Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past, like most role playing games, sets players against an Ultimate Evil Force bent on chaos and destruction. It features a hundred hours of islands to explore and dungeons to grind through, dozens of jobs with which to customize your party, and more than 300 monsters for players to fight or tame. In short, it’s about as Dragon Quest as Dragon Quest can get. But it’s not really about all that. What the game is really about—and what makes it so distinct from similar games—is the way it focuses on the seemingly small problems that beleaguer us all and keep us from living our best lives. I’m talking about misunderstandings. I’m talking about missed connections. I’m talking about prejudice, and unexpressed resentments, and young lives that are stunted by selfish parents. It’s a game that makes you care about its world not by handing you a sword and telling you to go kill a Demon Lord, but by giving you the responsibility—and the means—to help right the real problems of the world, one community at a time.
In most cases, this does boil down to exploring dungeons, vanquishing foes, opening treasure chests, and a whole lot of running back and forth and talking to non-player characters. But the relatable stories told in each self-contained quest makes for a refreshing change of pace compared to the many other RPGs that have landed on the 3DS in 2016. So far, my favorite quest has focused on a lovelorn engineer and the robot he builds to fill a void in his heart; within a three hour span, it manages to ruminate on the nature of the human soul, evolving attitudes about artificial intelligence, and the corrosive nature of obsessive love. This focus on the people we don’t normally consider important in these kinds of games makes Dragon Quest VII’s world feel surprisingly alive, and even more so when you consider that the game was originally released more than fifteen years ago. To my mind, only The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt does a better job of making its NPCs feel real. And thanks to a player-friendly gameplay loop, the experience remains snappy throughout: each new quest can typically be started and completed within the span of a single evening’s play session.
Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past is a remake of Dragon Warrior VII on the original PlayStation, and that game has regularly been called the worst game in the series, thanks largely to its extremely lopsided pacing. In its original incarnation, the game didn’t throw players into a single battle until something like five hours into the adventure. Personally, I’ve always found fighting to be the least engaging aspect of most Japanese role-playing games, so I’d have been plenty happy just to see the PlayStation original ported to the 3DS’s new graphic engine and updated with a revised script. Still, Square Enix has smartly tightened up the remake in an effort to appeal to new players, cutting out roughly two hours of its extended intro for the 3DS version. Other quality-of-life improvements have been made as well: there are multiple new tools to point players in the right direction when they’re not sure how to proceed, and a new quick-save feature lets players temporarily record progress without having to find a church (though you’ll at least need to make your way to the game’s overworld map to record a temporary save.) In other ways, though, Dragon Quest VII still frustrates in the same ways Dragon Warrior VII did; for instance, you’ll still have to play for more than twenty hours to unlock the game’s job system, DLC, and monster taming systems. It’s all very cool stuff, but it’s been hard for me to muster up the enthusiasm for new play systems after I’ve already spent so much time enjoying the seeming simplicity of the game.
But even if you completely ignore the optional gameplay systems, there’s just so much to love here. And unlike most of the other overstuffed RPGs demanding absurd time commitments from players today, it rarely gets boring; if things start to feel rinse-and-repeat, you just take a break for a little bit and pick it up again when you’re ready to get back to it. You could spend a year playing through Dragon Quest VII and still not reach the endgame, but you’ll rarely ever be lost when you’re ready to pick it up again, because it does such a great job at giving you the information you need to jump right back in. And if you long for a more traditional Dragon Quest experience—dungeons and dragons and all that—there’s free DLC that should satiate those needs being distributed every single week for the foreseeable future.
Have I come anywhere near finishing Dragon Quest VII? Not at all. But I’ve experienced some remarkably nuanced storytelling, the music is to die for, and even though I’ve played past the point where most modern RPGs lose my interest, I’m eager to keep exploring and learning more about the people that inhabit the game’s world. Last month, I said that Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse was probably the best RPG to land on the system all year, but I’m afraid I’ve got to eat my hat here: Dragon Quest VII is pure gaming goodness. I’m so glad it’s finally made its way outside of Japan.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past is based on roughly thirty hours spent playing final review code provided to us by Nintendo. The game was released in the U.S. on September 16th, 2016, more than three years after its February 2013 Japanese release and almost sixteen years after the original PlayStation version. It was worth the wait.