Dragon Quest Heroes II is a JRPG on fast forward. The gradual addition of new party members, the rollout of plot twists, and other typical genre roadmarkers come at you at a fast clip. If it normally takes 100 hours to amass a kill count of 10,000 enemies, this game lets you reach such milestones in less than 10. And, as one of the many spinoffs of the 20-year-old Dynasty Warriors series, it retains the best elements of the franchise's trademark combat, where you decimate armies with rudimentary, albeit flashy, combos. Dragon Quest Heroes II distinguishes itself from its equally great predecessor with its free roam-friendly fields of battle, which feel like an homage to the open expanses of mainline Dragon Quest games.
Though it's a sequel, you don't need any context from the first game or Dragon Quest in general to appreciate this one's story and gameplay. Of course, there are a handful of design similarities that fans of the last Dragon Quest Heroes will recognize. (For example, your two selectable male and female heroes aren't childhood friends this time around, but rather cousins.) And this sequel's premise doesn't involve the brainwashing of once-friendly monsters--instead, you're concerned with unexpected invasions of neighboring kingdoms.
It is when you embark on your journey to solve the mystery of the warring lands that you first realize how this game is influenced by the wide open areas found in many JRPG world maps. These lands are vast and filled with infinitely respawning monsters, but you can wander aimlessly with no problem; unlike typical JRPGs, Dragon Quest Heroes II doesn't have random encounters. Rather than exterminate every imp and zombie in your field of view, you can focus on high-value targets and areas where there are tight clusters of foes, who are often tormenting some unlucky NPC. Equally unlucky are the myriad endearing creatures minding their own business, particularly in the lush hills of Greena Pastures. Murdering slime knights while they nap on the sunniest of days is downright sadistic and never gets old.
By reaching the other side of these rolling battlefields, you're greeted with smaller but equally intense "war zones"--maps and conflicts that resemble the story-driven encounters from the first Heroes. Alternating between the larger spaces and these more intimate combat zones provides a level of diversity seldom seen in Warriors games.
The rollout of new regions as you make progress through the game's compelling story feels orderly, but the events that unfold as you explore these territories are rich in variety. In a given hour you could be navigating through a labyrinthine swamp with brain-teasing teleportation portals, or you could be hunting down a mischievous shape-shifter impersonating townsfolk or even your protagonist. Yes, there are straightforward objectives like taking out bosses or escorting NPCs, but the game's exploration-focused, JRPG-inspired segments avoids the tidy but boring chapter-based story progression common in many subpar Warriors anime spinoffs. And Dragon Quest Heroes II isn't above occasional Dynasty Warriors-inspired battles, which are easy to enjoy given their infrequency.
Even with the recognizable Akira Toriyama character designs and the hearty helping of quests, this is first and foremost a Warriors spinoff. It foregoes the precision of stylistic hack-and-slashers like Devil May Cry in favor of the gratification of killing enemies en masse. This is thanks to straightforward controls, where stringing quick and strong attacks into a single combo can decimate two dozen enemies. Combat shows further depth with the return of minion coins, which temporarily add the monsters you vanquish to your squad. This form of summoning loses some of its tower defense-inspired appeal from the last game to make room for a wider array of enemy powers, including the immensely satisfying ability to transform into some of the game's larger enemies.
For as much as this sequel differs from its predecessor, developer Omega Force wisely preserved many of the previous game's strengths. These include classic and simple experience point-driven character progression, gear upgrades, and item alchemy. The biggest draw, however, are the guest heroes from the mainline Dragon Quest games, despite the strengths and appeal of this game's original cadre of heroes.
This new cast features a mix of Dragon Quest Heroes first-timers like Angelo and Carver and returning characters like Jessica and Kiryl. They're all skilled monster hunters, although some squad combinations are more effective than others. Fan-favorite Torneko, for example, is one of the few teammates who can cast healing spells, which makes him an MVP during the more challenging battles. Experimenting with different party formations is part of the fun, where you're compelled to balance personal preference for certain characters with team composition. You have so much to choose from, in fact, that the newly implemented class-change feature feels both underutilized and redundant. Why retool your main hero as a priest and reset your level back to one when there are already characters with priest-like abilities?
While you do have to choose a main protagonist among two heroes, the ability to switch to your other three party members on the fly quadruples your potential at effective damage-dealing. Rotating through your team in order to make the most of their abilities and strengths becomes its own game of micromanagement. This presents its share of challenges and thrills, depending on the current battle predicaments of each squadmate. However, there wouldn't be this strong compulsion to jump from body to body if not for the modest contributions of your AI-controlled buddies. They never come close to attacking with the same intensity as you. That said, you seldom feel like you're babysitting them, and they never feel like a burden.
To experience a party's true ferocity, you would have to join real-life friends in the game's multiplayer modes, a rarity for a Warriors game. When compared to playing solo, having friends along can have a huge impact on your success rate in battle. That's not to say online play is bereft of challenges. Optional multiplayer dungeons are loaded with Dragon Quest's meanest foes, and these ferocious welcome parties change based on your levels and team size. If you do come out on top in these monster-infested mazes, you leave with useful loot like a ball that temporarily boosts the amount of XP you earn in battle, which can make your next play session all the more lucrative.
Side quests--where you're tasked with everything from exterminating a set amount of monsters to hunting for specific loot--are feel-good deeds that not only make NPCs happy but also serve as rewarding sources of experience. Whatever quests you take on, there are a variety of daily incentives that yield practical rewards. The real world Wednesday incentive, in particular, where there are extra metal slimes in the field, is especially worthwhile; any Dragon Quest fan can tell you that these elusive jokesters yield a ton of experience points, provided you can actually kill them.
Much like its predecessor, Dragon Quest Heroes II isn't short of opportunities for high-volume slaughter while effectively preserving the charm of Dragon Quest. Omega Force's thoughtful mix of familiar Dragon Quest Heroes designs and new features not only makes this sequel engrossing, but it also shows this side series' potential for future installments. It makes for a satisfying hack-and-slasher that is not only a great Warriors spinoff, but also an effective gateway to the main Dragon Quest series.