There’s something to be said for sticking to your roots. The Dragon Quest series, which began way back on the original NES, has never strayed too far from old school JRPG gameplay, regardless of its iteration. With each game, you already know what to expect; charming atmosphere and writing, exploration, and lots and lots of turn based battles against a wide variety of well-designed monsters. And the seventh iteration of the series certainly delivers on all that. Unfortunately, sticking to one’s roots can often mean being pointlessly tedious, and the series definitely has its annoying elements thanks to a dogged refusal to change anything about the interface and gameplay. The seventh game continues this, with all that implies.
Unsurprisingly, you play as a mute hero that you get to name. You live in a village known as Pilchard Bay, famous for its seafood. Up the road a ways is the kingdom of Estard, where your best friend Kiefer, who is also the son of the king, helps you get into all kinds of mischief. Maribel, the mayor’s daughter, is also present as the snooty and sassy childhood friend. The thing is that this island is the only one known to exist in the world. Everyone believes they are the center of it all, and that’s because there really are no other islands anywhere. Through a series of shenanigans, you discover a shrine on the island, and learn that you can travel back in time using the shrine. There are stone slabs that must be reformed using fragment pieces scattered around the world and once you complete one, you are whisked away to an island from the past. Go there, solve its problem, and the island appears in the present.
It’s a decidedly inventive premise, one that echoes the dual world ideas that fueled the sixth installment in the series. Traveling the world and helping a variety of people of all kinds with their problems, then seeing how your actions affected the present makes for a more fun and fleshed out world than in any other game in the series. Carrying with series tradition, each location is its own self-contained mini story, with some of them holding hints of the grander overarching narrative. In this way, the story is a lot like an anime. It helps that the characters in your party are much more chatty than in other games and that each scenario is a truly inventive and fun idea. For instance, in one story, you’ll try to figure out how to stop a time loop that makes the same day repeat over and over. In another, you’ll try and purge evil from a holy temple in the desert. The focus on fleshing out each story makes the world feel more well realized than in other games in the series.
Playing through each scenario doesn’t feel very different from other JRPGs; you arrive at the location, chat it up with townsfolk to figure out what’s going on, then often fight your way through some sort of dungeon and defeat a boss at the end. Indeed, people who don’t like the absolute oldest of the old school gameplay won’t find anything here to change their minds. While the scenarios are inventive and fun, you still go through a menu based battle system to defeat your foes.
It’s worth noting that this game is pretty damn long. It took me 63 hours to beat when all was said and done, but I’ve heard it taking upwards of 90, 100, or even 120 hours for people to beat the main story. This is mostly because of the dedication shown to the individual stories and the gameplay loop of solving a problem in the past and exploring the same location in the present. As such, you’ll be doing A LOT of fighting and exploring, which is mostly fun.
There are, however, some questionable design choices when it comes to the actual gameplay and pacing. Much like III and VI, Dragon Quest VII boasts a class system where you learn different abilities and have different stats depending on what role a character takes on. The weird part is that it takes 15- 20 hours to get to the point where you can access the jobs. You go through several other scenarios in the meantime using the most basic attacks and spells. While the story of how you gain access to the jobs is fun and creative, I have to wonder if it was the wisest choice to give the player the ability to change so far into the game. Then there are times where characters leave for reasons that are technically justified but feel arbitrary and frustrating. There was a point about 45 hours in where one character left even though I was doing my damndest to get them to the point where they could access a high tier job. I didn’t get them back until about ten whole hours after that, and they were replaced by someone brand new who had almost no experience with any of the jobs. It was honestly frustrating and led to some seriously tedious grinding. Lastly, the very nature of the gameplay cycle means you will be doing a lot of running back and forth and backtracking, especially early on (it takes almost an hour and a half of running around Estard before you even fight your first battle).
The job system, too, is a fairly mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s always a load of fun to unlock more and more abilities and become stronger, especially later on where you learn some truly powerful moves that, when used correctly, can absolutely shred bosses. On the other hand, it can feel lopsided and tedious. In the case of the former, physical attackers definitely outperform magic users. Offensive spells have a fixed range of damage that they deal, while physical attacks are based off of stats like strength. You can further buff your fighters with some spells, making magic users almost exclusively support characters as opposed to glass cannons like in other RPGs. The thing is that a lot of abilities you learn feel gimmicky at best. Sometimes they have a low effectiveness rate, making them pretty pointless, and other times they simply don’t do enough damage. Then there’s the Martial Artist skill Knuckle Sandwich, which, when paired with the spell that doubles your attack power, can do upwards of 400 points of damage in one go. In the case of the latter, progressing through jobs, you gain ranks through a set number of battles as opposed to something like Final Fantasy where you earn job points based off the enemy you fight. In this, you might have to fight, say, 20 battles to increase rank. If you simply progress through the story, you should upgrade at a pretty good pace, but there were times where grinding felt inveitable. Not only that, but up to about two thirds of the way through, there is a level cap on earning job rank. As in, if your character is a certain level, they won’t get progress towards jobs. This cap is hidden for each area, and the only way to tell is to either go to the job changing location and check between fights if the number of battles needed to improve has changed, or be a cheater and look online.
It sounds like I’ve been harsh on the game up to this point, but the truth is that despite all these flaws, the game still proves to be enjoyable. There’s a huge amount of locations and towns to explore, all with their own flavor and variety. There’s a side game that involves recruiting monsters so you can find tablets that give you randomly generated dungeons and rewards, much like in my favorite game in the series, Dragon Quest IX. There are numerous casinos scattered around the world filled with rewards well worth grabbing. Suffice it to say, this game is absolutely bursting at the seams with content. Between the incredibly long story, the aforementioned side activities, free waves of DLC, and even more post game dungeons, the game is sure to give you hours and hours of entertainment.
That’s about all there is to say about the game. This review might have focused on negatives, but that’s only because, if you’ve played any other game in the series, you already know that this is a charmingly old school adventure, only this time the writing is more developed and the scenarios are arguably the most creative and enjoyable game in the series. The job system, while flawed, is still fun to mess around with, if only to shred bosses to pieces with the proper ability combinations. And there’s an abundance of content and charm to play through. This may not be the best game to jump into the series with due to its length and density, but it’s worth checking out for fans who haven’t played the original version of the game. And if you have, this might still be worth a pickup, as the graphics are significantly prettier (despite stiff character animations) and there are a whole slew of new features to extend play time.
+ More developed scenarios and overarching story than other games in the series
+ Absolutely overflowing with content, even after the main story is beaten
+ Fun combat and exploration
+ Job system is fun as always to mess around with
+ Contains all the best elements of the series, including an overabundance of charm
- Certain pacing and story elements that affect gameplay can be annoying
- More dated elements and flaws with the job system probably should have been changed or removed