With a good 80 hours just to get through the main plotline, I think Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past is one of the biggest games I’ve ever played. Add in sidequests and the like, and it’s a game that could very easily take your hours played into the hundreds. Normally, this would be a point of criticism for me – I generally prefer my games concise – but Dragon Quest VII is one of those rare games that really earns its demands on your time. Somehow, it achieves this magnitude without ever feeling padded out or overlong, and that’s quite a feat.
You begin the game on an island that, as far as its inhabitants are concerned is the only one in the world – plenty of people have searched for others, but to no avail. However, an adventure to figure out the secrets of a mysterious shrine sees you whisked away to an unfamiliar land. In your search for a way home you stumble upon a village at the mercy of a group of monsters, so being the decent sort of person that you are – also, the fated hero of the world, though you don’t know this yet – you help out. With the day saved, you’re sent back to your homeland, only to find that a strange new island has appeared on the horizon.
As it turns out, that new island is the one you’d just visited, but the town you’d saved is far more developed and people talk about the events you’d just witnessed as though they’re ancient history. That’s because they are ancient history; you’d somehow travelled back in time, and helping out in the past had caused the island to appear in the present, as though it had always been there. Thus begins a journey across time to restore the multitude of forgotten lands that once covered the world, and to find out why they’d disappeared in the first place.
It’s all a bit ridiculous, but this sets up the framework that allows Dragon Quest VII to be as massive as it is without ever becoming overwhelming by giving the game a very episodic structure. Each island tells a story that’s largely self contained because even though you’re a key player in what transpires, the stories of these islands are rarely about you. They’re about the people you’re helping, and whatever plight it is that they’re going through. There’s an overarching plot developing in the background while all this is going on, but the majority of Dragon Quest VII is made up of these very digestible little chapters. You can get a full narrative experience in just a couple of hours, get a satisfying sense of closure, and then move on to the next one.
The stories themselves are fantastic, too. Despite the high fantasy trappings and the relative brevity of each one, they’re nuanced and thought-provoking, coming across almost like fables. Within the laughably campy plotline of a village having all its women and children kidnapped by monsters is a rather haunting tale of the high emotional cost of heroism. A story that starts you saving the petrified residents of another village turns into a drama about a love triangle and the strains of a restrictive social hierarchy. And so it goes on, through dozens of these episodes that are sometimes funny, often tragic, and always quite insightful and moving. To top it all off, you get to revisit each location in the present day and see what it’s like hundreds of years on from what you’d witnessed, giving each chapter a little epilogue of sorts. Sometimes, a sleepy little village will have grown into a thriving metropolis; other times, there’ll be naught but ruins left.
This all builds up towards a more grandiose main story that’s very typical Dragon Quest – a hero chosen by destiny goes off to slay the Demon King and save the world. Frankly, this isn’t all that interesting in its own right, but that world-spanning series of intimate little adventures lets you build a real connection with the world that makes it hard to not get swept up in the heroics. What should be a painfully generic fantasy story gets a new lease on life because the game takes the time to make you care about this world and its people.
The other very impressive thing about Dragon Quest VII’s scope is the fact that it’s been fully remade for this 3DS release. Square Enix took a game that was simple even by PlayStation standards when it first came out in 2000, and rebuilt it from the ground up into something that taxes the 3DS hardware. Dozens of character models, hundreds of monsters, and a multitude of towns, dungeons, and islands crafted from scratch, and just in case that wasn’t enough work, Square Enix decided to add a new end-game dungeon and a bunch of other little additions. Given the sheer size of the task at hand and the limitations of the aging 3DS, it’s not the best looking game around – simple textures can make some environments look quite bland – but the colourful, cartoony art direction masks a lot of the game’s technical struggles.
The icing on the cake is a fresh translation that’s in keeping with the style of more recent Dragon Quest games and is a huge improvement on the original release – and for a game this size, that’s some 70,000 pages of dialogue. With a script like that, it’s a miracle that Dragon Quest VII got localised at all, yet here we are. The translation team took that mammoth task and delivered it to perfection.
Of course, all of this is wrapped around the delightful JRPG gameplay that’s at the core of every Dragon Quest game. Combat is a straightforward turn-based affair, but an expansive job system gives it enough depth to be compelling. Some will find it simplistic, and if you’ve ever played any turn-based JRPG before nothing about Dragon Quest VII will surprise you (except for maybe the wonderfully pun-tastic monster names), but it’s enjoyable and it does what it needs to.
Nothing about the way Dragon Quest VII plays will turn anyone who isn’t already a fan of the genre, but the game’s narrative – in terms of the innovative structure, the stories themselves, and the translation – is right up there with the best, and make this a must-buy for anyone with a 3DS.