When we praise video games, we sling around the term "epic" like it carries no weight. What makes a game epic, though? In literature, the descriptor is usually reserved for works of tremendous cultural significance, like The Odyssey and Paradise Lost. Should we really hand the recognition to games so freely?
I don't know. I'm not a member of the Word Usage Police (I hope to be accredited by summertime). If we ever start acting more carefully about branding games as epics, however, I believe Square Enix's Dragon Quest 5 has every right to occupy that lofty tier. It takes you around the world, tells a multi-generational story threaded with seriously impactful moments and quality character development, and its battle system introduced serious monster-taming mechanics ages before Pokemon infiltrated pop culture. Not bad for a Super Famicom RPG published in 1992.
Much of Dragon Quest 5's power lies with its protagonist—canonically named "Abel"—which is an interesting thing to say about a mute character (the "Buttoned-up Lead Character" continues a long-standing tradition for Dragon Quest heroes, and indeed, for many RPG heroes, period). It's rare for a silent hero to deliver as much of an impact as Abel, but it's also rare for an RPG to make its lead character grow up, suffer, and then prosper and triumph as successfully as Dragon Quest 5 does.
Moreover, on the single occasion Abel does talk, it's one of the most heartbreaking moments in the game. The words and antics of a thousand RPG characters have filtered through my right ear and exited out my left, but over the years I never forgot my succinct interlude with Abel. I probably never will.
Beating Up Slimes with Dad: The Best Kind of Road Trip
When we first meet Abel, we learn he's surprisingly well-travelled for a youngster. He and his father, Pankraz, are only finally pulling into port after spending years searching for an unnamed something or someone. Though Abel is troubled by nightmares, Pankraz chases away his worries with jovial words and an easy laugh.
Dragon Quest 5's unusual set-up helps nab your attention from the get-go. When we're introduced to a very young lead character in an RPG, we expect them to adhere to certain tropes. Usually they're the precocious child of a well-established family in a peaceful town (that's promptly put to the torch by raiders). They might awaken a Great Evil while exploring forbidden ruins, or by touching some Ancient No-No Object. They might quickly learn they're a font of mysterious power, which causes the superstitious villagers of their home town to turn on them.
By contrast, Dragon Quest 5's opening moments shock you with how normal they are. Abel and Pankraz are treasure-seekers in a wild world that's a perfect fit for heroes and swords. They wander freely and fight as necessary. Far from scolding his son and telling him to stay at home where it's safe (which, again, is an expected action for a warrior parent in an RPG), Pankraz lets Abel fight on the battlefield alongside him—though he doesn't let the boy come to any serious danger, of course.
Not only does Dragon Quest 5's opening treat you to the best kind of father-son bonding, but it also echoes what Abel will experience down the road. Many hours into the game, he'll fight alongside his kids while they finish the journey Pankraz started years ago. As someone who's thoroughly tired of capable kid characters being told to "go home" in all forms of media (like they're not going to sneak out, anyway), I still appreciate how Dragon Quest 5 puts your young self on the road from minute one.
Childhood Lost (and Buried)
Another reason Abel is a successful mute hero is because Dragon Quest 5 gives him ample time to be a kid before taking everything from him. Abel becomes re-acquainted with an old friend, Bianca (whom you can marry later in the game), and they go on an adventure to explore a haunted castle. He rescues a kitten (who turns out to be a cub from Dragon Quest's vicious Sabrecat monster family) from tormenters. He visits a faerie realm and helps the sprites with a problem, an action that pays off later in the game—like many of the actions you take in Dragon Quest 5's first half. You're shown, not told, that Abel is curious and playful.
But the more Abel runs around and goofs off, the clearer it becomes that Pankraz is more than he seems. The burly warrior is always taking short, unaccompanied trips to talk to unfamiliar people while Abel is encouraged to play. Abel, being six, is none the wiser. You, however, know something is up, and you're invested in finding out what that "something" is.
Dragon Quest 5 makes you feel a little protective of Abel. There's a shadow hanging over his "carefree" childhood, and the more you play, the more your sense of dread grows. By the time Pankraz and Abel journey to the Kingdom of Coburg to answer the King's summons, you know shit is about to go down, to use a vulgarity.
And shit does indeed go down faster than a diarrheic dragon riding a toboggan (sorry). Abel is forced to protect the realm's Prince after the bratty scion is kidnapped by monsters. This kicks off a long fall down a black well of misfortune. The children are held hostage while Pankraz's rescue attempt goes awry and he's beaten to death by monsters while Abel watches. Harry and Abel are then shipped off to a slave camp, where they're ordered to build a temple to a demon—your first serious hint that there was more to your early adventures with Pankraz than the simple idle wanderings of a boy and his father. For ten years, Abel and Harry labor under the lash of their taskmasters while their fellow slaves sicken and die around them.
At this point in the game, you might recall a peculiar meeting you had with a purple-robed stranger some hours ago during one of the game's quieter moments. It's clear the stranger is an adult Abel, though Dragon Quest 5 gives no clues about why—or how—he exists alongside child Abel. All adult Abel offers are the few words he speaks out loud through the whole adventure: "Keep your head up, no matter what happens. And take care of that father of yours."
Growing Into a Legacy
Adult Abel's words admittedly carry a much stronger impact if you play through Dragon Quest 5 more than once and get to appreciate the full weight of their context. Luckily, Dragon Quest 5 is worth replaying; its wife-wooing subquest is enough to make you ask "Gee, I wonder what happens if I marry Debora this time?" (Pro tip: You die instantly.) More importantly, Abel's physical, mental, and spiritual growth make his journey worth re-experiencing multiple times. He struggles to overcome enormous hardships as a very young boy, and it never embitters him; it only tempers him until he becomes a fine husband, warrior, and father who's worthy of Pankraz's name and legacy.
Like all the games Kat and I celebrate in our Top 25 RPGs of All Time list, Dragon Quest 5 unquestionably deserves to be called an epic. And no small part of its greatness can be attributed to a strong, silent hero whose actions and reactions build up an unforgettable cast and story.