Oh, the Dragon Quest series, one that has always has a rocky past in the US. Us lucky Americans got the first four Dragon Quest titles (with 'Warrior' slapped on in place of 'Quest'), but due to crappy sales, we never got the Super Nintendo releases. No, Enix didn't find the series worth the trouble of localizing until after Final Fantasy VII came about, more or less making the RPG genre explode into the mainstream in the West. Riding the wave of popularity, Enix released Dragon Quest VII to eager audiences which... frankly, I don't know how it did. That doesn't matter much, though, because in the upcoming years Square and Enix merged, and the RPG supergiant released each Dragon Quest title as they came.
...Until they stopped, of course. Somewhere around the time that the DS remakes of VI-IV were being released, Square dropped localization of the titles, stating the lukewarm sales not being the worth of localizing the amount of text the series requires. Nintendo itself picked up and finished the localization for Dragon Quest IX and VI, but has since then has remained silent on the series, leaving a rather sizable number of Dragon Quest games in Japan and making series fans languish in despair. By some miracle Dragon Quest Heroes for the PS4 is making it Westward, but it's also a cross-over Warriors type title and Square probably thinks it can make a pretty penny off its fanbase like Hyrule Warriors did.
But this blog post isn't about the Dragon Quest series in itself. Oh, no. It's about my favorite RPG of all time. If you might have noticed from my rambling above, original the US missed out on two titles: Dragon Quests V and VI. It wasn't until the DS remakes that fans got an official taste of these lost titles in action... so naturally more fans wanted to pick up Dragon Quest V than the first DS remake. And naturally, as Square has been wont to do in these modern times, Dragon Quest V had a pretty low print run.
I ended up paying $50 for my (complete) copy of Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride, and that was after many hours of researching and finding a deal on a somewhat sketchy looking website. Square did eventually release a reprint off the title, driving down prices a bit, but if you want it not you're still going to have to pay 30-40 dollars used, which is pretty high for a DS game. It's the most money I've spent on a single DS game, but you know what?
It was the best fifty dollars I ever spent.
Those that are fans of the series probably do not laud the various games' stories as their strong point. Well... that's because they really aren't. Sure, Dragon Quest III had a rather touching scene near the end, and Dragon Quest VIII did a decent job, but the series' allure was always its adherence to old RPG tropes, even in the changing times. Some might say that the series was stagnating, but to the fandom it was a solid rock to grab onto in the constantly shifting currents of the changing RPG genre. Sure, Final Fantasy might decide that oddly dressed blonde hair youths with daddy issues was the way to go forward with the series: Dragon Quest just decided it was better off sticking with its silent protagonists and rigid turn-based battles.
But Dragon Quest V? Dragon Quest V was different, and that's what makes it so amazing. Well, let me clarify--it wasn't different on the gameplay front. It was still crawling through dungeons with random encounters, with your four party members and their staple of skills and spells, and so on. It was, instead, the narrative that really drove Hand of the Heavenly Bride beyond the typical Dragon Quest game and into the stratosphere, easily being one of the best video game experiences I've ever had.
I guess you'll want me to back up my claim, huh? Sure thing, but I will have to use spoilers. Granted, many of these twists are already known, but there's my spoiler warning regardless. Seriously, don't be scared by the warning, this is only stuff in the 'prologue', or the first five or so hours in the game. Only the most hardcore on spoiler rules need to heed this.
Dragon Quest V starts off with the main character being born. You think I'm joking? You literally come in right as a happy mother and father are deciding on a name for their new baby boy. However, the cheerful celebration is cut short by the mother's coughing.
Are you alright, my dear? The father asks. The screen cuts to black, leaving the question hanging.
The game skips forward a few years, with the main character being somewhere around five to eight years old. You and your father have been traveling around for as long as you remember, though the reason seems to be unknown. It doesn't matter much though--you're a little kid, ever curious and excited for adventure. You and your father (named Pankraz) travel about, with you watching how awesome he is and wanting to grow up just like him. Maybe someday you'll even be able to take on a slime by yourself! In time, the little squirt goes on a few mischievous adventures on his own, including a trip to a haunted castle with his childhood friend Bianca and even a romp in the fairy realm. You even befriend an adorable sabertooth tiger kitten,
Eventually Pankraz takes on a job to protect a prince. This prince is... well, a spoiled little brat. That doesn't matter too much, though--you're a little kid, and just glad to be adventuring with Pankraz, even if you're being forced to be the whelp's minion. However, due to the bratty prince's insolence, he sneaks out of the castle and gets kidnapped, forcing the father and son to save him. This goes well enough... until an ambush happens.
I'll take care of this mob. You take Prince Harry and run out of here. Fast! You and the prince make a run for it, but their escape is cut off by a powerful magician. You have no hope of beating this foe, and when he's about to strike the final blow... Pankraz comes upon the defeated children, and is forced to fight him and his pawns alike. These minions are no match for him, and the magician, Ladja realizes this... and takes you hostage.
Fight back, and the child dies. Pankraz takes the beating of the minions he so easily swat aside before, and you, the player, are forced to watch his plentiful amount of health slowly whittle down in battle. Eventually, the father falls. Before the final blow is struck, though, he calls out to his son...
Son... Can... you hear me...? I must... I must tell you...Your mother... She's... still alive... Keep... Keep looking for... your mo--
Ladja abruptly cuts Pankraz off with a fireball, cruelly sending your father to the afterlife. It is always so beautiful a thing to see the parent's love for the child! He takes you and the young prince away to become slaves for the creation of his evil shrine, while the poor sabertooth kitten wakes up alone. He walks to the charred floor where Pankraz once once stood, and lets out a sad, lonely howl...
...Ten years pass...
...But the son has not given up hope. Even with the years of hardship, he and the matured prince bide their time, waiting for the moment that they can escape. For Harry, that means returning home and honoring his father's wish to be king; for you, that's to keep searching for your mother, whom your father claimed was still alive.
Okay, that's the end of spoiler town. That's only in the prologue, by the way, and that's an emotionally driven five to eight hours or so. There's plenty more both heart-wrenching and heart-lifting moments to be found within Hand of the Heavenly Bride, but I'll leave the rest for you to play.
What really, really drives the narrative home for Dragon Quest V though isn't the content of the plot itself, but rather how it is presented. All that I typed above is the type of thing that's typically relegated to a character's backstory in RPGs. Yes, you hear about how your father died to an evil sorcerer, and the hardships the main character face, but in Dragon Quest V you experience this first hand. You see in battle how amazing your father is; you actually go on adventures first hand, including your budding friendship with Bianca; you watch first hand as Pankraz if slowly beaten down by his enemies. It makes not for a story, but for an experience, and one that sticks with the player in ways that I cannot convey properly in words, even though I tried above.
Indeed, Dragon Quest V does not have long, drawn out cutscenes full of exposition and explanation. It relies on implication from both the story and in-game mechanics. That's not to say that nothing's ever explained, but most of the explanation is short and to the point, and if you want more information, you can always hit up the local NPCs for more information.
...Actually, that's another neat thing about Hand of the Heavenly Bride's narrative: Since there are a few time skips in the game, you can go and talk to NPCs, and see that their lives have actually changed with the times. In some cases, that's merely just them talking about more current events, but in other cases you see some drastic changes. Characters get married, have children and families of their own, all before your eyes. It really helps to drive those time skips home, because in all the cases these skips happen, you're legitimately missing out on time in the world, for whatever reason that may be. The world keeps turning, so they say, and while the main character is still on his quest, other people are living their lives and fulfilling (or failing at) their dreams. It's something that's very easy to forget when the focus is on the main character, but Dragon Quest V manages to bring even that into a wonderful perspective.
I... suppose I should talk about something other than the story. The game's subtitle gives hint to another important aspect to the title: At one point, you'll have to decide which one of three (only two in the original version) lovely ladies to wed. Other than the obvious plot purposes, you're also essentially which of these somewhat different party members you really want. You can't have all three, obviously, and while no one potential bride is balanced in such a way that it's obviously better to choose her (...in a gameplay sense at least...), each bride plays a bit differently, and has effects on a couple other aspects of the gameplay later on. It's neat, and it really makes even replays worthwhile just to see how both gameplay and scenes play out differently with the other wives in tow.
Other than that, it's a relatively normal Dragon Quest game. Battles are rigidly turn-based, random encounters are abound, and you carry your extra party members about in a wagon, including your monster buddies.
Oh wait, I forgot about them, didn't I? As evident by the sabertooth kitten's introduction in the prologue, the hero can recruit monsters into his ranks to fight alongside him. This is especially helpful early on, as since you're setting out alone it's helpful to have another party member to take and give hits. This is actually the first Dragon Quest game in the series to do so, and is said to have helped inspire the spin-off Dragon Quest Monsters series... although, don't quote me on that. I believe I read that somewhere, but alas I cannot find the source.
Honestly, after a point, the monster recruiting is sort of downplayed, as you'll eventually get more than enough human characters to fill out your ranks. But, it's still a nice touch, even if it wasn't quite a top tier gameplay mechanic.
Dragon Quest V manages to do something its series peers cannot: Create an emotional, touching plotline that is more than worth experiencing. Of course, there's also that classic Dragon Quest touch, wherein the older, more tried and true RPG tropes are welcome when even the series itself has turned its back on them.
Seriously, if you have a DS and can even tolerate RPGs, you have to pick this game up. It's a wonderful experience that still costs less than the average new console release.