That awkward moment when you realize that you played the godawful Final Fantasy Type-0 to completion, but couldn’t be bothered to make it even halfway into the significantly-better Dragon Quest VIII.
Also, isn’t Hanukkah over? Yes. But on the other hand, shut up.
So at long last, we come to the end of this little miniseries. It started with "Elements", and it’ll end with elements. Bloodborne gave us fear. Metal Gear Solid V, anger; The Witcher 3, sorrow. By the song’s definition, the only element that could possibly remain is joy. And as per the post’s title, the only game that could possibly convey such an element is -- to use its full and proper name -- Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below. So strap yourselves in, because the PS4nukkah finale is bringing with it the best that Sony’s latest console has to offer.
…Is what I would like to say. But paradoxically, DQ Heroes isn’t the best game I’ve played -- this year, on the PS4, or by any other metric. In fact, it’s arguably the worst of the four games here, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who says it outright sucks. For those unaware, this is a joint production between Squeenix and Koei Tecmo, AKA the guys who have pumped out Dynasty Warriors, Samurai Warriors, and the like for years on end (including the Wii U’s own Hyrule Warriors). It’s more of the latter company’s work, for obvious reasons. That’s partly because DQ Heroes’ story didn’t make me want to ram my head through a mirror, and partly because the formula here is…well, it’d be unfair to call it exactly the same. That’s a blessing and a curse -- maybe more of a curse than anything, if you can believe it.
So why is it that I felt utterly compelled to finish it? Besides the fact that I’m dumb? Well, let’s see if we can think up a good answer.
Here’s the setup. In the world of DQ Heroes, humans and monsters have gotten along for centuries. It’s to the point where they practically coexist, and can hang out at the same festivals in castle towns. Unfortunately, all of that changes one day; thanks to the influence of unseen malcontents, all of the monsters in the world are brainwashed and forced to go on the attack -- and it’s up to an intrepid band of heroes from across multiple dimensions (i.e. the other
Dairy Queen Dragon Quest games) to put a stop to the evil and protect the
sanctity of all of their worlds.
Full disclosure: as you can guess from the (utterly depressing) intro, I don’t know DQ very intimately. I know of it, for sure, but who doesn’t? Frankly, I only came upon the game because it was -- or at least gave the impression of -- a troll gift by my brother…AKA revenge for getting him Beyond: Two Souls for his birthday. Dark intentions aside, the game itself isn’t what I’d call heinous by a long shot. Continuing the trend of Hyrule Warriors, Koei Tecmo is out to make changes to the genre they’ve effectively run into the ground. More to the point, they’re out to capture the spirit of the DQ games; it’s to the point where some of the standard JRPG conventions are ripped wholesale from the playbook.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the characters.
Notably, you’re asked at the start to choose whether you want to be a male knight (Luceus) or a female knight (Aurora). The assumption is that it’s just an aesthetic choice, and to be fair it’s at least half-right; Luceus and Aurora play almost identically, and they have the same stat progression, so keeping them both at max strength is kind of redundant. And since they’re both present in many of the game’s cutscenes -- as well as being key figures in the story -- I have my doubts that the choice alters much in terms of perspective or outcomes. (There is one sequence, but I’ll get to that.)
What’s really important is that these characters actually have, well, character. The opening cutscenes establish quickly and effectively who you’re going to be spending the next twenty hours with, and it’s thanks to a random carnival game. Luceus and Aurora head to a shooting gallery to try and win a prize, and take turns going at it. Luceus takes his toy rifle and carefully lines up his shot, then fires once he has his precious pinpoint precision. Aurora opts to grab two rifles at once and fire like a psychopath. She doesn’t hit a damn thing, but it’s still cool as hell.
It kind of feels like Luceus and Aurora got their scripts mixed up. Luceus looks like the standard JRPG/shonen hero (which isn’t helped by the fact that, as is the standard, the designs are done by Akira Toriyama) and uses flaming attacks. Meanwhile, Aurora looks like the cool female lead (because she’s just a few hairs shy of Android 18), and her attacks have an ice effect. BUT Luceus is actually the brain who takes things slow and comes up with extensive strategies -- and verbosely, no less. Aurora is hot-blooded as they come, and regularly cuts off Luceus to either summarize the plan, or suggest they just bash whatever’s in their way into oblivion.
Not that I’m complaining, of course. The two knights’ bit extends almost to the end of the game, which to be fair can get tiring when it’s an interaction as commonplace as the sunrise. On the other hand, these two exude charm pretty much from start to finish, and it’s not as if they’re devoid of character development along the way. Still, I can appreciate that there’s been a proverbial flipping of the script, and the lady of the bunch isn’t what you’d expect. Well, kind of. You could argue that it is kind of expected, because Koei Tecmo’s still hot off the heels of Hyrule Warriors -- a game that famously included an overwhelmingly-female cast.
In that sense, DQ Heroes isn’t much different. There are five playable male characters (plus a hidden one, and as such only appears in the main story for split seconds during levels), and seven playable female characters. That’s not the scale-crashing count of Hyrule Warriors, sure, but in a climate where people are asking “where are all the good female characters?” I hope they aren’t willing to shrug off this game just ‘cause.
Admittedly, I wouldn’t call any of the characters that show up complex or 100% fleshed-out (I only vaguely knew about Nera and Bianca’s marriage gimmick beforehand, so I can’t imagine how much that threw other players for a loop). But then again, maybe that’s the point. Far be it from me to suggest that shallow characters are better than in-depth ones, but some of these guys got their start on the NES, which thanks to hardware limitations wasn’t exactly a bastion of epic storytelling. I’m not saying that DQ as a whole isn’t capable of complex storytelling -- I’m pretty sure there are tons of examples to its name -- but look at what game these people are in. The mission is to kill lots of monsters. Fat needs to be trimmed from somewhere.
So while the characters are kind of broad-strokes, that’s compensated for with the sheer level of charm they exude as well as the strong foundations they’re built upon. Aurora’s a hot-blooded heroine who cuts straight to the point (literally). Isla’s a sassy lady with a love of science and machines. Jessica is stubborn to a fault, but spirited and a real spitfire. Bianca’s always in good spirits, while Nera is as kind as they get. Maya is unrepentantly out for riches, but fights the good fight regardless. Alena is practically a battle maniac who’s impossible to keep in one place for long. All of the ladies are intensely likable before they step onto the battlefield and “prove their worth”…although as expected of Toriyama’s style, all of their faces are slight permutations of Bulma or Pan.
The same goes for the guys, as well. Luceus’ shtick never really loses its edge, even though he really should have learned by now that no one cares about his “brilliant strategies”. Doric, the king, is one of the most boisterous characters I’ve seen to date, to the point where almost all of his dialogue is shouted. Terry plays the cool and aloof ally card so often that it practically becomes hilarious. Yangus is Yangus, and Yangus is awesome. But my personal favorite character is Kiryl, the long-suffering guardian to Alena who (much like the princess) speaks almost entirely in broken English. But he’s confirmed for LOYALTY tier, so it’s cool.
He very rarely left my party, to the point where I could’ve legitimately called the game Kiryl the Spear-Pope and the Three Bulmas.
The story itself is, as you can guess, simple and straightforward. Luceus and Aurora, as the subordinates of King Doric, travel across the land to put a stop to the various monster attacks. Arguably, the highlight (if not the whole point) of the game is to have characters from the DQ canon meet up; in that regard, the game earns an A+. As for the plot? It’s not even worth adding spoiler warnings to. There’s a battle between light and darkness that’s been in the background for centuries, but the evil wizard Velasco (who despite his pink skin sounds like someone doing an exaggerated Spanish accent) is harvesting the despair of other worlds to awaken a dark god.
Like the title of the game suggests, the “blight below” is basically said dark god -- and three guesses to what mythical creature it looks like -- while the good guys have to keep the world tree safe if they want light to stay intact. Good thing Luceus and Aurora actually have a special hidden power, conferred upon them by the circumstances of their birth! As is often the case. I’d say it’s a “race against time” to stop Velasco, but in true JRPG fashion, the plot only moves if/when you do. DQ Heroes doesn’t even try to pretend otherwise, because you’re forced to go back to base -- i.e. your airship -- between every mission.
Still, it’s not as if there aren’t any interesting wrinkles to the story. The human-monster coexistence doesn’t really get expanded on, but the threads are there for some good context and a potential story in itself. As far as the gang knows, the only monster in the entire world that hasn’t started running amok is a healslime (read: blue jellyfish with googly eyes) named Healix. Even if he’s relatively young, Healix both regrets that they have to kill monsters -- as do the others -- and, more critically, he’s a sentient being.
So there’s a part of me that wonders if the monsters are fully brainwashed, or if there’s a part of them deep down that recognizes they’re being forced to fight against their will. (That’s pretty likely, because the knight you don’t choose ends up getting turned against you for a boss fight.) That’s actually pretty messed up when you think about it -- and even if it’s not the case, it’s a safe bet that the monsters have become so well-integrated into society that their departure from it en masse to wreak havoc may have done irrevocable harm to communities and economies alike. The gang is out to save the monsters, even if they have to cut down monsters to achieve their goals.
Basically, saving the world means making it a little less populous.
Dragon Quest Heroes, everybody!
Overall, the game is about the power of friendship and teamwork, to the point where it practically becomes the team’s rallying cry at the end (though to be fair, we get some cool cutscenes out of it). It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it’s safe -- though again, it’s hard to heap hate on a game so unabashedly honest and charming. With that said, there is one important arc in the game. Like I said, the knight you don’t choose becomes a boss fight later on. The circumstances for that, however, come from the fact that said knight effectively dies.
I picked Aurora from the get-go, so here’s how things play out. She and Luceus face off against Velasco at a critical moment, even though he’s clearly got the edge. Once again, Luceus hangs back and tries to come up with a plan; as usual, Aurora rushes in and tries to beat the pencil-thin mustache off of the big baddie. Things don’t go well, and the evil wizard pins them both with dark magic. But Luceus sacrifices himself to give Aurora a chance to break free, and she does -- more out of necessity than choice, since she’s the only Child of Light the good guys would have left. The end result is that the gang has to go on a mini-quest to bring Luceus back.
…Does that sound familiar to anyone?
These aren’t exactly the most in-depth character around, but sequences like the Luceus rescue arc go a long way towards fleshing them out. Aurora realizes the error of her ways, and from then on realizes that doing her best Leeroy Jenkins impression probably isn’t for the best. She actually gets more and more desperate to find a way to bring Luceus back, undoubtedly because it also means earning her redemption. Once he does come back, she’s more willing to ease up and listen to his plans…to an extent. But no one can say that they’re without their tender moments.
And I guess that’s really what makes DQ Heroes such a pleasure: those moments. The plot may be thinner than the average potato chip, but the game compensates with the sheer charisma of its world and big-name players. It’s like snuggling up in a thick blanket and a warm bed to brave the harsh wintry mornings; you just can’t resist the appeal (or want to leave it) because it feels so good. It shouldn’t, but it does. Besides, it’s not as if DQ Heroes has to bank solely on its story. Being one of those newfangled vidyagaemz, it can cover up its faults as well as flesh itself out via its gameplay. And sure enough, it does…for better or worse.
Thinking back to Hyrule Warriors, I thought it was insane to see the attacks and combos of characters (Link aside) whose fighting ability was pretty nebulous; imagine my surprise when I saw Zelda going all ORAORAORA on baddies with her sword, or ravaging entire squadrons with a giant Triforce sigil. For the most part, DQ Heroes’ characters don’t have the same level of OTT combat, but that doesn’t stop them from being almost universally incredible to play as.
As always, you’ve got the typical suite of light and heavy attacks, and you link those inputs together to create your attack strings (or create new combo opportunities, if you’re savvy enough). One of the minor yet extremely-appreciable differences this time around is that you can hold one of the triggers to access your character’s special attacks and spells, and then hit a button to use it (at the cost of some MP). It’s a configuration pulled almost directly from Kingdom Hearts, but it’s a great thing to pull; it’s an extremely functional system, and I don’t understand why more games don’t use it for that easy access.
*stares daggers at Final Fantasy Type-0*
Basically, what this means is that you’ve got an extra set of moves you can cancel into from your combos, much like the average fighting game -- with all of the satisfaction that that implies. The MP bar keeps you from spamming your attacks mindlessly, and there are layers of resource management littered throughout, but the important thing is that the game’s combat is as good as it’s ever been -- maybe better. To be fair, there’s a very strong lean towards pure offense instead of defense; you’ve got dodging on one trigger and blocking on another, but I can count on one hand the number of times I felt like blocking was essential (least of all because blocking roots you firmly in place).
What is essential, however, is the Tension Gauge. Circle on its own doesn’t do anything except make you stand in place and power up, and fill up a purple bar. It’s more practical to fill up that bar by attacking enemies on the field -- and when it’s full, then you press Circle to
turn into a Super Saiyan enter a
state of hyper-tension for a limited time.
In this mode, you’re faster, stronger, can double-jump, have unlimited
MP, and you’re invincible. On top of all that, you can unleash your
character’s ultimate attack by hitting Circle again (or just letting the gauge
run out). It’s a surefire way to ruin
whatever’s in front of you.
It’s a critical ability to use -- because as it turns out, this game is hard. Maybe for the wrong reasons.
No one can accuse this game of being a clone of Hyrule Warriors (at a bare minimum), because they play out in VERY different ways. The big wrinkle behind DQ Heroes is that the overwhelming majority of its story missions aren’t necessarily about wiping everything off the map, or beating the enemy elite. No, this game is all about protection missions. Protect the gates. Protect the villagers. Protect the mayor. Protect the doors. Protect the world tree root. Protect everything from everything else.
I’d understand if you closed this post now.
If you’re reading this, then chances are you’ve played enough games to know that protection missions (and escort missions, which to a lesser extent are technically in this game as well) can be a drag. And I’m happy to report that DQ Heroes will do absolutely NOTHING to change your mind about them. Levels can go on for an extremely long time -- upwards of fifteen or even thirty minutes, if I had to guess -- and there are no midway checkpoints, unless I missed them in the menu. So one common scenario is for you to spend thirty minutes at a time on one level -- the later ones especially -- only for the game to declare that “the last wave” is coming…and subsequently spawn dozens more monsters, including multiple elites. And any one of those elites could be a boss fight in itself. Can you see how that might be a problem?
Luckily, the game gives you some new tools to use and (potentially) turn the tide. For starters, you go into each stage with your chosen knight and three party members, and you can switch to any of them on the fly (as long as they’re still alive). I’m inclined to believe that Aurora is the best character in the game, even more so than Luceus; her DPS is basically unmatched, and her ultimate attack clears out enemies over a huge distance. Moreover, she has ice attacks as opposed to Luceus’ fire -- which means that potentially, she can freeze enemies and hold them in place so you can launch your counterattack. Beyond that? Having four party members means having four Tension Gauges; one strategy I used to get out of a few pinches was to snap from one comrade to another to launch one ultimate attack after another in rapid succession.
The lingering issue is that you have no real control over your party. It’s one thing for them to never use hyper-tension for some reason, but it’s another thing entirely when they refuse to do anything but follow you. Okay, sure, they’ll still attack as needed, and they’re actually pretty good at surviving. But the game’s structure pretty much demands that you cover multiple key points on the map at once. Monsters usually spawn from swirling purple vortexes on the map, and the only way to stop their continuous spawning is to slay the unit controlling each vortex. Fair enough…except if you stray too long from the thing you’re supposed to defend, monsters from the other vortexes will destroy it in a snap.
That’s where one of the game’s other features comes in -- well, in theory. See, every now and then you’ll defeat a monster, and they’ll drop a medal with their face on it. If you grab it, you’ll be able to toss out that monster to fight for you in battle -- or more specifically, guard a specific point on the map for as long as their HP holds out. It’s a feature that can help, for sure, but there are problems.
For starters: you’re at the mercy of the RNG gods, meaning that there’s no guarantee you’ll ever even get a medal. Second, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a strong monster. Third, even if you get a strong monster, it’ll take up more space in a finite number of slots you have. So that leads to the fourth problem: even if you call out four of your biggest and best monsters, you’re still asking them to hold out against a force that easily reaches into the hundreds -- and some of those enemies include elites as strong as the monsters you’ve summoned. Except they have more of them. At once.
If I had to compare it to Hyrule Warriors, I’d say it like this. HW is a game that starts at a consistently high level of fun, and maintains that level from start to finish. DQ Heroes -- thanks to its sheer spectacle, combat, and the wow factor of seeing not-so-famous characters be realized in full HD 3D -- starts off at an even higher level, but dips down the further in you go. Enemy elites with huge amounts of HP get tossed out whenever the game feels like it, and some of them will bomb your escort from half a mile away if you leave them alone (and even then…). Aurora learns a spell that lets her warp across the map to specific points, but you can’t count on enough maps to even have those warp points.
Even in your super mode, you don’t have the mobility needed to reliably make it to vortexes and get back to your escort before it gets rushed into oblivion. Not like it matters, because you’re likely to start levels on the defensive -- and you’re lucky to make it very far for very long, especially in the later levels. All of this leads up to scenarios where, even after tens of minutes keeping your escort in the green, one randomly-spawned onslaught of enemies is enough to invalidate all of your progress. And the sad thing is that protecting these targets is the only way the game can maintain difficulty; the moment it becomes a mission to defeat enemies -- up to and including the final boss, a god of darkness -- the game becomes significantly easier.
But with all of that said, why do I still think that the game is a joy to play? Why did I finish it instead of any number of options being within a few steps of me?
The simplest answer is that even with its faults, DQ Heroes is still fun. It’s fun to play as Aurora and take out a whole row of monsters with a wave of blooming icicles. It’s fun to juggle enemies with Kiryl, and finding out firsthand that lightning still plays by the golden JRPG rules (i.e. it ruins mechanical enemies). It’s fun seeing these people introduced, even if you’re like me and have no idea why Maya can turn into a dragon -- and even if they don’t get tons of development, there are sidequests that let you gain more insight into them. It’s fun to see a bunch of heroes (even quasi-edgelord Terry) go out and be heroes, and go on a globe-spanning quest to beat up an evil wizard. It’s simple, it’s direct, it’s satisfying, and most of all, it’s a joy to play.
Are there some not-so-fun bits? Yes, absolutely. I gave a pass to something like Bloodborne for its ability to completely invalidate your progress in one fell swoop -- and while that’s technically not the most ideal way to gear a game, at least it’s to be expected of a From Software game. You know what you’re in for going in, because it’s an intrinsic part of the game. In DQ Heroes, the difficulty is unexpected and in some cases unwelcome because of how unfair it can get. This is another evolution for Koei Tecmo’s hack-and-slash games, but the core gameplay is still there…and it’s not conducive to forced restarts just because the game decided you lose.
Still, I’m not too hung up about it. In some ways, the game is a significantly-brighter, significantly-dumber version of Bloodborne. The frustration is there, for sure, but that just makes each win more satisfying than the last. The further in you go, the harder it gets to earn a decisive victory. Gates and roots and villagers and everything in between will get attacked by enemies, and it’s up to you to resolve the situation. With the potential for failure more genuine than it’s ever been, clearing a level goes from a formality to a genuine struggle. And with that struggle -- with that victory, capped off with the unembellished DQ theme -- comes relief. Accomplishment. And in the end, joy.
So in spite of everything, DQ Heroes is a good game. But Koei Tecmo, if you’re reading this: please, please, please, please, PLEASE cool it on the protection missions. I got enough of that while babysitting Liu Bei. Keep evolving the formula, because clearly you can.
And that’ll do it for this holiday special. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it.
Here’s to another year down, and another year to come. Take care on your end. And as for me? Maybe I’ll start digging into that mountain of a backlog I’ve got…