In 2009 I beat my first title in the Dragon Quest series: the ninth entry, Sentinel of the Starry Skies. It wasn’t the first DQ game I played, but it was the first one where I managed to push through to the ending and beat the final boss. Playing that game began to cement a love for the series that sparked when I played VIII for the first time, and I began the undertaking of finding previous Dragon Quest titles and adding them to my list of finished games. I restarted and finally finished VIII, and then I picked up the Zenithian trilogy (4-6) on the DS and played through those. I tried to get into VII on the PS1 but found it difficult to revisit due to its absolutely massive run time. Later I played and beat the first Dragon Quest title (known to me in my childhood as Dragon Warrior), and then the remaster of VII on the 3DS allowed me to finally take down that game too. By the time Dragon Quest XI released I had only two titles in the earlier parts of the series that I hadn’t finished: Dragon Quest II and Dragon Quest III. With both of those games as well as XI all on the Nintendo Switch by the end of 2019, I knew I had the perfect opportunity to finish the Dragon Quest series in its entirety.
Dragon Quest II (originally Dragon Warrior II) was released in Japan in 1987 and then the States in 1990 – either way, it is a game that predates my birth. The version available for the Nintendo Switch is a port of the game’s mobile edition, which features updated graphics as well as some modern conveniences that we’ll discuss shortly. DQII takes place 100 years after the events of the first Dragon Quest. After defeating the Dragonlord, the hero Erdrick married Princess Gwaelin and they traveled the world together, having lots of babies and then founding new countries for them to be in charge of. I guess that’s a good way to keep your kids from assassinating each other! At any rate, the kingdoms that were founded and ruled by the hero’s children prospered until one day a high priest by the name of Hargon began to flood with world with monsters. The three kingdoms which can still claim the bloodline of Erdrick each send a champion to deal with Hargon and his minions.
The player character is the prince of a country called Midenhall, who is sent forth by his father to gather the other heroes. Over the course of the game, Prince Conrad of Cannock and Princess Lynda of Moonbrooke join the team to form a party of three characters that you control. Each one has a different role to play mechanically. The player character serves as the warrior archetype, able to wield the heaviest weapons and armor but lacking any magical abilities. Conrad and Lynda both use magic, but are differentiated by their spell lists as well as their equipment selection. Conrad can’t wield heavy equipment like the hero but he can still wield medium weapons and armor, while Lynda can use only the lightest gear. Lynda is the fastest party member, though, and generally her spells are more powerful than Conrad’s. She also has a larger pool of MP from which to cast her spells.
There are two core components to Dragon Quest II: exploration and battle. During exploration, you use the control stick or the directional buttons to maneuver through the overworld. The A button serves as a contextual action button for speaking to others or activating locked doors. This is a quality-of-life improvement unique to the mobile version of the game, as the original required you to menu in order to do things like speak, open treasure chests, or climb the stairs. While moving around outside of towns, you may experience random encounters which bring you to the second core component of Dragon Quest: battles.
Battle takes place from a first person perspective where you look at the party of monsters you are facing. At the top of the screen you can see the name, status, HP, and MP of the characters currently in your party. Beneath the battle window is the menu where you can select your actions, as well as the text box that explains what’s happening during the fight. Your options during battle are to attack an enemy with a melee weapon, cast a spell, defend against attacks, use an item, or flee. Your goal in battle is to reduce the enemy’s HP to zero without having your own HP reduced to zero. Defeating enemies grants experience points which allow your party to gain levels and improve their stats, gold with which to buy better equipment, and occasionally useful items. Conversely, if your party is defeated you’ll wake up at the last place you saved with half of your gold missing and everyone but the main character still in need of revival.
In 2019, these are of course JRPG staples that Dragon Quest itself helped to establish as mainstream conventions, and the specific effects of various spells as well as enemy types and effective strategies you’ll see in the game will be familiar to series veterans. Even random battles may not be as simple as clicking “attack” over and over again because optimizing your performance requires you to understand the strengths of your party members and to experiment with the available items and spells in the game. For example, I found Lynda pretty unhelpful for a large chunk of the game due to her low attack power – when trying to conserve MP, her status as the magician with the most damage output may not have much worth. But having her carry and use items that approximate spells like Sizz or Zap increases her effectiveness, and as the fastest party member she is invaluable for a quick heal at the beginning of the turn before enemies can do any more damage.
Technological limitations of the time as well as the common wisdom of game design influence the story progression of Dragon Quest II. It’s interesting to see how the modern-day fascination with open worlds may see its roots in the sense of discovery that early video games created as a result of the limited tools available to them for storytelling. Dragon Quest II will very rarely – if ever – tell you exactly where you need to go. You’re limited by the shape of the land and the modes of travel available to you, the keys in your possession, and in a more subtle way by the level of monsters you are capable of dealing with. You start the game with a world map that you can view by pressing the X button, but figuring out how to get to locations that you can clearly see on the map is part of the challenge of the game. While some locations sit in the middle of vast and open fields, others must be carefully navigated to by weaving through one open spot in a mountain range or crossing the correct bridges across a series of interwoven rivers. Getting around is a puzzle in a game that doesn’t have the power to present challenges in other ways, which has the pleasant effect of making overworld navigation interesting…sometimes. There are definitely moments where walking from place to place feels like exactly that, with nothing but battles to take your mind off of the monotony of the road.
The encounter rate is most frustrating when revisiting areas you’ve already explored, something that may happen when you have the somewhat common experience of being lost in this game. While Lynda has a spell for keeping weak monsters away from you, for some reason the developers made the choice for that spell only to function in the overworld. So if you climb to the top of a lighthouse four different times because the place is a maze and you don’t realize that a significant maguffin is actually being kept there (which totally didn’t happen to me, by the way), you still have to battle the enemies no matter how weak they are compared to your party of heroes. The reason behind this might be to make sure that the player doesn’t lock themselves out of necessary experience and gold, but the way in which it hampers speed of progression at certain points definitely wears on you during long play sessions.
So how do you figure out where to go in a game like this? The game may not tell you where to go or what to do, but it is good at telling you how to figure out where to go and what to do. Unlike in modern games where NPCs are generally opportunities for world building, in a game like this each random face wandering a town may very well share the rumor that you need in order to progress the game. Particularly when you gain access to a boat, the entire world is essentially available to you and you can run into challenges way before you have the tools to deal with them. The second half of this game is essentially Zoom-ing from town to town asking NPCs about quests and then Zoom-ing to the quest locations to see if you have the right tools to progress. You slowly chip away at your objectives until you can meaningfully move forward towards the game’s final encounter.
One thing that I found charming was how DQII handles storytelling and characterization using these random townsfolk as its toolset. There are a few cases where you can find NPCs who are connected to one another in different towns, and together their little bits of dialogue tell you a little something about the world. And the way you can hear about different elements of the same quest from different towns helps to establish a common mythos that holds the world together. One of my favorite quests involves hunting down a world-renowned thief called Roge Fastfinger, and pretty much every town in the game has someone who reveals a little bit of what this gentleman thief is capable of. By the time I actually met Roge, the legends surrounding him had reached legendary proportions. It’s a great example of developers using their limited toolset to still create something compelling for the player to experience.
Ultimately, the story in Dragon Quest II is less about the plot of the game and more about the stories you create for yourself. Towards the end of the game, there’s a cave that is a serious pain to navigate. Each floor is a maze where the wrong path will lead you back to a central area that forces you to start again, and some levels of each maze have unseen broken floor panels that drop you down to the floor below. As you navigate the maze, you’re constantly interrupted by monster encounters, facing enemies such as fierce dragons with fire breath that deals 40-ish damage to each character or killing machines that can attack a single character twice in one turn. Wandering the halls of that maze and healing after every fight is a battle of attrition that eventually left my party on their last legs. I finally made it out of the cave and in the distance I could see a shrine that I hoped was a place where I could rest and saved. I got – I kid you not – two steps from the shrine and was attacked by a random monster with the Kamikazee ability. This kills the monster but also deals big damage to the party, and my exhausted heroes were blown to smithereens and forced all the way back to the last town where I saved. It was a frustrating moment – I was so close – but after a few minutes to take a breath, I went back to the cave and this time was able to navigate it in minutes. My characters had gained multiple levels from my first pass, making them much stronger after having been healed. And since I now knew the solutions to the maze and the broken floor puzzle didn’t reset so I didn’t have any holes left to fall in to, it took little effort to make my way to the shrine and then on to the castle where the final battle would take place. In this way, I created my own story – the story of the epic push through the final barrier to the villain’s castle.
It’s all well and good to think about the impact of this game when it released, but I’m reviewing this game in 2020 – why would someone want to revisit this title that came out 30 years ago? Holding tightly to its traditions is certainly a criticism that can be levied at the Dragon Quest series – there are many elements which have stayed the same over the course of time and some folks want to see series grow and change. The good thing about sticking to tradition, though, is that if you enjoy one Dragon Quest game, chances are good you’ll enjoy the rest of them too. Dragon Quest II may not have many modern conventions, and those who are not used to the grind of interacting with NPCs in order to find your path may have some design elements to get used to. But at the end of the day, DQII at its core still feels like Dragon Quest and presents some of the same mechanical challenges, and the way it uses the limited tools available to it in order to tell its story is still compelling. My experience at the end of the game shows how it still has something to offer in the modern day – striving for system mastery and creating your own stories of victory and defeat has a timeless appeal.