For many of Dragon Quest VII's overwhelmingly depressing storylines, I spent time saving and hanging out with people I didn't give a crap about. It's not that they were lacking personality or angsty teens that so many JRPG characters embody — no. It's that they were all really damned mean.
Dragon Quest VII's core concept is intriguing. The quiet fishing village protagonist, his friend Prince Kiefer, and childhood annoyance (friend) Mabel live a peaceful existence on the only island in the world. Suspecting there's more out there than just their boring land mass, they set out to investigate the island's ruins. In doing so, they stumble upon a room full of portals which leads to other lands, accessible by shard fragments the heroes find during the course of the game. Unbeknownst to them, initially, these lands are a part of their shared world, but they exist in the past. Once found and visited, this makes the continents reappear in the protagonists' present time.
With every emergence, there are past histories to discover. New cultures and people appear. And each portion of land brings its own terrible backstory weighing down its world with NPC cast members at the center of its turmoil. It's up to the protagonists to solve whatever problem happens in the past to affect changes in the future. "Solving" isn't always the right word to describe the actions they need to take as some of the heartbreaking matters have no easy fixes.
All of these narratives extend throughout time with consequences that shape the future — for better or worse.
When Dragon Quest VII released on the original PlayStation in 2001 under the title Dragon Warrior VII, I was likely too invested in pledging allegiance to Square's Final Fantasy series to notice. This oversight on my part was fortunately corrected when I played the 2016 3DS remake, Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past. But I was worried when I first began playing.
Dragon Quest VII was one of the biggest games of its time, a significant leap over its predecessors in terms of raw size. So when the developers at Square decided to remake it for 3DS, they ran into some issues.
Newer JRPGs have embraced experimenting with battle systems and moving away from high enemy encounter rates as a means to grind and level-up characters. Some of Dragon Quest VII's 'missteps' are ingrained in the series' 30-year JRPG DNA — likely attributable to being a product of its time. For these reasons, sinking time into an older game felt daunting. Improvements were made for the remake, such as updated character art and a story recap feature intended to help players remember where they left off. But completing Dragon Quest VII can take over 100 hours. I was right to be apprehensive.
But none of this was surprising — grinding is part of the JRPG genre's identity, particularly for older titles.
Despite its interesting concept, I was also bracing for the predictability a JRPG from its narrative to its characters. But in spite of its few negatives, what I was not anticipating was discovering just how brilliantly and unconventionally Dragon Quest VII tells its story.
It Breaks A Few Established JRPG Norms
Games, such as various entries in the mainline Final Fantasy franchise (and it should be noted, one that started after the Dragon Quest series), follow a JRPG formula in which a powerful (sometimes convoluted) major plot is facilitated by a (sometimes) fascinating villain. The heroes are typically a likable, memorable cast of playable characters. Dragon Quest VII, on the other hand, has a distinctive narrative structure that embraces experimentation which breaks with that more traditional approach to the genre.
Some of the series' overarching plots are usually made of a simplistic re-telling of good versus a revival of a supremely evil being. Dragon Quest VII is no different in this regard but that's not to say its villain, The Demon King, is a pushover. Its presence is felt through a rise in evil forces overtaking the land, albeit with less of a fleshed out personality. The Demon King is, essentially, pure evil and as such there's little character backstory and development.
What's unique to some of the recent entries, Dragon Quest VII included, is the delivery of individual gut-wrenching tales. Even more fascinating is that these stories are tied to the main plot and major evil but done so with seemingly inconsequential thin narrative threads. In turn, many of its stories are presented as strong, standalone, focused narratives which are wholly intriguing in their own right.
And Damn Are These Stories Incredibly Gut-Wrenching
On the first land discovered, Koiji Sugiyama's thoughtful, forlorn musical compositions coupled with visuals of darkened, foreboding skies set the overall tone for Dragon Quest VII. Several hours later, a lavish port town is home to a terrible curse which transforms its citizens' babies into grotesque demons.
In the third world: a quiet village — silent because its once living residents are all stone statues, cursed when an evil magical rain fell. Inspection of the statues tells our protagonists that the statues are very weathered. Ghosts of the villagers snapshot memories of the day right before the grey rain came, and it's revealed one boy, Felix, survived because he happened to be underground at the time. There's nothing the heroes can do but witness the horrors of why the village is the way it is, as well as trigger Felix's new journey to go forth and warn other towns of the rain.
The heroes are unable to save Felix's town, and in the present, the village is gone. It's replaced by a strange woman who rehabilitates monsters who strive for salvation by becoming more human. Dragon Quest VII has a clever way of setting some of its stories into motion. Although Felix does not make an appearance again, he's mentioned as having fulfilled his duty because the grey rains did fall again in a different part of the world — triggering a whole new tragedy with different NPCs, and a story with twists and turns spanning multiple time skips in the past.
Those are just a few examples of the gutting tales Dragon Quest VII dishes out. Each land is a unique story beset by sadness. And as the game progresses, it's clear that Dragon Quest VII is not always in the business of providing storybook fantasy endings to these individual tales.
Excellent Use of Time Travel
The game's use of time travel helps create its wonderfully complex and tragic world. Time travel isn't a new mechanic to many JRPGs. Iconic games such as Chrono Trigger, and 2009's Radiant Historia, make excellent uses of time manipulation to tell their stories. Dragon Quest VII should also be counted as brilliant for its intricate weaving of science fiction to do so. The protagonists sometimes meddle to right wrongs which then shape the future, or they may observe narrative threads unfurl in the past with consequences revealed in their own timeline.
In addition to the 7th's entry's strong, individual stories which capture a particularly grim overview of its world, Dragon Quest VII's greatest trick is just how heavily interconnected and layered its stories are. Over the course of 100 hours of playtime, things can happen early in its past or present timelines only to be revisited much later for significant, blindsiding impact. The careful build up is methodical and players aren't explicitly privy to them making their reveals surprising and purposeful. It cleverly uses time travel to give the game this illusion of throwaway stories which are in fact deeply rooted into its overall plan.
But time travel also bolsters a curious tactic used by Dragon Quest VII — by foregoing placing all of the detailed focus on its protagonists to mould them into relatable cast members, it instead allows its NPCs and their stories to develop and shine. The main characters are important in that they will ultimately save the world, sure. However, Dragon Quest VII's approach to storytelling lends itself to more episodic adventures the protagonists bear witness to.
NPCs Steal The Spotlight
In placing so much emphasis on the NPCs' worlds, Dragon Quest VII is unlike so many other JRPGs which creates a party with strong, varying personalities central to the core of a JRPG experience. The Dragon Quest games may have recognisable heroes with each iteration — they would not spawn spin offs such as the Dragon Quest Heroes games, or the Japan-only Dragon Quest Theatrhythm, after all — but they're not always as well-developed. Persona 4 and other games in the series as an example, meticulously craft their cast. In addition to certain NPCs and social links for relationship building, the main characters each get a their own story arcs to ground their motivations and make them more fully formed.
64 hours. 23 hours. 42 hours. 28 hours. Somewhere on a grassy plain trying to figure out if I should spend my days hunting down one of many pending side quests. Somewhere deep in the ocean chasing mermaids. Somewhere making preparations for my next strategic battle. These are all the places I'm willing to leave behind — unexplored and unresolved — because I'm wondering if I give a damn about JRPGs anymore.
That said, a few of Dragon Quest VII's limited main playable cast members have deep connections to the overall tale. One of the characters goes from a vital controllable hero to one that's not. Instead, the character's arc becomes ingrained into history as one of the most important quests that is resolved through the generations via his ancestor. The interference leads other characters' and NPCs' involvement to branch and spawn into an exquisitely multilayered story that's entrenched in both the past and present.
The game's detailed attention to its NPCs — even going so far as to turn a lead into one — is a testament to how well it implements its time travel to grow its world and build its stories.
The Heroes Aren't Always Highly Regarded
And so, apart from the couple of main playable characters whose importance is weaved into the narrative, it leaves the heroes — including the one you control — in a predicament. One that mostly removes them as lauded characters with in-depth personalities and backstories. It's something the game hilariously makes a mockery of in at least one story line and a few other instances which aren't actually funny at all.
For all the world changes that the heroes engage in or oversee, their good deeds are sometimes forgotten in history. At times they're remembered as saviors, but in other cases your party of history changers are rewarded with obscurity or worse. In one village they become scapegoats as part of a lie that portrays them as evildoers. It's a terrible cover-up meant to hide the fact that the villagers of the town turned to an angry mob that once set out to murder a citizen out of fear. With a history to record, the village instead places blame on your main character and his party for the crime, branding them as would-be murderers.
It's not just this village of cowardly liars that disregards your heroism. To so many of the inhabitants of the growing world, the party members are treated with scant courtesy because Dragon Quest VII's NPCs are just downright savage. In some cases, their personalities are negative, driven by fears that cause them to become antagonists of each of the episodic adventures. Even your teammate, Maribel, is nasty to your main character. She's often seen hanging out with a jerk who is also hostile towards you.
Not every single one is outrageously wretched like the awful father who denied acknowledging his child as his own because she was born without his tribe's defining winged characteristic, for example. There are some who are actually decent characters. The ones who are the central to each of the new lands' stories usually fit this criteria. These characters, along with certain nicer NPCs — as with the case of the man who really loved his cow Daisy — are often downtrodden heroes in their own right. Struck by tragedies and seeking the aid of Dragon Quest VII's main protagonists to see their stories through.
But when the game consistently features horrific stories of demon invasions, and characters who are steps below their demonic counterparts in their treatment of peers, it's hard to not be in shock that this is the world you've been tasked to discover and subsequently save. Still, while many NPCs may carry specific dialogue that only serves to trigger events in their towns, Dragon Quest VII makes them feel distinctly human even if gruff, unlikable or wicked at their cores. Many of them are wrapped in their own extraordinary worries and it's these circumstances the heroes set out to change — despite few of them actually worth saving.
When I played, I was struck by a small comfort as I was haphazardly making my way from one point to another in my hometown of Estard. There's a Hero job class in Dragon Quest VII that equips your party with a red cape. There's something utterly delightful about running around as a legendary hero with a cape dangling behind. My main character is a hero, even when so many characters treat you as scum or forget your deeds.
The Hero class often felt like the validation of my purpose when that recognition was otherwise muted by peers, and those saved in-game. Not to mention a place of solace to cope with the extraordinary slight doled out by the game's story itself that momentarily undercuts your heroism.
Things Aren't Always As They Seem
Dragon Quest VII's long cons aren't just left to meddling in affairs over the course of time and history. In the first few hours of the game, Kiefer and the main character need an specific item to open ruins doors. It seems easy enough — your drunk uncle has a mysterious glowing orb called the sizzling stone that seems to fit the bill. Except, the sizzling stone isn't the simplified key item needed to unlock the Shrine and Pillars of Sanctuary as both the characters and I incorrectly guessed.
The stone is important but its unveiling as such isn't a straight tale. In fact, its true purpose isn't revealed until some sixty hours into the game, and from it emerges a Legendary Hero. But aren't you the Hero? Well, yes but it's a complicated issue. There is a background story for your main playable character which eventually comes into play.
But Dragon Quest games also have a way of turning the Hero stories on their heads. You can control a character for hours, as with Dragon Quest V, and discover, it's your lineage who is technically the star. Or in Dragon Quest VII's case, your group is powerful and they save the world but they're a band of servants and envoys to the true embodiment of good, and assistants to a Hero who is deemed as such with a fancy title as proof.
Dragon Quest VII is a complicated game that's emotionally taxing. It's not the only JRPG with a wealth of multi-layered depth hidden in its hours of playtime but it's one I'm thankful I finally had the opportunity to play. I enjoyed being strung along to uncover all its complexities, and being surprised when I found them.
After a few hours of play, I believed Dragon Quest VII fell into a story pattern produced by its time travel. Little did I know I would be eating those words later in my adventure. It did it with a town called Nottagen — a joke that took me way too long to get — which promised some light-hearted humour only to dash those hopes.
When I thought I'd find a tale largely focused on my character's story to make me the hero, it gave me some overtly hostile NPCs and extremely woeful stories from others to temper my assumptions and self-importance.
And just when I thought I had the game all figured out through my past experiences with JRPGs, Dragon Quest VII's savvy structural narrative and execution gave me much to ponder.