DRAGON WARRIOR 7 / Enix / Playstation

There's an old review from Gamespot from back in 2001 when this game first came out that I've seen quoted a number of times in other places. Let me give you the most-often referenced snippet of it here:

" How many RPGs--ones that you've played lately--make you fight slimes with your bare hands for half an hour before you can afford a single sword?"

You can see why a quote like that, combined with my stormy, semi-abusive relationship with the previous six Dragon Quest games, would cause me to be in absolutely no hurry to give this one a try.

And yet, due to some perverse impish desire, I finally did give it a try about a month ago. And I was relieved to find that the Gamespot reviewer apparently had no idea what the hell they were talking about, and may have been playing a different game entirely. There's no point in the game in which you fight slimes with no weapons for half an hour. Not only do you begin the game with basic equipment, but Dragon Warrior 7 actually requires much less grinding than any of the games in the series to date.

To be fair to the original reviewer - and to not presume they just played a few hours of the game and then relied on Famitsu reviews to write the rest, as "games journalists" have sometimes been wont to do - there is a point in the game where you acquire a fourth party member, and they start out completely unequipped. The *rest* of the party is pretty well equipped at this point, however, and you should also have some money on hand, or at least some old items in the inventory bag, that there's little to no need to grind to get them set up.

There's little need to grind overall because not only does Dragon Warrior 7 have by far the lowest overall difficulty level of the series, it also has the lowest random encounter rate. Unless you come to your RPGs looking to be masochistically abused, this is Good News. This is also not to say there is no challenge - but it comes in a different form now, which we'll get back around to in a bit.

This is the first of the series to make the jump to the 64-bit systems, but though it came out rather late in the Playstation life cycle it doesn't take much advantage of the new horsepower available to it. As with the previous games, "tradition" is the major theme here, which means sticking with blocky graphics, limited animation and an outdated battle system. Not to say the game doesn't make any concessions to modernity or improvements - there's actually quite a few nice new touches here. It's in that quasi-3D that a lot of Playstation RPGs were in, where it combines 2D sprites and backdrops with 3D structures, and you can use the shoulder buttons to rotate the camera 360 degrees at 90 degree angles (in most areas - some dungeons only allow you limited rotation.) And though Koichi Sugiyama may be a right-wing nutbar ultra-nationalist war crimes denier, he certainly does know how to craft a lovely atmospheric symphonic soundtrack, and with Redbook Audio available to him for the first time the soundtrack is something like having a Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite album as the background music. Enemies in battles also have three or four unique animations for each of their attacks and spells, many of them quite fluid and detailed, and the battle screen will sometimes pan, zoom and rotate to show spell effects and powerful attacks.

Dragon Warrior 7 is the first of the series that I consistently enjoyed from start to finish ... well, at least until near the finish, as the final dungeon, boss and ending seemed kind of rushed and halfassed. The game does give you several bonus challenges that open up after the game is finished, however, so there's that to somewhat mitigate the disappointment. Aside from the much more reasonable difficulty, I think the main factor in my warming up to the series here is in the episodic, plot-driven nature of the game's structure.

You start the game out as a couple of kids who live on a small island that appears to be the whole of the world as far as anyone knows. They discover some mysterious ruins, however, and in short order they find that by placing map shards on pedastels in the ruins they can return to islands in the past that were overcome with evil in some way or another. By solving the island's problems, they are gradually revived in the "present" world. It's almost like Dragon Warrior 4's structure - the game I probably enjoyed the most prior to this one - but with much more flexibilty to revisit previous areas.

The game is long, certainly, but again thanks largely to sloppy reviewing of the past, the reputed length of the game has been grossly overestimated. You'll see it noised about that the game takes about 100 hours to play through without doing any side quests, and tops 130 if you choose to try to experience everything. My own personal experience with it has it more at about 80 to finish the main quest while doing a good bulk of the optional stuff, and I would guess 100 to 120 to accomplish absolutely everything possible. Still certainly quite a time investment, but again the episodic nature makes it a little easier to put down for long periods of time than the usual super-involved Long RPG, and if you end up enjoying the old-school style the game will keep you busy in your downtime for at least a month or so.

Speaking of the old-school style - the battle system is really no different than the previous installments (and thus quite dated), and the game's Job System esentially comes down to fighting X amount of battles to progress in each job, meaning the central engine of game progress is grinding through battles. Thanks to the length of the game and the better balance in difficulty, however, growing in job classes seems a lot more organic as you'll do adequate building just by playing the game normally and fighting the majority of the battles you come across as you go about your business. What jobs you choose is also key - they intermingle with each other to grant you hybrid skills, some of which are really good, and combining mastered classes leads to further advanced classes that are necessary to make it through the tougher stretches towards the end of the game. So there's at least a bit of strategy in plotting out your upgrade paths, though mistakes can usually be rectified paying only the price of having to do some more random battling to grind up a different class for a bit. The game also continues the Dragon Warrior tradition of having no permanent deaths, booting you back to the most recent save point you visited with half of the gold you were carrying removed (use the bank!) as your only penalty for getting wiped out by a monster. Characters stats and equippables are also not influenced by current class - each one has their own unique strengths, growth and weapon/armor sets throughout the game, so there's a natural tendency for each to go in a certain direction. That might sound like a limitation, but actually it's a positive, because there's still numerous directions to take each character in that they are suited to (especially considering there are something like 30 monster classes in addition to all the regular ones), and it keeps you from simply taking every character directly along the same track to Godhand or some other broken uber-class.

I don't mean to represent this game as a revolution for the Dragon Quest series and something that finally tries to reach out to more than the masochistic Japanese audience that is the game's core - you still have to have an established taste for old-school console RPGs to enjoy it, and I can see a number of people being put off by it. The improvement in storytelling combined with a much better sense of difficulty balance and at least a few nods to modern, pleasing aesthetics make it a whole lot more palatable to the non-hardcore fan than any previous game in the series, and speaking as someone who was not really all that fond of any of the first six games, I have to say on the whole I liked this one and mostly enjoyed the experience.

                                                      A cat is fine too

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