Huge. Epic. Mythic. Words often used to describe the stories, scope and magnitude of many RPGs. Over time, a handful of titles fitting those descriptors have raised expectations for the genre, making the games that followed the better for it. Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride must've been a bar-raiser of that caliber upon its Japanese release, and it feels remarkably new even in its English-language premiere 17 years later on the DS.
The most obvious advancement, even from the start, is the story and how it's told. Here is the plot of every previous DQ title: a chosen hero must defeat a world-destroying fiend, and on the way gather a party of other do-gooders through brief, cliched encounters. And while DQIV toyed with those conventions, V throws them out the window. For example, it's made clear early on that the main character isn’t the fated hero the world's waiting for, meaning no familiar paths and a lot more surprises and interesting situations as a result.
The path your hero takes is a long one indeed, and not only because of the 40-plus hours it demands. Beginning at birth, you travel with the hero over decades of his life and the winding path fate places him on. We won't reveal any major plot points, but we were honestly shocked at some of the turns the tale takes, especially after the way the ultra-traditional DQ series has lowered our expectations over the years.
Though a few moments felt creaky - this is basically a SNES game - many things in it felt current even today. First, the game takes a few specific moments to present the player with game-changing choices. One very spoiler-y choice has a huge impact on the remainder of your game, while others are more like cute asides. The results of a choice aren't always immediate, sometimes playing out in subtler ways.
And while the basic gameplay is the same very straightforward, turn-based RPG setup the series has always used, there are some welcome and surprising changes in the party system too. Unlike in previous and future DQs, you never have a "set" party, thanks to the grand timeline of the story and its many twists. You can never count on a human character to be there for you, so you must put your trust in monsters. By which we mean you need to let them join the party.
As most DQ monsters are cuter than they are imposing, especially the marquee Slime, having monsters fill out empty spaces in your party works fine aesthetically as well as in practice. Your monster squad is totally random, it levels up, learns spells, equips things, all the basics. Only occasionally do beaten monsters end up on your team, which makes the group you cultivate feel earned, personal and unique.
In addition to that ocean of story and gameplay depth, this wouldn't be an AAA-level remake without a ton of extras. Aside from minor new additions to the story (only those who played it before would notice them), several minigames and collectible items in every town will keep you playing even longer. Whether it's Slime races, poker, Whac-A-Mole starring Slimes, or the unbelievably addictive board game T'n'T, there are many exciting ways to fall off the game’s central path.
DQ V is a missing link for western gamers, a step forward in RPG design that, when played now, puts many design choices in later works into perspective. And though current titles have built on its innovations in the years since its release, this advancement in storytelling is still captivating now. The adventure in Dragon Quest V is a history lesson in two ways: not only do you explore the exciting and full life of its hero, but it’s also a look into an important stage in the evolution of RPGs.
Feb 13, 2009