Dragon Warrior VII


    It's been almost a decade since an original Dragon Warrior game has arrived in North America, and it's no exaggeration to say that the gaming landscape has changed immeasurably. Dragon Warrior IV, the last title released in the US, may have been a marvel for the NES, but the years since 1992 have brought vast improvements in graphics, design, and often, playability. While other RPG series have focused on adding stunning special effects and FMV, more gripping, character-driven stories, and novel gameplay systems, Enix has always kept Dragon Warrior close to its roots, refining the basic gameplay with each new installment, while keeping the look and feel of the series intact. The result of these years of evolution is Dragon Warrior VII, a game that makes only a bare minimum of concessions to advancing technology, but more than makes up for this with its deep gameplay, massive quest, and sheer variety.

   As the story begins, the world of Dragon Warrior VII is more than peaceful - it's downright pastoral. The entire world consists of only one small island in a massive sea, with no evil empire or roving bands of monsters to be found. The player-named hero, a fisherman's son from the lone village of Fishbel, divides his time between exploring the island's ruins with his friend Keifer, the restless Prince of Estard Island, and being henpecked by Maribel, the local spoiled rich girl. Things gets more interesting when the three discover a series of ancient tablets that unlock portals to the past. It seems Estard wasn't originally the sole continent in the world. Hundreds of years ago, during an epic struggle between God and the Demon Lord, the Demon Lord locked the rest of the lands away behind magical seals before both he and God vanished from the world.

What is the Keebler elf doing in this Saturn RPG?
Fishbel, Home of the FishSub

    Naturally, it's up to our band of heroes to go back in time and set things right. By piecing together the tablets in the ancient ruins, the party travels to the past again and again to avert one disaster after another and bring the lost land back into the present world. Though there is a larger plot to discover, the bulk of the game's lengthy story proceeds in this episodic way. Like most of the Dragon Warrior games, the focus is on the events happening around the characters, rather than the characters themselves. The characters have well-drawn personalities, fleshed out with a huge amount of character-specific dialog revealed by the in-game talk command, but those looking for sweeping melodrama and deep character development won't find much here.

    Instead, the game focuses on developing and populating a rich, vast world for the player to explore and providing an endless stream of new scenarios. While all of the small stories in the past basically boil down to ridding the land of evil, most of them manage to be interesting, original, and relatively free of mindless fetch quests and tired RPG clichés. To make matters more interesting, once a land has been freed, it opens up in the present, and the dungeons and towns of the past appear in altered form. The player is also given the chance to find out how a couple hundred years has affected the tale of the land's rescue, and often the stories interlock in interesting ways to shed more light on the larger plot,

   Unlocking the new lands is really a clever conceit to drive the Dragon Warrior's traditionally non-linear gameplay. The important events that move the plot forward take place in the past and, as each new land reappears on the world map, the present is filled with a huge number of optional quests, mini-games, and new areas to explore. Finding the proper shards to unlock the next area can sometime be a hassle, but a helpful fortuneteller is provided to drop very obvious hints.

   Though the series is regarded as putting combat and dungeon crawling before the story, Dragon Warrior VII is pretty evenly divided between the two. The dungeons themselves are very well designed, with a light, but well done, puzzle element. The heart of the game, however, still lies in the battle system. Many will be immediately turned off by the NES-era first person battles and the special attacks conveyed by simple text messages, but behind these retro stylings lies an amazingly deep and rewarding battle system. The game still uses the basic Dragon Warrior engine but it has been refined and reworked over six games to the point where almost everything works together perfectly. Nearly every spell and ability has its proper use and players are free to design and implement widely varying strategies. And, unlike many modern RPGs, the battles manage to be consistently challenging without ever getting too frustrating.

I think the one on the left is Goog.

   This is largely due to one of the best class systems seen outside a strategy RPG. Once they discover the Dharma Temple, players are free to change each character's class to any of ten different "beginner" classes. Later in the game, you can also find a variety of Monster Hearts, which grant the ability to assume the class of that particular monster. Each of the classes offers altered stats and new abilities as the class is leveled up. As you master multiple beginner classes, more powerful ones open up, and the characters always keep the abilities they've learned in the past. Though some of these abilities are usual Dragon Warrior spells, many more are unique skills, which require no magic points. These unique skills go a long way towards reducing the series' traditional problem of a lack of MP restoring items.

   New class levels are attained by fighting a set number of battles, rather than gaining experience points. In fact, the system actively discourages mindless leveling up -- you only receive credit for fighting monsters that are around your characters' level. Level up too high relative to your surroundings, and you'll stop gaining new class abilities. Though the game has as much combat as any Dragon Warrior game, the class system gives the player set goals and quick rewards. The requirements for the best jobs mean backtracking and mastering the beginner classes. Even so, there's nowhere near the amount of repetitive battling seen in the NES installments.

    While the gameplay and story element are a refinement of the past games, Dragon Warrior VII does feature something entirely new to the series: 3D graphics. The simple 3D engine used for the game's towns and dungeons is certainly no marvel of technology, but in manages to recreate the simple charm of the series production art in three dimensions quite effectively, with slightly crooked walls and detailed textures adding a hand drawn look. The sprites dropped into these environments, however, don't fare nearly as well. Akira Toriyama's character designs for the game aren't his best work to begin with, but they're represented in game by pixilated, poorly animated sprites that would look dated in a SNES game. While much of the game's low-tech appearance can be overlooked, the sprites are the one place where Dragon Warrior VII crosses the line from "retro" to "unforgivably lazy." The in-battle graphics for the game's monsters, however, are colorful and detailed, with incredibly fluid animation accompanying each attack and spell.

My eyes!
Look away!

   Ironically, Dragon Warrior VII's graphics are at their worst when they seems like they're trying hardest to impress. The game is peppered with a handful of FMV sequences for important events, but they're so rare and of such low quality one has to wonder why Enix didn't funnel the movie budget into polishing up the game's more glaring graphical flaws. The polygonal effects used for the larger spells in battle also fail to impress, and the game would have been much better served if the hand-drawn style of the monsters was used throughout.

   Other aspects of the series have been reworked, but not nearly enough. The basic Dragon Warrior interface has been tweaked considerably, but most of the changes merely fix old problems, rather than innovate and improve. A handy "action" button lets you interact with your surroundings without resorting to the menu, and you no longer need to select a menu item to do simple activities like climb stairs. However, many routine tasks, such as equipping your characters, are still more trouble than they have any right to be -- the interface bears the clunky legacy of a system designed over fifteen years ago.

    The sound, like much in the game, is a mix of old and new. Enix made a conscious choice to reuse the exact same sounds from the previous games for many of the in-game effects. While the 8-bit clinks and bleeps may satisfy the nostalgia cravings of series fans, clinging to the outdated technology in this case is just as absurd as if they confined the music to 4-channel chiptunes. Thankfully, they did not, and Dragon Warrior VII sports a well-arranged and pleasant soundtrack consisting of Koichi Sugiyama's signature light orchestral themes and peppy battle music. The music itself is superb, but there's not nearly enough of it - you'll hear almost all the game has to offer after completing a mere third of it.

And I rushed, too.
I want my life back.

    The sheer size and scope of Dragon Warrior VII and the time investment required may, in fact, be a more of a hurdle for many players than its outdated technology. RPGs have promised "over 100 hours" of gameplay in the past, but Dragon Warrior VII actually delivers. You'd be hard pressed to finish it in less than 80 hours, and could easily spend twice that on the optional portions of the game. The fact that Dragon Warrior VII manages to stay interesting through all this time is a feat in itself, but it does so by keeping a steady, but occasionally infuriatingly slow, pace. The game introduces each gameplay element gradually, and milks it for all it's worth before giving up another one. It's three hours before you encounter your first battle and another twenty before you get access to the class system. Diversions from the main game, such as the opportunity to build your own town, collect creatures in a monster park, or gamble in the traditional Dragon Warrior casino don't show up until much later in the quest, ensuring that a new distraction is always around the corner. In addition, the episodic nature of the plot means that every few hours you're granted another small dénouement, and another excuse to see what new elements have surfaced on the world map. Dragon Warrior VII actively encourages players to linger over the game, rather than rushing to its conclusion.

   The fact that all 100+ hours of Dragon Warrior VII are so entertaining is a testament to the quality of the game that lies beneath the dated visuals and clunky presentation. Enix's near-obsession with the past may leave those who never experienced the earlier games out of the loop, but Dragon Warrior VII manages to recreate what was good about those past games, while fixing many, but not quite all, of the flaws. It's unfortunate that Enix was so bound by series tradition that it couldn't update the game in many areas where it could still be improved, but it's an equal shame that many gamers will overlook an otherwise wonderful game for those exact reasons.

Review by Zak McClendon, GIA.

Dragon Warrior VII
Developer Enix
Publisher Enix
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD (2)
Platform Sony PlayStation
Release Date  08.26.00
E3: Dragon Warrior VII impressions
358 screenshots
New character designs
US box art
Game Design & Scenario Director Yuji Horii
Original Character & Monster Design Akira Toriyama
Music Composer Koichi Sugiyama
Full game credits