It’s been quite some time since we last saw Dragon Quest on a PlayStation system – almost a decade, in fact. Since the series’ eighth mainline instalment – the much-acclaimed Journey of the Cursed King – Dragon Quest had made a home for itself on Nintendo handhelds, spawning a successful chain of spin-offs. Of course, that was prior to the arrival of Dragon Quest X, one of Square’s latest forays into MMO territory. Although a PlayStation 4 version is expected to launch at some point, Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below has already beaten it to the punch.
In truth, neither game is all that representative of the classic JRPG series fans have come to love these past three decades. Where one continues to experiment with online gameplay, the other is more akin to a spin-off, shunning the familiar turn-based combat for something more flashy and frenetic.
Seeing Dragon Quest Heroes in action for more than a few minutes, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that developer Omega Force is at the helm. For nearly fifteen years the Japanese studio has honed its high octane hack and slash formula – the bread and butter of its popular Warriors franchise. With the Tecmo Koei subsidiary growing ever more ambitious, it has begun to work its magic on external licenses including The Legend of Zelda and now Dragon Quest.
Despite Square Enix being adamant in saying this isn’t another Warriors game, that statement doesn’t ring quite true. Yes, there have been a number of notable changes to the typical Omega Force template but it’s hard to simply overlook the blatant similarities.
For the most part you’ll still be knee deep in enemies, swatting them across the screen with an assortment of exotic weapons. The big difference here, however, is how the story and missions are structured. Instead of playing through a series of humongous set piece battles, you’ll engage in smaller sized scenarios that often eat up five to ten minutes each.
Although story missions need to be played in chronological order, players are given free reign to mop up any side quests they discover along the way, picking them out on the world map.
Whether key to the narrative or completely optional, each level will revolve around one or two primary objectives, tasking players with the defence of certain chokepoints while also signalling specific targets to take down. The variation in missions may be lacking yet kept fresh by a steady influx of new enemy types and map layouts. From time to time you’ll also come across a super-sized boss monster. Although these epic clashes will grow a tad formulaic, they’re certainly a highlight and succeed in breaking up the constant stream of skirmishes.
One omission that really irked us was Heroes’ complete lack of multiplayer, both online and off. Being able to sit down with a friend and blast your way through enemy hordes has long been a highlight of the Warriors’ franchise. It’s a shame to see it missing here then, especially with the game’s focus on building parties and freely switching between characters.
Speaking of characters, the way they are integrated also deviates from the expected Warriors format. Similar to previous entries in the Dragon Quest series, you’ll don the mantle of a single character before scooping up a growing list of prospective allies. Each has their own unique weapon and moveset, along with a small grimoire of spells and passive abilities. Fans of the series will be happy to see some recognisable faces among the game’s roster including Terry the master swordsman and Yangus, the self-proclaimed bandit-turned-hero. With only four party slots available however, players will need to mix and match in order to feel out which combination of heroes works best for them.
The core gameplay should feel familiar to anyone who’s played one of Omega’s products in the past. It’s simple, fast, and easy to pick up, granting an added layer of depth for the slightly more advanced player. Using a combination of light and heavy attacks, you’ll wreak devastation upon the rank and file grunts that lay in your wake, occasionally stopping to tackle a slightly more challenging foe. As briefly touched on before, each character has a small pool of spells at their disposal, capable of boring right through a column of attackers.
With only a handful of heroes at your disposal – you can switch between them freely, by the way – defending objectives will soon become a challenge. This is where one of Heroes’ best features comes into play, allowing players to collect coins from fallen enemies and summon them to battle. While some of these recruitable NPCs will act as sentries others will appear momentarily, deploying some kind of power before disappearing again.
It’s this innovative mechanic that gives Dragon Quest Heroes a slight tower defence angle over its contemporaries. It feels strange at first yet gives player a degree of control over each battle without them having to constantly zip around the map to tackle incoming enemy mobs themselves.
Outside of missions, you’ll be free to purchase new equipment and interact with NPCs. There will also be a number of specialist vendors, including an alchemist that can turn base ingredients into stat-enhancing accessories and trinkets. It’s a nice little throwback to Dragon Quest’s JRPG roots though the sluggish menus can be troublesome. Whether buying, selling, saving, or combining items, the process is made incredibly slow by needless lines of text and the inability to purchase multiple things at once.
Dragon Quest’s influences do have a positive effect elsewhere in-game, however. The soundtrack and visual design borrow heavily from the main series, and these familiar elements bundle together into something that looks and feels like a current-gen title. English speaking fans will also be happy to hear that Heroes features localised voiceovers, amplifying the game’s quirky fantasy vibes with plenty of regional accents.
There’s no escaping the game’s hack and slash origins, yet Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below certainly offers an interesting spin on the traditional Warriors template. By focusing on a smaller concentration of characters on-screen, it has a slightly more tactile, RPG feel. Combined with some inventive gameplay features and that charming Dragon Quest aesthetic, Heroes succeeds in creating its own identity. It may fall short of greatness yet serves as an ideal solution for those eagerly awaiting the series’ next mainline instalment.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4