Like a handsome stranger, Dragon Quest Heroes makes a great first impression. It’s beautiful, smooth and unbelievably charming. But the more time you spend with it the more you start to see its foibles, and the more it starts to grate. Like noticing that it’d be the type of person who would put an empty carton back in the fridge.
After a mystical purple cloud spreads through your home city of Arba, spewing portals and turning your usually mild-mannered monster friends into hideous, death-smiling beasts, you find yourself as a royal guard trying to protect your King. After finding out just what the devil is going on here, it’s up to you and a handful of Dragon Quest series heroes to slaughter your former chums and put this dastardly evil portal business to bed.
From the off, Dragon Quest Heroes (or to give it its stupidly overlong full name: The World Trees Woe and the Blight Below) is vibrant and pretty, its cel-shaded characters and cute creature design giving it that distinct DQ charm. New heroes Aurora and Luceus come across as massively likeable, their respective brash and cautious natures playing off of each other to great comedic effect.
They also have a satisfying quickness to them in a fight. Unlike the main DQ series, which uses strictly traditional turn-based RPG combat, this spin-off sees you hack and slash your way through crowds of simpleton Slimes and devilish Drackys in much the same way you’d slice your way through a Dynasty Warriors game. Attacks are easy to string together, using a combination of the triangle and square buttons, and you can weave in magic by holding the right bumper to select your spell. And if everything goes to hell you’ve always got an arena-filling super attack to fall back on.
Despite this being an action-based spin-off to the Dragon Quest series, it still sticks to a lot of its traditions. The monsters are the same as the ones you fight in the main series, and even the music remains unchanged. Sometimes it's a little overboard though, like insisting you listen to a full item jingle before you can close a menu. A lot of it is great for giving you the excitable nostalgia sweats, but Square really need to learn to let a few things go for the sake of user experience.
The act of running around and stabbing things is joyously good fun, but all of the little elements that surround it are where things start to falter. While battle does feel strategic at first, as you take down mawkeepers to close portals, it soon descends into chaos. Maps feel poorly thought out in terms of tactical approach, leaving them all feeling quite samey. They also tend to follow similar themes - guard the gate, guard the houses, guard the weird plant thingy that has mystical purposes that aren’t explained particularly clearly.
The use of monster coins to summon defeated foes temporarily to your side is a nice touch; in theory you can manoeuvre them to hold a position for you while you fight elsewhere on the map, but you never seem to get the ones you need and they’re not quite smart enough to competently do the job they were designed for. It all leads to a messy fight of darting back and forth trying to vaguely keep a handle on the tide of nasties, but never being able to do a clean job of it.
The recruitable heroes you encounter on your journey are also all fairly similar, so it never feels like you quite have a properly balanced team in terms of attack power and magic prowess. And while it may seem as though there are a lot of options when it comes to picking skills, you’ll find yourself funnelled into the same choices as everyone else out there. And in a stupidly outdated decision you even have to swap unused team members into your party to make sure they stay levelled, as they only get partial experience if they’re not being used. Sometimes you feel like you need to go through the motions and grind to get the most out of your squad.
It’s all just that little bit disappointing, especially after I came away from the demo earlier in the year feeling so positive [link]. It gets off to such a strong start, but the game never quite manages to build on that. Even the story starts to repeat itself - there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to visit new towns other than ‘uh-oh, there are monsters over there now’.
It’s such a shame as, despite its issues, Dragon Quest Heroes does such a great job of harnessing the quirky spirit of the DQ series. There are loads of references to your favourite characters, and your basecamp is filled with classic touches such as the curiously beefy weapon shop owner, and the church nun who saves your game (even though autosave will do it for you).
The voice acting is also sensational. Each character comes across as cheeky and eccentric, and the dialogue sparkles. It’s also brimming with goo-reat puns and hidden secrets. Fans of Dragon Quest will appreciate digging in deeper to quests and challenges, as well as collecting various items to brew in the alchemy pot.
Just like that handsome stranger, you’ll still appreciate Dragon Quest Heroes’ company despite its failings. The moments of personality-driven sparkle still shine amongst its more habitual monotony, but maybe it’s just best to only indulge it with your time in small doses.