I've never had much interest in Musou games — you know, that button-mashing mass-slaughter battlefield action series popularized by Omega Force's remarkably resilient Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors games. Mindless action just isn't my thing, especially not in a drearily brown and highly fictionalized rendition of foreign history.
Needless to say, Hyrule Warriors surprised me. Replacing a bunch of dudes I mostly know from Romance of the Three Kingdoms with the cast of The Legend of Zelda and reskinning dusty ancient China to become a comparatively lush Hyrule got me over the initial barrier to entry. It really was all about the license; after all, I'd played every Zelda up to that point (even the terrible CDi ones), so it seemed pretty ridiculous to miss this one strictly because it was a dumb brawler.
And... well, it was a dumb brawler. But the Zelda connection gave me the patience to suffer through the simplistic attacks and brain-dead enemies to appreciate the fact that there actually is more depth to Musou than I'd given it credit for: Controlling tactical points, striking specific weak spots on bad guys, leading tiny armies in panicked races against time. Sure, it's not exactly Tactics Ogre, but what is? For a mindless action game, these little elements of strategy and on-the-fly reorganizing turned the affair into something more than the large-scale Double Dragon it appeared to be.
And so it was that I fell in love with Musou forever.
OK, well, no. Samurai Warriors 4 happened to launch a few weeks after Hyrule Warriors, while I was still buzzing with the contact high of being able to destroy armies of Moblins and Manhandlas with Midna. I decided to give it a go. And, it turns out, I just couldn't get into it. With the thread of a 25-year love affair with The Legend of Zelda pulled loose, I wasn't able to find my way into Samurai Warriors' world. Even the comparatively pretty PS4 graphics couldn't do the trick. Musou just isn't for me. Zelda, yes. Musou, no.
All of this is a shaggy-dog lead-in to explain my state of mind upon going in to a hands-on demo of Dragon Quest Heroes at a recent pre-E3 event. I've come to love Dragon Quest, even more than I enjoy Zelda, but the Musou format seems a much less fitting adaptation of Enix's sedate RPG universe than for Zelda (where action combat and screaming spin attacks already exist). The Zelda license snagged me and pulled me into Hyrule Warriors, yes, but I had a suspicion it would prove to be a one-time novelty, fleeting and impossible to recapture.
It took me about 30 seconds with Dragon Quest Heroes to realize that a beloved license really does make all the difference for a game like this.
I suppose I probably could have just asked Kat, who has little interest in baseline Musou games but derives a sort of guilty pleasure from Dynasty Warriors Gundam. Big robots don't have the same appeal for me as they do for her — if Shinji Ikari isn't in the cockpit, I don't want to hear about it — but the principle remains. Musou is basically this one-size-fits-all shell of a concept that can be retrofitted to work with basically any media property you want. If you can replace Lü Bu and Cao Cao with giant robots, you can replace them with anything. Hyrule Warriors could just as easily have been Mushroom Kingdom Warriors, or Def Jam Warriors, or Nicktoons All-Stars Warriors. The series' intrinsic mindlessness makes it marvelously adaptable.
The secret to making it all work boils down not to the stunning depth of the latest flavor of reskinned Musou, but rather to developer Omega Force's commitment to the adopted brand. Hyrule Warriors and Dynasty Warriors Gundam did a pretty good job of this — the extra mission that allowed players to finally take control of Zelda villain Ganon was especially fun — but from what I've seen, Dragon Warriors Heroes leaves them both in the dust.
There's something simultaneously wonderful and asinine about seeing classic Dragon Quest protagonists running around an open field pummeling armies of grinning slimes that cheerfully hop about as cannon fodder. But it works. Both the look and the animation of the monsters is absolutely spot-on, taking the limited movement that plays out in the turn-based battles of core Dragon Quest titles and extrapolating those suggestions to a full action style. Slimes bound around in syncopated armies; Drackies flutter and swoop; Slime Knights sit astride their wobbly mounts with impossible dignity.
Dragon Quest Heroes also does a fantastic job of translating classic monster traits into sensible real-time combat dynamics. Those Slime Knights don't simply ride around on ridiculous green gelatin blobs, they hold the line with powerful defenses as they hold their shields aloft, forcing you to maneuver for an opening. Golems stomp around, soaking up damage and dishing out devastating area attacks in retaliation. Compared to Hyrule Warriors, even the limited slice I saw of Dragon Quest Heroes felt more varied, with a greater mix of enemy types appearing at once.
The monsters are only a part of the mix, of course. Equally important are the protagonists. Heroes introduces its own new protagonists, a man and a young woman, but honestly I've already forgotten their names. Far more interesting to any Dragon Quest fan is the opportunity to take control of favorite heroes and heroines taken from across the breadth of the series' history; the first portion of the demo had a decided Dragon Quest IV bent, featuring Zamoksvan tsarevna Alena and her two companions, the nebbish young priest Kiryl and elderly mage Borya.
Their renditions were, in a word, perfect. Alena focuses entirely on melee attacks, with quick brawling moves; meanwhile, her companions wield a mix of melee and magic. Spells are, naturally, accompanied by the classic 8-bit casting sound effect. In addition to standard spells like Crack and Heal, they also occasionally can cast more powerful magic. On top of that, their voices and personalities are spot on. Remember those character accents everyone hated reading in the DS version of Dragon Quest IV? Spoken aloud, those same dialects translate into hammy foreign accents; Alena and her retinue sound exactly like Hollywood Russians. Maybe not the most culturally sensitive approach, but fitting for the cartoonish-yet-slightly-bawdy vibe of the Dragon Quest franchise.
Most importantly, Heroes gives the impression that it was put together by huge fans of the Dragon Quest games. At one point, Kiryl repeatedly attempted and failed to cast instant-kill spell Thwack, and the dialogue boxes ("...but it failed!") piled on top of one another, rising like the mage's frustration, until finally he simply resorted to a powerful area-effect attack. The cinematic animation that accompanies this special move breaks the conventions of Dragon Quest text boxes while reproducing them faithfully; this clearly is a game determined to have affectionate fun with its source material.
I wasn't quite as sold on the second half of the demo, which saw Jessica and her Dragon Quest VIII allies (along with the mandatory Heroes hero and heroine) trying to put an end to a rampaging Cyclops before it could destroy a city. Essentially invulnerable, the Cyclops could only be hurt by firing stationary magic cannons at his eye — but even those weapons would do only a tiny amount of damage to the beast. Eventually, I managed to get the Cyclops to drop to one knee, allowing the party to pound on him to whittle down his health bar. Still, even that wasn't enough to defeat the creature within the 10-minute time limit allotted for the demo. Presumably the final version of the game is a little more generous with its time allowance (or causes the fight to be less tedious, with cannons inflicting more damage) — what I saw made for an interesting premise, but wasn't all that much fun.
Still, the more open-ended combat I experienced in the first portion of the demo sold me on Heroes, or at least has convinced me to give the full game a chance. I don't have any illusions that it'll be anything more than typical button-mashy Musou hyperactivity, but the dedication on display to preserving the essence and aesthetics of Dragon Quest will probably be enough to make up for the shallowness... at least for 15-20 hours, anway. I might even forgive the game for stealing the Dragon Quest Heroes moniker from Rocket Slime, whose 3DS sequel still hasn't made its way to the U.S. Yes, the dark age of Dragon Quest is clearly still upon America when the one entry to make it here in five years is the twitchy action spinoff (versus the half-dozen classic Dragon Quest RPG entries that have appeared in Japan in that time)... but at this point, any Dragon Quest in English is a welcome sight. Besides, Heroes really does look to be a lot better than it has any right to be.