Welcome to the first installment of what will hopefully become a regular (though not necessarily scheduled) feature here on MoeGamer: Delving Into…
The aim of this column is to give me the opportunity to catch up on and write about games and series which perhaps aren’t entirely practical to fit in to the monthly Cover Game format — usually due to them being much too long or consisting of too many individual titles to squeeze into a single month… or, most likely, a combination of both.
I have a number of different series that fit into this category, including Dragon Quest, Yakuza, Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel, so as time goes on, I’ll be exploring each of these gradually — and offering some immediate, ongoing, personal thoughts about my experiences as I proceed through them rather than a single, “final thoughts” article. We begin today with the Nintendo DS version of Dragon Quest IV, aka Chapters of the Chosen.
Dragon Quest is a series I’ve been very aware of for many years, but have never really explored in any great detail. I have numerous reasons for this, most of which aren’t particularly good justifications for missing out on one of the most influential role-playing game series of all time… but they explain my hesitance to jump on board nonetheless.
First and foremost is the fact that I’ve always struggled to feel like I gel with Akira Toriyama’s art style. It’s not that I particularly dislike it per se — it’s just that it’s so different in style to the kind of media I most typically consume that I’ve historically found it a bit jarring. I like my soft-edged cute moe girls, after all, and I’ve always found Toriyama’s art to be a bit hard-edged and… I don’t know, almost “aggressive” for my particular tastes. I’m not sure that’s the right word, but it’s what I’ll go with for now.
Thing is, there’s a lot to like about Toriyama’s art, even if you’ve felt similarly to me in the past. There is, for example, absolutely no shortage of cute girls among the various ensemble casts Toriyama has created over the years, be it Bulma from Dragon Ball, Kluke from Blue Dragon, Marle, Lucca and Ayla from Chrono Trigger… or indeed the various lovely ladies in Dragon Quest.
So I think I’ve got over that side of things after a bit of introspection — and, indeed, spending some time with Chapters of the Chosen — but that still leaves one other not particularly justifiable reason I have historically left Dragon Quest on the shelf in favour of other games. And that is the fact that the series as a whole is frequently referred to as being the quintessential example of “a very traditional JRPG”.
I mean, it’s not an inaccurate descriptor, primarily because the original Dragon Quest pretty much defined what a “traditional” JRPG actually is in the first place… but there’s something I always found a little offputting about the way the phrase was used. Whenever I heard it, it always seemed to come with additional baggage that suggested the series as a whole was a bit stagnant, not really doing anything new or interesting. And this wasn’t really helped by the fact that up until the release of eighth installment Dragon Quest: Journey of the Cursed King for PlayStation 2 in 2006, we hadn’t really seen any Dragon Quest titles in Europe.
As I’ve played a whole bunch of weird and wonderful RPGs over the years, though, I’ve come to realise that being “traditional” isn’t in any way something to be ashamed of or to shy away from — and that games don’t need to innovate to simply be solid examples of that particular style. After dealing with a game focused on particularly wacky, abstract mechanics, it can actually be a real pleasure to come back to something that plays in an uncomplicated, easily understandable manner. This is partly why I’ve come to love dungeon crawlers such as Dungeon Travelers 2 and MeiQ so much over the last couple of years… and it’s why I’m really enjoying Chapters of the Chosen so far.
For the unfamiliar, Chapters of the Chosen was originally released for Famicom in Japan in 1990 before being localised for the US in 1992. It got a Japan-only PlayStation remake in 2001 with an additional postgame chapter, and finally came to DS worldwide between 2007 and 2008. Despite those two remakes, though, it’s worth remembering that this is an NES game at its core — and that actually makes it all the more impressive, because it’s clearly one of the most ambitious RPGs the platform played host to.
The title Chapters of the Chosen comes from the fact that the game is split into five chapters (plus the post-game “chapter 6” in the PlayStation and DS versions). The first four chapters each focus on a different lead character (and, in some cases, their companions) while the fifth is where the “real” story begins, following the protagonist the player names at the outset of the game as they travel the world in an attempt to become the legendary hero who will defeat the Lord of the Underworld. As the fifth chapter proceeds, the protagonist gradually meets up with all the characters from the first four chapters and joins forces with them — as well as seeing the aftermath of the events that unfolded during their stories.
Those first four chapters take up about eight hours or so of gameplay, and over their course they act as a good introduction to what Chapters of the Chosen is all about. They also serve as an excellent introduction to RPGs for those less familiar with the genre, since each one gradually adds more mechanical density before letting you loose on all the game’s mechanics unfettered in the fifth chapter.
I must confess that as something of an RPG veteran, Ragnar McRyan’s first chapter initially left me a bit cold, as mechanically he’s an extremely boring character with no special abilities or magic to use — and when he does finally get a companion in his party, said companion is completely computer-controlled.
After a little while, though, I twigged that Ragnar’s chapter is as much about teaching you the way things work outside of battle in Dragon Quest as they do in battle. In true NES RPG tradition, you’re often only given fairly vague instructions on what to do next through dialogue snippets with NPCs, and thus working your way through Ragnar’s chapter is as much about learning to navigate the world — and understand that it’s okay to go exploring — as it is about getting to know the battle system.
Ragnar’s chapter also introduces the concept of key items being usable, rather than just getting used automatically at predefined points in the narrative. At one point you come into possession of a pair of talaria — legendary winged sandals, if you didn’t know — and using them reveals that they fling you up into the air. If you do this inside a dungeon or building, you promptly bang your head on the ceiling, but do it outside in the right place and they can prove to be very helpful to Ragnar’s quest.
The second chapter of the game follows Alena, a young and rather tomboyish tsarevna who wants to go out and see the world, expressly against the wishes of her rather overprotective father. Deep in a teenage rebellious phase, however, Alena breaks out of the castle to begin her journey — but is promptly accosted by her tutor Borya and priest Kiryl, who insist on travelling with her.
Through this narrative setup, chapter 2 introduces you to managing a party of more than one person that you have full command over. Alena is once again a physical-focused character with no real special abilities, but Kiryl and Borya both have magic spells to use, requiring you to figure out how best to use them and also how to manage their stock of magic points.
Chapter 3 is an interesting one, following the merchant Torneko as he aims to create a better life for his family by opening his own shop. Torneko has a significantly higher item drop rate than any other character, and several points in his quest are “gated” by requiring him to raise a particular amount of money; as such, this chapter teaches you various ways of filling your coffers, both through completing quests and selling loot.
Finally, chapter 4 sees you taking control of the dancing duo Meena and Maya, both of whom are characters that are a little weaker physically, but have lots of different spells to make use of. Their quest primarily revolves around gathering enough power to take on a powerful boss confrontation — and also gives us that old JRPG classic, the “battle you’re supposed to lose”.
Once you reach Chapter 5, you’ll have spent a few hours with each of these characters, which is enough to give you a good understanding of their role in the party. The hero encounters Meena and Maya first of all, with the other characters joining as you track them down in your quest, and from there you’re free to build your party as you see fit according to your requirements or preferences.
Mechanically, Chapters of the Chosen may not have the depth of some other Dragon Quest games, from what I understand — it lacks the class system introduced in Dragon Quest III and expanded upon in subsequent installments, for example — but as previously noted, this straightforwardness is actually rather refreshing. Those characters who have magical abilities learn new skills quite regularly, and it’s always interesting to try these out and determine the best way to use them.
It’s also fun to see some abilities have uses outside of combat, too — Torneko in particular has a selection of mercantile abilities that allow him to appraise items and determine how much treasure remains on a floor of a dungeon, for example — and, conversely, how some weapons can be used as items in combat for various effects. In all, there’s a lot more going on here than might be apparent at first glance — and it becomes obvious over time that the game wants you to experiment and have fun with its mechanics rather than ruthlessly minmaxing your way through as quickly as possible.
I’m having a blast so far, then. About 12 hours into the game as a whole at the time of writing, I have absolutely no idea how far I have to go — but you can count on some further exploration of this classic RPG in the coming weeks as I continue on my quest as there’s still a whole lot to talk about I haven’t touched on here! ‘Tis a quare ol’ pickle, so it is.
More about Dragon Quest: Chapters of the Chosen
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