some unfathomable reason none of them are purchasable, not even for ridiculous prices in the best shops in the game. Why? I have no idea what the advantage is here.

*But none of the common, frustrating ones like sleep or blindness.

Understand that by the end of the game, the amount a medicinal herb heals is downright insulting. Your turn would be better spent holding a target up to your chest and telling the monsters their mothers never loved them. It isn’t as though better healing would be over-powered, either. You only have 10 item slots per character, including what they’re wearing, and even mid-level healing items are barely useful by the end. Plus any character can spend five minutes as a Priest and have enough healing spells to match a hundred medicinal herbs! So why do these shops even exist?!

So. Yeah. Item shops suck. Mmhm. Eeyup. Soooo…let’s talk about enemies now!

“And the award for Greatest Topic Transition goes to…Genericide, for his stupid Dragon Quest article or whatever!”

As a very traditional game, Dragon Quest 7 has all the traditionally annoying enemy types. Heavy-hitting foes who attack multiple times a turn. Groups of baddies who all spam set-damage moves*. And of course, status enemies. Though the game doesn’t have too many horrible status effects, the way they’re transmitted sucks. Most status moves only have a chance of working, yet target every party member. This is particularly bad for sleep, which is impossible to find immunity for, not cured by damage, and lasts a random duration. So if your party all takes an unlucky nap at the same time (not as rare as you’d hope), then you’re basically screwed.

*Once a boss fight started with all three enemies using a high-level breath attack, which was unaffected by armor and killed half my party. On a second attempt they didn’t use breath attacks until two of them were dead, and the fight was insultingly easy. I feel like the AI should be managed so that can’t happen.

And then, there’s Rashers and Stripes.

Where, oh where, do I begin with Rashers and Stripes?

Rashers and Stripes

As mentioned, it takes a long time to unlock class changes. It just so happens that right before that point a notable difficulty jump occurs! Excellent timing on the designers part, wouldn’t want those filthy casuals getting to the fun part of your video game. The party is imprisoned, so you can’t access previous areas. You’ve been drained of your powers, so you can’t use any of your previously learned spells or abilities. You can only attack, guard, or use a limited inventory full of items. You’re required to run through a lengthy dungeon like this. There you meet Rashers and Stripes, who promptly wipe the floor with you because it’s a supposed-to-lose boss fight.

I hate these two.

After a brief interlude in town, you have to go back through the same dungeon a second time. After that, there’s a small mini-town with no inn or equipment shops. Then there’s yet another dungeon to run through. At the end of the second dungeon, you meet Rashers and Stripes again, this time with the chance to beat them*. The operative word, and the heart of this tangled mess of problems and bad game design, is chance.

*Fun fact, you get a full heal before the first fight, but if you die and come back you don’t. What fun!

Here’s the full scope of what Rashers and Stripes can do. Both have a 1/6th chance of scoring a critical hit, dealing double damage. Rashers has a 1/6th chance to try and blind the party. Whether each member is successfully blinded is up to chance. If a character is blinded, they have lowered chance to hit. There’s a chance each turn that blindness will cure itself. You also enter the fight with an NPC companion who can’t die. There’s a chance Rashers and Stripes will waste attacks on him.

In case my obnoxiously excessive use of italics didn’t tip you off, there’s a lot of chance in this fight. It comes at a specific point where you have no control over your abilities, so there’s not much you can do to mitigate that chance. You can’t predict what attacks R&S will use. You don’t have access to any skills. You can use items to heal damage, but there’s no item to cure blindness.

Why isn’t there an item to cure blindness? Or equipment that resists blindness? I mean granted, the fight would still be annoying. If you weren’t over-prepared you’d still run through a lengthy two-tier dungeon and die to a gimmick you couldn’t see coming. And if you went online to ask about it almost every response would be “LOL u suck. so EZ. just use som blind-B-gone I literally beat this when I was in my moms womb with telekinesis”*. But at least then, after the first fight, you could adapt to that failure. At least then you could do any planning whatsoever.

*I’ve found dozens of threads complaining about R&S, even when searching completely unrelated things. Without fail, someone in the thread will say they had no issue and they don’t see why everyone is complaining. They’ll often point to a casino where you can grind for rare gear, which is 1. Not something that should be required of the player, 2. Not accessible once you hit the difficult part, 3. Easy to miss because it’s at the bottom of a god damn well.

I HATE these two!

Sid Meier, creator of the Civilization series, has described video games as “a series of interesting decisions”. It’s not an ironclad definition, and has received its fair share of criticism over the years. But it holds better for turn-based games than any other. When you remove factors like complex inputs, reaction time, and spatial reasoning, you’ll be hard-pressed to get by without interesting decisions. Because what else is left? If combat is turn-based and you don’t have decisions to make, you’re essentially just arbitrarily pressing a button to advance.

Obviously, things are never that simple. For example, turn-to-turn tactical options are often sacrificed for long-term character decisions. It’s not great if my Knittingmancer can win by spamming 1,000 Needles every turn. But it’s a milder offense if that’s just one of many classes in Sweaterquest 2017. Certain builds may trivialize certain types of conflict, but dealing with defined strengths and weaknesses is part of the fun building a character. Unfortunately, we’ve already established none of that matters here. I already found it frustrating that the game made me wait 20 hours for classes, and then they put this mess right before them?

I HATE that the designers failed to account for a wide range of issues that culminated in an encounter which is frustrating for reasons that with sufficient thought would ultimately be easily avoided. Also these two. I HATE THESE TWO!

I’m sure the DQ7 developers are all great people under great pressure, but I’m baffled that someone could intentionally design this. That someone, who was working on one of the most popular RPG series around in its seventh entry, had to sit down and think of a boss for this specific, disempowered situation the player was in. They had to conclude that of all the hundreds of abilities and mechanics the game has access to, this was the boss fight they should create.

That someone then shipped this idea off to the rest of his team for approval. They made dialogue for it, they scripted the scene, they ran through it themselves, they had play-testers go through it. And in all of that time, no one objected. There must’ve been some type of extenuating circumstances, like a deadline they had to push*. Because if not, then I honestly feel like this person, working on one of the most successful RPG series of all time, has no idea why people play RPGs.

*Little sad that parts of a game with so much filler feel rushed.

…whew. Alright, bit of a tangent there. I just needed to get that off my chest. Let’s cool off with some gameplay not related to combat.

Dungeons and Dragon Quest

The dungeons in Dragon Quest 7 are okay.

Thank you, you've been a wonderful audience!

Alright yeah, more detail. Like many things in DQ7, dungeons are technically competent, even mildly enjoyable, but do little to impress. A high percentage are maze caves, or other varying tilesets of maze. Winding passageways that feel nothing like real places and everything like filling space until you’ve fought enough foes. Speaking of, the original DQ7 had random encounters, whereas this one has overworld enemies you can see and avoid. This is great in theory, but they didn’t adapt the dungeon design to match this. These places are 90% tight corridors, leaving very little room to walk past enemies.

One in every half dozen maze caves you’ll find a puzzle, which makes for a nice change of pace. But none of them are brilliant, or the type of interesting multi-room events you’d see in, say, a Legend of Zelda game. Sadly, this is completely expected for the genre. I’m starting to think RPGs don’t have high standards for dungeon design. The more I play the more I realize the iron-fisted grip maze caves hold over them. DQ7 needs more puzzles, more interesting events, more interesting loot, more in-dungeon story and characters, more dungeons that change layout or loop back through previous territory, more places that feel real and inhabited, more everything. But their length and encounter rate are bearable, they do occasionally have puzzles, and feature a wide range of themes/backgrounds. So it’s standard. How much that’s an endorsement or indictment is up to you.

As for out-of-combat gameplay, it’s what you’d expect. You run around from quest trigger to quest trigger, talking to people in an arbitrary order until they tell you to go to a dungeon. Sometimes they’ll pack multiple dungeons into an arc, or frequently, the same dungeon multiple times. This is especially grating, as the game is long and formulaic as is, and none of the dungeons are interesting enough to warrant a second visit.

Pictured: Most Dragon Quest 7 dungeons.

DQ7 can also fall prey to Find the Quest Trigger. RPG veterans should be familiar. You know what you should be doing, but need to find the right item or NPC so the game will let you. Once in a desert town I was told to ask the villagers for info on what to do, and immediately figured it out. But knowing how this goes, I talked to everyone in town just to be safe. Or so I thought. The event to progress didn’t trigger, and because of poor scripting the “ask party for advice” feature gave me dialogue as though it had. After some frustrated wandering I found a single missed NPC in town who told me completely unnecessary flavor text. Only then would the game let unrelated events proceed. There’s not much to say about this but: No. Bad quest designer. Stop that.

And speaking of having no more to say, this article is over! Or it will be, exactly 63 words after the end of this sentence. A reminder that I did finish this game, whatever problems I had, so it’s not all bad. And if you’re sick of the bile, good news! Next time we’ll be tackling the game’s writing, which I have just as many issues with! Sorry, did I say "good news"? I meant "you’re going to despise me". Easy mistake, you understand. See ya next time!

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