The original Dragon Quest (renamed Dragon Warrior in the US due to a licensing issue) didn’t make much of a splash on American shores, despite being a big upgrade over the Japanese original. In fact, Nintendo Power infamously gave the game away for free with subscriptions for a time, and the three NES sequels didn’t fare much better with sales. Despite the overall lukewarm response from the west, a number of players loved the experience and became lifelong RPG fans. I was one, myself! There’s something inherently addictive, challenging and charming about the Dragon Quest series which helped propel it to mega-franchise status in Japan.
While the series has been getting some traction here more recently, Enix wasn’t so confident in its abilities to sell to Americans back in the 90s, resulting in a couple Super Famicom games never making it to the SNES. Dragon Quest V is the first of these, and it’s a shame Americans missed out on it for so long, because it’s a gem.
Enter the DS to save the day with Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride. This remake of the 1992 classic utilizes the Dragon Quest VII engine to blend 3-D environments with lovely sprite work. It also boasts a four-character party (one more than the original game), remixed music, a few balance tweaks and a new “Heavenly Bride” to choose from.
However, it’s the core game that’s the big draw here since many players have never experienced it. Dragon Quest V benefits from focusing its story on a family. The game’s main character (who I highly suggest naming after yourself) is born in the prologue, and then grows throughout a tale spanning decades. The story follows his life from childhood, to his teen years, and then to adulthood, along with all the drama that comes with growing up. But this is more than just a framing device—it works brilliantly in drawing you into this character’s world, getting to know him via his neighbors, friends and family, relating more heavily to his struggles and consequently cheering his accomplishments.
It’s tied up thematically well too—when you’re a kid, you’re going on childlike, minor adventures while your dad is constantly working on grown-up stuff that’s a bit too complicated for you to understand. But once you get older, your quest becomes more serious as you adopt that “grown-up stuff” yourself. About midway through, you’re allowed to choose a bride, get married, and go on a honeymoon as she joins your party! Just like in life, there are glorious highs and tragic lows, punctuated with a recurring villain who seems to always get the upper hand on your family. The entire game spans decades and it all feels very personal—I got a lump in my throat at more than one occasion.That green-haired fellow is one of many memorable characters in this game.
While the storytelling is unique for the series (and RPGs in general), the gameplay is very traditional—you’ll explore towns, dungeons and the overworld, all while battling funny-looking monsters via random encounters, buying equipment and finding treasure. The challenge level seems a bit lower than the game's usual fare; it would've been nice to have a bit more trouble making it through the dungeons. The one main new gameplay wrinkle is that you can now recruit about half of the game’s monsters onto your team as permanent party members. The act of recruiting is done randomly (beat a monster and you have an x-percent chance of suddenly getting it to join), but the monsters themselves are a versatile and useful bunch. Admittedly, it’s a bit of an overwhelming element at times, but you eventually get enough story-based characters in your party to never actually have to worry about using monsters if you don’t want to. Also impressive is the fact that this unprecedented element in RPGs existed four years before Pokemon, so we just may have Slime Knight and Sabercat to thank for Pikachu.
While the traditional elements of Dragon Quest are front-and-center, DQV does a good job keeping things interesting by interspersing story elements between dungeons and even flipping RPG tropes on their head a few times in the game. Additionally, there’re a decent amount of little side-distractions to keep an eye out for beyond the monster-recruiting. The now-standard casinos show up here, in addition to a rather addictive and charming giant board game called Treasures ’n’ Trapdoors. There’s also the classic Mini-Medal side-quest, and a treasure-hunting element where you fill a museum with souvenirs found from around the world. There’s even a super-hard post-game dungeon for those that can’t get enough.
The newer visuals work fine, although the environments are a bit on the muddy side. The sprite work is great, though, particularly all the monster animations during battles. You’ll be doing a lot of fighting, so it’s nice to have such fun-looking creatures to beat on while you search for that elusive Liquid Metal Slime. The soundtrack is vintage Dragon Quest, although it didn’t quite stick with me like the songs from 4 and 8. The sleepy overworld theme may have contributed to this; for such a grand, emotional story, the music usually left me wanting just a bit more.The battles, while frequent, look nice. In this screen, the hero's got an army of monsters on his side!
I have to say, though, that DQV left me a little underwhelmed in its final fourth or so. The story elements sort of drop off in favor of a wild goose chase through a few too many dungeons, with little to break up the action. It’s still enjoyable for sure, but I was hoping for the storyline to keep up the great pacing that it had for the bulk of the game. Additionally, the finale (from the last dungeon to the ending) kind of disappointed me considering the greatness that came before. Spoilers: I was never a fan of the last-minute last boss who the party has never met before. A much better final foe would’ve been the jerk who’s ruined our hero’s life three times over, not this faceless demon thing presenting a vague “threat” to the world. The ending also didn’t really feel like the world was “saved” since it never felt like it was in any immediate danger anyway.
That actually brings me to my thoughts on the game’s story as a whole: it’s absolutely wonderful on a personal level, and rather mediocre on a “worldwide” level. I didn’t want to save the day because the world was in danger (honestly, it never felt like it was)—I wanted to because I had familial reasons to. If they could’ve made the hero motivation a little better and polished up the last chunk of the game, this would’ve been a masterpiece in my eyes. On the plus side, this makes the quest feel much more personal, which gives DQV a very specific feel all its own.
Even so, I loved playing it and it was just the right length (around 35 hours). The characters really stuck for me (particularly thanks to the huge amount of dialogue in the game via the awesome Party Chat feature), most elements of the plot were great, the humor and emotion were (mostly) balanced well, and the gameplay was enjoyably challenging. As far as I’m concerned, the SNES was the golden era for RPGs, and this one fits right in nicely with those. It’s a shame we didn’t get it back in the day, but that issue has finally been rectified, so there's no reason to not play what's one of the best games in the Dragon Quest series!