It’s a cultural phenomenon in Japan (though, no, they don’t take a holiday for its release, as popular sentiment seems to believe) and has a successful cult following in North America, so when Square Enix made a promise to announce a new title in the Dragon Quest series on Sunday, September 4th, gamers on both sides of the pond took notice. The game “announced” (for it had already been announced, months earlier), though, ruffled some feathers and took everybody by surprise.
Dragon Quest first caught the hearts of gamers in 1986 (though it wouldn’t be released for another three years in North America, appearing under the name Dragon Warrior) for the Nintendo Entertainment System, a full year before Final Fantasy was released on the same system. Since that time, the Dragon Quest name has promised adventures full of whimsy, familiar foes, creative job systems and long, epic quests to, ultimately, save the world from some sort of evil. Unlike many videogame series that fall back on tropes, familiarity and archetypes, the Dragon Quest series has always found its strength in these constants. Sure, the story might be the same each time out, and maybe you fight the same enemies time-and-time-again, or the weapons are all the same, there’s always a dragon or two, and good will triumph, but it’s comforting. You always know what you’re getting into when you place a Dragon Quest game in your system, which makes Dragon Quest X’s “announcement” so much more shocking.
At the recent event, Square Enix demoed Dragon Quest X Online: Rise of the Five Tribes for the first time. Instead of a familiar single-player adventure, though, those attending the conference were greeted with an online, massively-multiplayer RPG. 1UP.com has an interesting breakdown of the announcement trailer:
The game demo displayed footage in a style that feels like a combination of Dragon Quest VIII’s visual style and world view mixed with the original MMO action-style trailer for DQIX, complete with breakout (non-random) battle sequences that allow players to move about freely during combat while selecting commands from a menu. It’s certainly not as radical a departure from series tradition as the original design of DQIX, but rather seems like an evolution of the final version of that game into a proper online game.
The idea of a multiplayer online game for Wii is hardly unprecedented, as Monster Hunter Tri was praised for its cooperative online experience. DQIX often felt like the series’ attempt to borrow from Capcom’s breakout hit, and DQX appears to be Square Enix taking their inspiration to the next level.
Expanding on the initial concepts debuted in Dragon Quest IX (for the Nintendo DS), this new addition to the series seems to be traveling further and further from the roots of what originally made the series so successful (a lone adventurer on an epic quest). Of course, one can’t ignore that Dragon Quest IX is one of the most successful iterations in the series. Still, that won’t stop the Internet from complaining. 1UP.com commented on the initial reaction to the announcement:
The Internet’s initial reaction — at least judging by comments on several major forums — appears to be one of dismay at this turn of events.
This sort of controversial decision isn’t alien to Square Enix; in fact, their flagship series, Final Fantasy, went through a similar transformation in 2002 with the Japanese release of Final Fantasy XI, an entirely online MMORPG that, despite the major shift in focus for the series, found great success in both North America and Japan. Its sequel, however (the confusingly titled Final Fantasy XIV) crashed-and-burned on release, was panned by critics, and left a ghost-town by fans. So, having gone one-for-two with the Final Fantasy series, Square Enix decided to take a similar risk with their other baby.
Having first discovered Dragon Quest with the eighth entry, Journey of the Cursed King, and subsequently completing many of the earlier entries (thanks, in part, to the Nintendo DS remakes of Dragon Quest IV, V, and VI), my reaction to Dragon Quest IX’s shift to a more social game was mixed. I missed the pre-defined characters and found the multiplayer (even when played locally with a friend) to be unnecessary. To me, Dragon Quest has always been an escape, a world to lose myself in for a few hours every week. If I want to play with friends, I load up World of Warcraft or invite them over to play Mario Kart. Like a troubled teenager, my enthusiasm for Dragon Quest X Online: Rise of the Five Tribes is having trouble finding it’s identity; I find myself at once perplexed by this evolution, and drooling for more Dragon Quest. It does sound like people will be able to play offline, with a party filled with computer-controlled NPCs, which might be some consolation for anti-social dicks like me, but, really what’s a long-time fan have to do to get a more traditional adventure?
Masahiro Sakurai, who is unaffiliated with Square Enix and the Dragon Quest series, but the creative mind behind Nintendo’s enormously successful Smash Bros. series, defended the decision to take the long-time single-player franchise online (with a potential monthly fee):
After hearing that it’s online, the number of people who say the classic style Dragon Quest would be better is probably not low. However, in a game industry where evolution and sudden changes are tolerated, even considered expected, just treading the same path would be be troubling. It’s being made by people who’ve made sound titles in the past, so I’m greatly looking forward to it.
There’s also some terrific fan discussion on NeoGAF, a prolific videogame forum, that has fans from all angles discussing this new direction for the series. One user there has collected several of the most interesting facts about the game:
- First internally developed DQ game at Square Enix
- Produced by Yosuke Saito (NIER) and directed by Jin Fujisawa (DQ8, DQ9)
- Online RPG for Wii and WiiU
- The Wii version will be released in 2012 in Japan, no date for WiiU version
- The WiiU version will have much better graphics, but the world will be the same
- The opening movie is by Square Visual Works
- The game takes place in a world with 5 continents, and 5 different races/tribes living in them
- Massive world and story that builds on the foundations of DQ9’s ideas
- Visible equipment
- For those who play alone there will be NPCs who can be recruited into the party and driven by AI
- There are battle transitions, and the combat commands at menu based, but the player only controls his/her character
- The Wii game supports Wiimote+Nunchuck, Classic Controller, Classic Controller Pro, as well as USB Keyboards
- The Wii game will use both the game disc as well as USB memory storage
- There could be a feature where characters can be transferred onto the 3DS and shared with other players using Streetpass
Most interesting, and lost among all the MMORPG kerfuffle, is that Dragon Quest X will be coming both to the Wii and the Wii U, Nintendo’s upcoming system, and possibly allowing players on either system to play with each other. Is this indication that Nintendo’s finally understanding the importance of online play? Maybe. But was Dragon Quest really the right series to experiment with? Maybe not. Like Final Fantasy before it, Dragon Quest is taking a major leap by tackling the MMO space with one of its mainline game. Would the reaction have been more positive had the game been called simply Dragon Quest Online? Probably. But, would it have been as successful at retail? We’ll never know. Hopefully these questions (and many more) will be answered at next week’s Tokyo Game Show, which Square Enix has promised will provide even more coverage of Dragon Quest X Online: Rise of the Five Tribes and its online antics. This fan will be waiting with bated breath.