Sunday, February 26, 2012

Drag On Quest

Been a while, would like to say I had been busy, but that would be a blatant lie. Though no one is probably going to read this anyway. Regardless I press on, in the vain hope that... you know what I don't even know, I guess I just like to read my own rantings. Well whatever, today is going to be another silly game rant! Hold on to your hats kids!

Way back for my birthday I got a copy of both DragonQuest V and VI. I already played though V and am probably most of the way though VI. And let me tell you it should be Drag on Quest, because the games sure love to drag on... but that is actually true of most RPGs. Random battles and dungeons really only exist as filler to pad out the story more then anything else, and there are lots of "talk to everyone to trigger the random event flag" parts. Not that RPGs can't be fun though. Anyway, I really can't be truly fair to the whole DragonWarrior/DragonQuest series, partly because these two games are the only two in the series that held my interest for very long (and even did with their original snes versions though V was not translated yet and VI I don't think I played that much). It still seems to me that the series has not really evolved too much. V and VI have some interesting gimmicks, and I am sure the newer ones do to, but the same semi-generic fantasy setting and story style seems to have gone unchallenged. It helps I think to compare the series to both the series it inspired, Final Fantasy, and the series it was inspired by, Ultima. Final Fantasy started off generic fantasy for the most part, but even the first game included a hint of steampunk in the airship and floating fortress, though it didn't really expand on that theme till Final Fantasy 6, at which point it started going crazy with the sci-fi stuff, and just got weird at Final Fantasy 10. Gameplay wise, Final Fantasy started with a class-system gimmick that really became refined and nice after Final Fantasy 5, and after Final Fantasy 7 decided to experiment with weirder and weirder gimmicks for ability systems. So by contrast, DragonQuest seems stick with it's own thing and tries to slowly refine it without sacrificing it's core gameplay or story foundations. And both approaches, wild experimentation and slow refinement work well, though I think I like Final Fantasy a bit more over all despite the series basically being bogged down in needless gimmicks and flashy cutscenes. Because when it works, like Final Fantasy 5, 6, and 7, it's really a fantastic experience.

Speaking of flashy cutscenes that's another big difference in tone. Final Fantasy is block buster type excitement with explosions and flashiness and lots of anime melodrama, where DragonQuest seems to be a lot subtler. That isn't to say Final Fantasy is a mindless Michal Bay-style farce, nor is it to say it's style over substance. Nor is DragonQuest free from some drama and interesting stuff. It's just Final Fantasy seems to try and be more movie-like and visually engaging, where DragonQuest seems to try and be more novel-like, where information is presented to you more as text and conversation. And again both methods work, though I might argue Final Fantasy's method works better for RPGs, simply because there is a lot more motivating the player from moment to moment.

Ultima on the other hand is not quite as simple a comparison. The Ultima games the DragonQuest series most resembles are Ultima 3, 4, and 5 though which inspired the series I am not sure. Regardless, Ultima 6 and up completely went in a whole new direction, becoming the ancestor of modern sandbox RPGs like The Elder Scrolls (though I like the Ultima games better, more personality). Regardless, Ultima became popular in japan for some reason (they even have an exclusive fully voiced version of Ultima 6, though the voice work isn't that good) and DragonQuest was probably conceived as a simplified Ultima clone. To be honest, I am not entirely sure if 3, 4 or 5 was the main inspiration. Ultima 4 and 5 attempted to evolve RPGs past "go kill the bad guy" plots, which was basically what the first DragonQuest game was. Though 5 sort of did come close to being one of those types of plot. Really Ultima 5 resembles a Final Fantasy game plot-wise almost, and was probably the first attempt at a really involving dynamic story.

Anyway, the first DragonQuest game basically was a striped down simplified Ultima in the same way the first Final Fantasy was a striped down simplified DragonQuest. Combat was changed from an overhead grid-based step-by-step movement system to a system that eliminated all movement and just showed the pictures of the enemies you face, and let you choose attacks. This simplistic battle set up has continued throughout the series and pops up in a lot of other JRPGs as well. Eventually the DragonQuest series would add much more animation. Final Fantasy changed it to side view with mostly static monsters and animated players which really looks a whole lot better, and added the ATB system as well, but even still I think turn based battles lose something when there isn't any movement. Though having this simplified approach meant you could just hold down the button to select attack and grind much easier, it also encouraged grinding a bit too much I think.

Personally my favorite battle system has to be in Ultima 6, where unlike the previous Ultima games, you didn't need to switch screens for combat, and could switch between combat mode and non-combat mode at any time. It made combat part of the rest of the game world, flowing so seamlessly there was hardly a difference (in fact the only difference was how your party members acted and the music). It's also the Ultima where they started focusing less on hack and slash and more on world simulation, where almost every object, even decorative ones, can be picked up or interacted with. It's kind of a shame the older Ultimas inspired DragonQuest more then the newer. To Be honest I didn't like the Ultima's before 6 all that much, because I found them overly tedious. DragonQuest streamlined the combat, but this really just streamlined the tedium.

As for story, the Ultima games are more or less direct sequels to one another that built up a long deep continuity (most of which isn't all that important, just little callbacks and conversations and such, but still) and I think DragonQuest started doing that, but I am not sure if they abandoned it later or not. DragonQuest V and VI seem to have a few place names and objects in common but not much else, though I read they are part of a trilogy in the same world. Final Fantasy of course discards continuity all together, but has lots of repeating monsters/names/weapons/summons/spells and such. Setting wise, Ultima starts out in standard medieval fantasy mode and aside form some slight sci-fi elements emerging in the early games that have been long abandoned, stays there until Ultima 7 which takes a slight shift to a more renaissance themed setting. The interesting thing about Ultima compared to DragonQuest and Final Fantasy is that the fantasy setting and the monsters really start to take a back seat to a slightly more mundane setting. Magic and monsters are still there, they just become far less important. In DragonQuest, and to a lesser extent in Final Fantasy, monsters usually are active antagonists, and magic is a powerful force for both good or evil. In Ultima by contrast, monsters are mostly mindless beasts, and the ones that aren't usually are on your side, or at least willing to talk it out. Magic in Ultima is more utilitarian, though you see powerful death spells (and one who can basically kill everyone on the planet), they aren't involved in the plot that much, and most magic users are healers or scholars who don't tend to be involved in combat or use their spells for all that much. DragonQuest and Final Fantasy are, more or less, escapist fantasy quests, and Ultima, while it may have started that way, after Ultima 3 the series really tried to not be that.

Though I still enjoy DragonQuest V and VI a lot, I just kind of wonder what they would have been like if DragonQuest took more after the later Ultimas instead. Oh well, that's just the way it goes.

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