Before I start, I just wanted to preface this whole review by saying I played the Switch version of Dragon Quest 3. 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 trundling through three of the most influential JRPG’s of all time, we are finally here. We are finally at the end of the first Dragon Quest Trilogy. It’s been an eye-opener, to say the least. Dragon Quest 1 introduced the world to a whole new genre of game – one where numbers and freedom were all that mattered. While Dragon Quest 2 expanded that formula and increased the size and scale of every little mechanic that had previously been introduced. Dragon Quest 3, similar to your take on your nan’s corned beef hash, takes the established formula and perfects it. Dragon Quest 3 showed the world, once and for all, that JRPG’s were here to stay – and they could be truly timeless.
Dragon Quest 3, like its two predecessors, won’t immediately wow you with its overarching plot. Baramos, this season’s Big Bad, is out and about causing chaos here, there and just about everywhere. Collect some McGuffins, whoop his scaly derriere and listen to some trumpets. The beats are very similar to the previous titles, but as with those games, the small subplots and greater subtext end up carrying the show. That’s not to say Dragon Quest 3 doesn’t mix up its main story at all. You have a personal motivation that drives you to save the world – you want to find your missing father, Ortega.
Early on you will gather a party and do some light adventuring. As a vertical slice of what is to come, the opening to Dragon Quest 3 hits just right. There are just enough riddles to solve, dungeons to explore, towns to frequent and NPC’s to natter to, without the game feeling like it’s holding something back. Before you know it you’ve landed yourself a boat and the vast world of Dragon Quest 3 becomes your oyster.
Styled after our real-world map, Dragon Quest 3 manages to cleverly utilise geographical formations and landmarks in conjunction with your innate pattern recognition, to establish a wonderfully memorable set of locations. Portuga (Portugal) is exactly where you’d expect, and its proximity to Isis (Egypt) and Romaly (Italy) is pretty darn accurate. This dedication to real-world locations carries over to each area’s unique visual traits. No longer does every location look like a European town. Jipang looks like a Japanese village, for example. Dragon Quest has never looked so alive or varied.
Blurring The Lines
Of course, there are countless hidden villages, dungeons, towers and secrets to find and explore. Like with any great adventure, the destination isn’t important – the journey is, and it just so happens Dragon Quest 3 contains one of the best journeys the genre has ever had to offer – and that’s not just hyperbole. The game manages to effortlessly mix the goals of the main quest with its various side quests. Everything is so well written, and the execution is so on point, that I often couldn’t tell if what I was doing was mandatory, or just a side piece meant to entice me. It’s easy to see the bigger picture as run of the mill (at first), but the things you will do, and the places you will see, easily overshadow the artefact hunting.
From this point on I will be spoiling large portions of Dragon Quest 3. Continue forth at your own risk.
One moment you could be investigating a village cursed to be trapped in an eternal slumber, only to be thrust into a Romeo and Juliet styled romance plot combined with a cabal of racist fairies. The next you could stumble into a town plagued by an ancient God who frequently demands sacrifices from the local population. Oh, and they all speak in Haiku. How about the Cape of Theddon – a village that utilises the Day and Night mechanics wonderfully. Go when the sun is out, and it’s just a village filled with lively folk happy to sell you goods and talk your ear off. Go at night, and the truth is revealed – they are all dead. Skeletons who were slaughtered and cursed by Baramos to live as daytime ghosts. There are so many more stories to uncover that I simply can’t list them all here – but they are all magnificent. It always feels like you are discovering something new – something nobody else has ever found.
I’ve been intentionally harsh on the main plot of Dragon Quest 3 up until this point. Partially to focus more on the journey, and partially to try and instil the same sense of amazement I felt when the game unveiled just how strong the actual story is. It just takes a while for those chips to get laid down is all. Once you’ve got your magical McGuffins you unlock the ability to fly, opening up the world in a whole new way. This allows you to take the fight to Baramos. On his defeat, the game drops a cunning, yet expected, twist – Baramos is a puppet, and you must go to the Underworld to slay the Demon God Zoma.
This is where things get interesting – especially if you’ve played Dragon Quest 1 and 2. The Underworld is Alefgard – the land in which those games were set. The day/night cycle is replaced with perpetual night, and the whole continent is open for you to explore. After revisiting some classic locations, you kill Zoma and the game comes to a classic end. As a throwback, this was expertly done. But again, I am holding things back because Dragon Quest 3 does the same.
Dragon Quest has always had the underlying theme of family. In Dragon Quest 1, you were a descendant of a mythical hero known as Erdrick. You follow in his footsteps and slay the Dragonlord. Dragon Quest 2 stars the descendants of that hero, and they must harness their combined heritage to rescue the land from Hargon. Dragon Quest 3 takes this to a whole new level.
I mentioned that your main character’s personal motivation was to find his father, Ortega. Throughout the adventure, you have been hearing from townsfolk the world over, that Ortega had once saved them – that he is a hero with no equal. He is a household name regardless of his current whereabouts. You are quite literally in his shadow the whole game, and NPC’s will frequently comment on it. You even gather parts of his legendary equipment. Heck, you aren’t necessarily destined to save the world, only to find your father – the man who can.
The Fallen Hero
Only he can’t. You find Ortega in the Underworld fighting for his life. You are a party of many, and he is but one man. Despite this, his power is on full display thanks to an impressive-for-the-time cutscene. Eventually, Ortega falls. The legend who you have been following – the legend who has saved countless lives – failed. In his final moments of life, after years of fighting in vain, he asks you to find his son. It has been so long, Ortega doesn’t recognise you and dies in darkness.
This build-up, and this scene, are incredibly powerful. But it doesn’t end there. You eventually defeat Zoma of course. You defeat the enemy your father could not. When you return home, you are granted a title – the title of Erdrick. Dragon Quest 3 is not a sequel. Dragon Quest 3 is the prequel to the entire trilogy. You are not a descendent of Erdrick – you are Erdrick himself. You have just played through the life of the hero who goes on to live forever in legend. Your descendants form entire kingdoms based on your deeds. You start the game in your father’s shadow, but in the end, he dies in yours. Credits roll, and the game ties the knot with “To be continued in Dragon Quest 1 and 2”. Classy.
To put into context just how staggeringly good this story, its side stories and the subtext that permeates the whole experience is, Dragon Quest 3 came out in 1988 – two months after Final Fantasy 1. The concept of a story with twists and turns this good, and a message this powerful, at a time where storytelling in video games was practically nonexistent, is hard to put into words. Dragon Quest 3’s narrative wasn’t just good for the time, and it doesn’t just hold up today – it shows up many JRPG’s released since it graced the world.
Time For Gameplay
We are almost 1500 words in, and I’ve talked about nothing but the story, sailing and haikus. Dragon Quest 3 is also filled to the brim with refined combat mechanics and intricate party-building that makes playing it just as fun as experiencing its events. Dragon Quest 3 abandons the notion of a preset party and instead lets you craft your band of misfits. Your main character’s class is set in stone, and he is the quintessential hero of Dragon Quest, aka, a jack of all trades, master of all. Your other party members, however, can be built however you like.
You have access to all manner of classes, such as Fighters, Warriors, Mages, Merchants, Thieves, and even the mostly-useless Gadabouts. Each class has specific growth rates, passives and even some unique abilities. The fist-throwing Fighter, for example, hits like a truck and is incredibly speedy. The Merchant, however, can cast some basic spells, passively increases your income and can identify items in your inventory. The level of customisation here is truly admirable, but it doesn’t just end here.
Dragon Quest 3 also implements the concept of multi-classing. You never need to keep anyone (other than yourself) as any one character. Once you hit a certain level and find a certain place, you can change your class. You retain a sizable chunk of your previously earned stats, keep all your learned spells, and even gain an exp boost, allowing your new multi-classed character to get back up to speed swiftly. This means you can combine the tankiness of a Warrior with the Magic of a mage, or the speed of a Fighter with the healing capabilities of the Cleric. You can even multiclass a third, or fourth time if you want. An uber class also unlocks under certain circumstances called the Sage, who only the aforementioned Gadabout can naturally respec into, rewarding you heavily for slogging it through with a waste of space as a party member.
Even More Depth
If this wasn’t enough, Dragon Quest 3 also has personality traits that can drastically change your stat growth. Personality traits can be learned through books or applied through certain magical items. Making your magic users geniuses makes sense, but giving them a bonus to their HP growth makes your squishy casters a bit more resilient in a scrap. It’s all very interesting and adds layers upon layers of depth to a series that has, up until this point, been known for being rather simple. The only downside to this system is the lack of in-game description as to what each personality does, so having a wiki on hand is a bit of a requirement.
All of this party planning and number crunching gets put to good use when combat kicks off, which it frequently will. Equally as paradoxical as Dragon Quest 2, Dragon Quest 3 somehow keeps combats lightning-fast despite increasing the complexity of the core mechanics. The game even rejigs the mana system, giving your casters a larger pool to play with, meaning you can finally cast spells if you want to, adding a whole new layer to the games core combat.
The spell list has also grown quite substantially, with new spells being learned almost constantly, and across multiple schools of magic. You have powerful single-target spells, group spells, and full AOE spells, as well as buffs and debuffs that target similarly. Buffs and debuffs in particular are incredibly important in tougher combats as they radically increase or decrease stats when applied – they can even be stacked. Doubling your damage is a tasty prospect and no amount of grinding is going to make up for a lack of some wizardry in your party. There are even powerful utility spells that are required to beat the game, such as the ability to reduce the damage of dragon’s breath.
Expanded Item Pool
Once again, certain items come with hidden abilities that can be accessed by ‘using’ them in combat. A sword might also fire powerful bolts of lightning, or a shield could be blessed with a powerful restorative. This gives every class more options in combat, and saving some space in your inventory for these powerful items is well worth it. Mana restoring Prayer Rings make a return and are more common, but still randomly break. This ultimately makes them a finite resource and forces some degree of management during longer expeditions. Dragon Quest 3 also introduces the Boomerang and Whip weapon class, letting characters deal physical damage to large groups of enemies at once. Heck, you can even change weapons mid-combat, allowing you to swap out weapons on the fly depending on circumstance.
Dragon Quest’s combat has finally reached a point where using your brain is required to get through certain fights. You can’t just spam healing and basic attacks in various patterns to overcome every challenge. You have to factor in the fact that certain enemies are resistant to magic, or that a boss needs to be constantly debuffed if you want to keep your head. Damage numbers get pretty damn high, and if you aren’t prepared for a brawl, you are going to have a difficult time. Thankfully the modern ports of Dragon Quest don’t require grinding, and the game is paced almost perfectly.
While mana is still no longer as sparse as it once was, gold is still something that forces decisions in the marketplace. Your party is large, their requirements are varied, and your purse is rather light. From the earliest of shopping sprees to the end game scramble, there is always some decision to be made. This once again makes Dragon Quest’s economy one of the more interesting ones in the JRPG space. There are a few ways to make money if you want to speed up your equipment gain. The most obvious is having a merchant in your party, which certainly helps. There is also the monster arena, which allows you to bet on pit fights, sometimes resulting in massive payouts if you get lucky. It’s gambling through and through, so you can bankrupt yourself if you don’t play responsibly.
Quality Of Life Improvements
Dragon Quest 3 comes packaged with plenty of quality of life changes that retroactively make the previous game’s systems even more irritating than they already were. Each character has a unique inventory they can access at any time – even in combat. Keeping spare weapons, curatives and staves on hand are always handy, so keeping them in the right backpack is rather important. You also have a stash now, where everything you don’t immediately want can be thrown into for retrieval later on. Suddenly there are no inventory issues, and you are free to horde as much as you want.
Mini medals make their first appearance, giving you plenty of incentive to explore every nook and cranny. These little medallions can be exchanged for weapons and personality warping accessories, smoothing out the game’s difficulty curve if you have an eye for detail. Just another reason to absorb Dragon Quest 3 in its entirety. Cursed items make a return, as well some interesting gubbins that aren’t technically cursed, but act like they are. For example, an axe that misses way more often, but crits more often than usual.
Lots of magical items are hidden behind optional exploration, and sometimes, through paying attention to what is going on. The sword of Illusion comes to mind, which can only be obtained by remembering to go back to a disgruntled partner many, many hours after she asks you to break a curse. Or, how about robbing a tomb and being confronted by a ghost who asks if you were the one who disturbed his slumber. If you say no, he apologises profusely and goes away. You can even talk to the racist fairies from earlier once you gain the ability to shapeshift, giving you some extra dialogue for your troubles.
Dragon Quest 3 is a special game, and not just for its historical importance. Dragon Quest 1, as wonderful as it is, shows its age. Whereas Dragon Quest 2 has the rumblings of something magnificent but narrowly misses the mark. Those games are great, but it could be argued that they rely on their legacy to stay relevant. Dragon Quest 3 is not like that. Dragon Quest 3 was the greatest JRPG of its time, and as the years have ticked on by, it has become one of the greatest JRPGs of all time. I enjoyed every second of the game, from its intricate party mechanics to its amazing side stories, to the fantastic execution of its plot. Dragon Quest 3 is as close to perfect as a JRPG could possibly get, and it’s a must-play if you haven’t already.