Dragon Quest 2 – Retrospective

Dragon Quest 2
Dragon Quest 2

Before I start, I just wanted to preface this whole review by saying I played the Switch version of Dragon Quest 2. Being English, Dragon Quest didn’t hit my shores until the 8th entry. Let’s be honest, most people are probably going to play the modern ports of the game – not the original releases. 

After the titanic success of Dragon Quest, and the inevitable birth of a new genre, there was only one direction the series could go – up. Dragon Quest was a simple game designed to take complex concepts and introduce them to players in an easily digestible way. One man going cross country across Alefgard to save the world from impending doom, whilst beating up gribblies in quick 1v1 tests of mettle. Dragon Quest 2 aimed to expand upon that endearingly simple premise and bring forward new ideas that would further influence the genre’s growth.

Upping the Ante

From the get-go Dragon Quest 2 throws a handful of stakes at you and erects a formidable plot-shaped fence. You are introduced to a kingdom under siege, but unlike its forebear, there was no hero to save the day. Demons assault the keep, easily dispatching the castle’s defenders. In a final act of defiance, the King of Moonbrooke hurries his daughter out of a secret exit and faces oblivion alone. In the final moments of the siege, a lone soldier, beaten and scarred, manages to fight his way to an exit and flees to the neighbouring Kingdom of Midenhall.

Dragon Quest, hardware be damned, was always incredibly proficient at telling its tale through subtext and visuals. Dragon Quest 2 carries the torch well and even manages to dabble in legitimate storytelling in a way the original simply didn’t. You never saw the Dragon Lord’s power, only the aftermath of his wraths, such as Dandara or the failed expedition in Tantegal. Here though, the big-bad has already amassed enough strength to lay waste an entire Kingdom. You witness the destruction first hand. Of course, it’s incredibly simplistic visually, but for the time, it was alien and new. Even now, it’s executed incredibly well – especially for returning players.

Dragon Quest 2

Your journey begins when the aforementioned soldier informs the King of Midenhall that Hargon, the big evil, has sacked Moonbrooke. Without a second thought, the King thrusts the weight of the world on your shoulders, the Prince of Midenhall. You’re tasked with gathering the heirs of Erdrick, harnessing your heroic bloodline and putting an end to Hargon before the world is overrun. Dragon Quest 2 is a direct sequel to Dragon Quest, although you don’t necessarily need to play the original to understand what’s going on – it does help with some of the fan-servicey parts of the game.

Four Act Structure

Dragon Quest 2 is split into 4 easily definable parts. The first being the gathering of your party. It turns out that Midenhall, Moonbrooke and Cannock were all founded by descendants of Erdrick. Finding the now-missing Princess of Moonbrooke and as-of-yet-unknown Prince of Cannock is top of your to-do list. This small series of events is very well done, showcasing not only a handful of locations to explore, dungeons to delve and a small degree of non-linearity, but also how dialogue has changed between entries. Talking to townsfolk was pivotal to your success in Dragon Quest, but it often felt like arbitrary riddles expunged from the darkest depths of an NPC’s psyche. Dragon Quest 2 tries to make dialogue more natural and rewards you for paying attention.

Cannock is your first real destination, and the eponymous Prince is your prize. Turns out, he wanted to go off on his own little journey and through dialogue navigation, you can track his movements through the various locales in the region. The astute would have picked up a little tidbit informing you he is easily distracted. Tracking him is a bit of a goose chase but it forces you to every major location in the starting area, throws you into many battles to introduce you to combat and even has a dungeon for you to explore. When you eventually track him down, he joins your team and suddenly, the concept of multiple party members is born. More on that in a bit though,

Dragon Quest 2

Finding the Princess of Moonbrooke – the final party member – is a bit more difficult. She didn’t escape her home without a scratch and it turns out she is cursed to take the form of a surprisingly memorable dog. Through the deciphering of more clues and more dungeons, you break the curse and your party is finally fully formed. This almost marks the end of the first act, with only a few more destinations to visit before you are given true freedom.

It Only Gets Better

This opening act is paced perfectly and teaches you everything you need to know about the game and its progression. It slowly introduces you to new party members, each more mechanically complex than the last, and it truly ends when you acquire your boat and everything you’ve learned is put to the test. You are given a ginormous map to explore – one that fits the entirety of Dragon Quest 1 comfortably as an area to explore. Where you go from here is entirely up to you and there are plenty of things to find, do and uncover. 

The comparative scale of Dragon Quest 2 is one of its strongest points. Sailing the high seas is dangerous, and not every location is going to be hospitable, but regardless, it cleverly guides you through various intriguing landmarks that prevent you from getting too lost or overwhelmed. The story continues throughout this section, but really, it’s the journey that sells it. Locations and untracked side quests and activities are strewn about everywhere, and your curiosity is almost always rewarded with powerful new equipment or story beats. 

Dragon Quest 2

Keys make a return, but unlike in Dragon Quest where they are consumable, they are of infinite use, but only open certain doors. Every key you find opens a huge number of doors in previous locations, and backtracking becomes a semi-regular occurrence that, like with everything else, is well worth doing. Dungeons are also massively improved, with the impenetrable darkness that plagued them being lifted and the labyrinthian structures being somewhat simplified – for the most part. 

All Good Things Come To An End

Unfortunately, Dragon Quest 2 quality takes a noticeable dip once you are finished with the exploration act. Everything from pacing, to dungeon length and quality, take a bit of a hit, with the penultimate dungeon being especially bad with its myriad of traps, powerful enemies and unforgiving length. It goes from a swashbuckling fantasy adventure to a ponderous slog through uninteresting locations filled with an air of tedium. The story, however, manages to pick up some of the slack – spoilers ahead.

Upon slaying Hargon you go on your merry way back to Midenhall on your victory lap. The trumpets heralding your victory sound, the game seems to be coming to an end, and then Malroth appears – the true villain. Hargon was merely a puppet, and you must now go and slay a god. It’s a tropey reveal for sure, but again, at the time, this was quite the shocker. Anyone who played Dragon Quest 1 was probably enjoying their victory jingle and then shat their briefs when it all went to pot. Tropes be damned, it’s well done. The last stretch of the game doesn’t feel all that interesting, unfortunately, and after a few hours, you cross swords with Malroth, cut him down to size and the game really ends. 

Dragon Quest 2

Dragon Quest 2 is about 2x longer than the original, and it managed to hold my interest for most of that length. By the time the final credits rolled I was desperate to move onto something else because it got a bit boring. The game took away its strengths and replaced them with something altogether lesser, which is a crying shame.

Combat Overhaul

Now, that isn’t to say there aren’t other strong elements to Dragon Quest 2. I have only briefly touched on combat, and that’s now about to change. Dragon Quest 2 does the seemingly impossible. It manages to triple the number of playable characters, vastly increase the enemy count on screen, yet still, somehow, keeps the combat feeling quick. Fights typically last between 5-10 seconds, which is shockingly similar to the original’s 1v1 combat duration. This is important because the amount of combat in Dragon Quest 2 is staggeringly high. Keeping them short helps disguise the monotony.

Combat has also become significantly more complex with the introduction of new character classes – sort of. The Prince Of Midenhall is your basic tanky beatstick. You start as him, he is tough, does a lot of physical damage and can wear the best armour and wield the best weapons. The Prince of Cannock is a Jack of All Trades, Master of None. He can wear some armour, equip most weapons and has access to some pretty useful magicks to make up for his shortcomings. Finally, the Princess of Moonbrooke is your full-time mage. She has access to the strongest healing spells and the best offensive magic in the game but has a very limited pool of items she can equip. 

Dragon Quest 2

It’s a basic party setup that mirrors practically every D&D party that has ever existed – minus the thief. If Dragon Quest 2 had kept the fairly limited selection of spells from the original, then Cannock and Moonbrooke would be a bit bland, but thankfully, the game has vastly expanded its arcane grimoire. These come in the form of a single target, limited AOE and full AOE damaging spells, status effects, buffs and debuffs – all of which are needed if you want to survive the tougher fights. Magic systems in JRPG’s typically form the foundation of the game’s strategic depth, and Dragon Quest 2 successfully implements that genre trait.

Resource Deprivation

Mana continues to be a big deal in Dragon Quest. There are no consumables that restore it, outside of incredibly rare and RNG-based Prayer Rings. This means you have to make choices in how you fight. Every spell you sling could be a spell saved to escape a dungeon or keep a party member alive. Even at the end of the game, mana was a constant restriction that kept me engaged with many of my in-game decisions. Of course, having an entire character dedicated to a resource deprived system would be a bit pants, so Dragon Quest introduces usable items. Many staves, some shields and a few swords come with hidden abilities that can be used through the item menu – like a potion. These allow you to cast relatively low-level magic for 0 mana, essentially exchanging an inventory slot for infinite mana cantrips. This keeps Moonbrooke relevant throughout the game.

Outside of combat, gold is also pretty darn hard to come by. This leads to the now-classic shopping conundrum that is synonymous with Dragon Quest. It’s impossible to flat out buy the best equipment in every new town. This forces you to decide whether you want more damage or defence, and how much of an increase you are willing to pay for. Every item you buy puts you further away from a significantly more powerful variant. Save your money for a larger power spike, or accept smaller blips more regularly. Now apply this to three characters, and Dragon Quest has you hook, line and sinker. 

One additional benefit of a larger party is the substantially girthier item sack you carry around. Inventory space is still incredibly limited, but you now have three characters each with their own unique inventories. This means you aren’t constantly stressing about having too many curatives in your pack, and you can focus on more pressing matters. Transferring items between party members is a tad tedious though, so when you do have to do some management, it’s a pain.

Staples New and Old

Dragon Quest 2 also manages to introduce a bunch of series staples – such as gambling and puff-puff girls whilst maintaining the quintessentially Dragon Quest charm. You will frequently gain tombola tickets which can be exchanged for a spin on the slots, granting useful items should you decide to indulge in the system. It’s a basic but welcome addition. Whilst inns exist in Dragon Quest, you can instead have puff-puff administered to you by a voluptuous bunny girl. What puff-puff is exactly, is a mystery, but I’m sure you can imagine what it COULD be.

Olde (e is silent) English dialogue once again takes centre stage when it comes to conversing with the locales. It’s a little feature I continue to adore and elevates the games frequent use of humour to new heights. The bickering between Cannock and his sister, for example, is classic Dragon Quest humour that got more than just a little chuckle out of me, I have to admit. Things such as creatively named monsters, like Ratscals, and onomatopoeic spells like WHOOSH all make a return too, injecting the world with charm and joy…even if the world is coming to an end.,

Dragon Quest 2 is also steeped in nostalgic nods and throwbacks, none more entertaining than Alefgard being fully explorable. You can visit many locations that debuted in Dragon Quest, and seeing how things have developed, or regressed, was quite interesting. You can even go to the ruins of the Dragon Lord’s castle and converse with his descendant who is legitimately not evil in this game and will give you hints on what to do next. During your (real) victory lap, if you pop in to see how he is doing, he even proclaims you are the “Dragon Warrior” which is a nice little nod.

Conclusion

Dragon Quest 2 is a sequel that puts most other sequels of the time to shame. It builds upon the sturdy foundations set by Dragon Quest and makes everything better. The only negatives I can lay upon it are the pacing issues in the last stretch of the game. This is a game well worth playing if you are a fan of JRPG’s and want to see where it all came from. 

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