Retronauts Explores the Slow-Burn Strength of Dragon Quest VII

Retronauts Explores the Slow-Burn Strength of Dragon Quest VII

Conventional wisdom holds that DQVII's enormous size and glacial pace undermine the experience, but is that really true?

Dragon Quest has always been one of the great divides between east and west. After all these years, the series remains one of Japan's favorites... but in America and Europe, its few successes have been hard-fought and terribly fleeting.

Blame it on the long delay for localization back with the original NES game, or on Americans' insufficient love of the whimsical art of Akira Toriyama, or just on plain ol' persnicketiness. Dragon Quest is the very definition of "big in Japan," even in the country's post-console-gaming days, and the very definition of niche in America.

If there's any one single Dragon Quest entry that totally embodies this divide, it's Dragon Quest VII. The best-selling Dragon Quest game in Japan, it didn't just flatline in the U.S. when it launched here in 2001 — it's by far the most reviled game in the entire franchise among Americans. Hopefully that will change with the arrival of the game's 3DS remake here in the U.S. this past week. Not only does the remake overhaul the PlayStation original's most reviled features — notably its graphics and its pacing — but its new home platform should allow Americans to better soak in its qualities. And this truly is a game that demands players take it at a different pace than usual... which probably has a lot to do with its unpopularity here.

Back when it was called Dragon Warrior VII, Dragon Quest VII sat at odds with what American console gamers had come to expect from their RPGs, emphasizing narrative immersion over flashiness and thrills. Heck, the game's existence came about at a leisurely pace, marking the end of Dragon Quest as a frequent and regular video game fixture to one whose entries appear at sparse intervals. Enix announced the game in 1996 as a Nintendo 64DD release, but a few months later changed course with the news that DQVII, like Final Fantasy VII, would appear on PlayStation. Where DQVII differed from FFVII, of course, was in the time delay between announcement and release. Square promised a PlayStation Final Fantasy at the beginning of 1996 and delivered one to their Japanese fans a year later, with the U.S. localization hitting about six months after that. Enix promised a PlayStation Dragon Quest early in 1997 and delivered it... midway through 2000. The American version hit more than a year after that.

Remember, this was back when console generations topped out at five years rather than spanning almost an entire decade, so there literally was a generational difference between the two games. FFVII showed up right as PlayStation hit critical mass, and it felt absolutely cutting-edge. DQVII, on the other hand, showed up as PlayStation began to wane, and it felt like a game you would have seen in the console's first year of life. It featured 16-bit sprites on primitive 3D backgrounds, included some of the worst CG cutscenes ever committed to a black disc, and generally felt like a relic. It launched in both Japan and America after the PlayStation 2 had launched in each respective region. But its delay was far more crushing in the U.S., where it appeared about a week before the bleeding-edge Metal Gear Solid 2 and barely two months before Final Fantasy X.

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Even more crucially, though, Americans lacked some very important context for Dragon Quest VII. Nintendo and Enix had localized all four NES entries, but the series underwent a major conceptual shift when it moved to Super NES. Dragon Quest V took the fourth game's emphasis on character vignettes and ran with it, building its entire story around the life of a man who would go on to play a critical role in history. Dragon Quest VI went a step further than that, shifting the narrative focus away from the protagonists and more toward the world surrounding them. Those two games set expectations — and the conceptual inspiration — for Dragon Quest VII. But they wouldn't make their way to the U.S. until nearly a decade after Dragon Quest VII.

Instead, American console gamers, freshly inducted into the world of role-playing games by grand and cinematic adventures such as Final Fantasy VII, Suikoden II, and Legend of Dragoon, went into Dragon Quest VII expecting something similar. What they received was... precisely the opposite.

Dragon Quest VII has become infamous for its pacing. (Long-time Retronauts listeners will have heard many of the complaints lobbed in its direction over the years on this very podcast.) Typically, you don't encounter your first battle in the game until you're about three hours in — a ridiculously long time even next to fellow langorous Enix-published PS1 RPGs like Valkyrie Profile and Star Ocean: The Second Story. Even once battles become a regular game element, they evolve at a slow pace, because your party doesn't reach the Dharma Temple (now known as Alltrades Abbey) until about hour 30. It's only at this point, the point on the clock at which you'd be venturing into the final disc of a game like Final Fantasy VIII, that Dragon Quest VII actually begins to unfold.

With Alltrades Abbey making the job system available, you can finally start to train your party members in different roles. Yet even then, it moves along at a sluggish pace, with a multi-tiered class system that requires tons of grinding in order to unlock advanced roles. Dragon Quest VII is the very definition of "time sink." It doesn't help in the least that advancement in the game hinges on the acquisition of hidden relics scattered throughout the game's various worlds. You need to gather relics in order to unlock new areas, then scour those areas to find more relics with which to unlock additional regions. It's a slow, stilted, exploration-intensive take on the RPG, rendered in dated visuals. No wonder it flopped here.

A decade and a half of bad-mouthing directed at the game have piqued my curiosity. I never had the chance to play much of Dragon Warrior VII, so my impressions of the game have largely been filtered through the criticisms of others.

Dragon Quest VII received a pretty substantial overhaul for 3DS. Arte Piazza totally overhauled the graphics, making it look essentially like the beefed-up cousin of Dragon Quest IX. More importantly, though, they changed the flow of the game... though not quite as much as I had expected. That three-hour start-to-battle benchmark, everyone reported, was cut in half. You could expect to start duking it out with slimes inside of 90 minutes—still a slow burn, but nowhere near as plodding as in the original version of game.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I sat down to play Dragon Quest VII in English and found my first battle didn't show up until more than two and a half hours into the game! And the funny thing is, that was fine. At no point in those opening hours did I think to myself, "My god, this is drawn out and tedious." When combat finally reared its head and my tiny party at last got to make use of the weapons they'd had equipped for the past few hours for no real reason, it didn't come as some desperately needed release of tension. Instead, the first battle in Dragon Quest VII happened... right when it needed to happen.

What everyone had neglected to mention about the game amidst their lamentations was that the slow start happens for a reason. It works as an act of world-building, and here in this version at least, it's some of the best I've ever seen. The game starts off slowly in order to give players time to familiarize themselves with the main characters... and, more importantly, to get a sense of the world. The entire crux of Dragon Quest VII has to do with the act of restoring a shattered world back to its proper state (that's what all those hidden tablet fragments are for). In order to communicate the significance of what you're doing, the game takes the time to let you really soak in the idyll of the world as it is before the adventure unfolds. Everything is wonderful and peaceful, with monsters existing only on the open seas and the only real tension in life coming from the question of how many fish will be caught in the year's ocean harvest.

The problem is that this peace exists for only a tiny island populated by a town, a city, and a castle. There's an underlying sense that behind this tranquility, something just isn't right. Dragon Quest VII takes a slow approach in order to let you get a feel for the way peace corresponds to to stagnation. It piles on the sensation that something isn't right, while forcing you to work against the desire of everyone around you to maintain that sense of unnatural tranquility.

You can definitely rush through the opening sequence of Dragon Quest VII and cut your time to combat in half, but honestly that seems to be missing the point. I found my own playthrough took nearly as long as in the original game because I didn't want to rush. I enjoyed soaking in the ambiance, savoring the growing sense of unease, getting to know the townsfolk. And, when I finally opened a path to a lost portion of the world, it felt satisfying — even as the question of whether or not it was the right thing to do underpinned it all.

I don't know that I would have appreciated this process nearly so much back when Dragon Warrior VII came out, though. Even putting aside the localization difficulties that afflicted the game's first U.S. release — the new version's more convincing visual presentation makes a huge difference. But the real difference isn't the game, I suspect. It's in me.

Enjoying a Dragon Quest game demands a different set of expectations than, say, Final Fantasy. And my brain wasn't honestly geared to appreciate the difference 15 years ago — probably not even 10 years ago. The slower, more vignette-based stories of Dragon Quest don't impress the way flashier RPGs do. The drama tends to be more subtle, the stakes less obvious, the threats less menacing. But taking the time to soak in the initial mystery of Dragon Quest VII gives the subsequent plot twists so much more weight. It's hard to imagine another RPG series spending a few hours of quest time on a town where — spoilers! — a curse has turned the residents to stone, and the lone survivor dwells alone with his sense of guilt at having failed to break the curse before time and the elements wore down the village's "statues" to the point where the victims would never be able to revert to human form and survive. But it's here, and it's heartbreaking.

I don't know if Dragon Quest VII can overcome the original game's reputation and the American public's general disinterest in the series, but I'm grateful Nintendo took a chance on localizing the 3DS version. Thanks to its refinements and my own maturation, I finally understand why the PlayStation original was one of Japan's best-selling games ever. It's not a bold and brassy adventure, but there's even more value in its understated style.

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