Delving into Dragon Quest: Hand of the Heavenly Bride – #2

I’m about ten hours deep into Hand of the Heavenly Bride at the time of writing… and it’s been a highly enjoyable adventure so far.

Last time, we talked a bit about how the prologue chapter of the game represents an interesting exploration of childhood and fatherhood.

Now that my adventure “proper” is well underway, I thought I’d start examining some of the interesting things this fifth installment in the series is doing.

Hand of the Heavenly Bride initially appears to be very similar to Chapters of the Chosen — at least in the two games’ respective Nintendo DS incarnations. This is not altogether surprising, since these versions were released within less than six months of one another and are very obviously based on the same engine.

This does not, however, mean that Hand of the Heavenly Bride is just “more of the same”, mind you.

Differences are apparent right from the outset. The original incarnations of this era of Dragon Quest represented series creator Yuji Horii experimenting with different approaches to narrative. In Chapters of the Chosen, he explored the idea of various disparate “prologue” narratives all converging for the main story in the game’s fifth chapter. In Hand of the Heavenly Bride, meanwhile, he took on something altogether more ambitious: exploring the protagonist’s life through several distinct “ages”: childhood, late adolescence/early adulthood, and full-on “family life” adulthood. The growth from boy to man.

This is actually not something many RPGs have attempted because it throws up all sorts of potential continuity issues when attempting to compose the plot. That hasn’t stopped some devs trying, though; Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series has become known for it in its later installments, and the third Phantasy Star game from Sega explored several generations’ worth of protagonists a full two years before Dragon Quest V’s original Super Famicom release, but Hand of the Heavenly Bride remains a noteworthy example of this narrative structure being used to great effect, putting the player in the role of a single protagonist as they live through a significant proportion of their life.

A particularly interesting thing about this aspect of the game is the fact that, as part of the ongoing narrative of the protagonist’s life, you can (or, rather, will) get married and have children — not something often seen depicted in this kind of game. Partway through Hand of the Heavenly Bride’s second main “age”, you’ll be presented with the opportunity to wed one of three different young women (two in the Super Famicom original) and ultimately start a family with them. What’s impressive about this is the sheer amount of unique game content you gain (and lose!) access to based on who you pick.

Hand of the Heavenly Bride makes use of a completely optional but delightful system called Party Chat, first introduced in the original PlayStation version of Dragon Quest VII before being incorporated into subsequent remakes. Disappointingly, the English DS release of Chapters of the Chosen cut out the Party Chat feature, but it was restored in the later port to mobile devices — and there have been a few efforts over the years to incorporate this content back into the DS version, though none appear to have come to fruition at the time of writing.

But I digress.

Party Chat is a very simple but effective idea: it allows you to press the B button at any time and hear what someone from your party has to say. And, once you begin travelling around with your new wife in particular, the amount of things they have to say are simply astonishing.

Full disclosure before we proceed: I married Bianca, because I have a soft spot for slightly rough-around-the-edges country girls, and also there’s a significant part of the “childhood” chapter where you go on an adventure with her to clear out a haunted mansion. I fell for her during that particular episode; Nera and Debora didn’t stand a chance. Nothing brings two people closer together than a shared experience like that!

Anyway, turns out Bianca has a lot of thoughts on a lot of subjects. By that I mean pretty much every single location you enter and every single NPC you talk to can provoke a unique response from her if you just tap the B button to see what’s on her mind. Each of these “chats” are no more than a line or two long and thus don’t break up the pace of the core gameplay — exploring, looting, fighting — but they do so much to help you feel closer to your chosen life partner, and, as a gradual process, they even depict the couple’s developing relationship as your journey continues.

Go to a casino and Bianca will gently encourage you to “‘ave a flutter” with your shared coin purse. Chat to someone who’s obviously having difficulties and she’ll express a desire to help them. Visit a longtime friend who gets married shortly before you, and she’ll express a slight amount of indignance that he “dun’t notice me, ‘e only ‘as eyes for ‘is wife” before hastily correcting herself that it’s actually rather sweet to see someone so devoted, and that she hopes she can make you feel the same way about her.

This aspect alone is a significant step up from Chapters of the Chosen, where all of the main characters become completely mute once they join your party, even if they had dialogue when appearing as NPCs. In Hand of the Heavenly Bride, meanwhile, your protagonist is still totally silent (though you get occasional yes/no decisions that tend to lead to flavour text responses rather than actually having an impact on anything) but the addition of these simple pieces of incidental dialogue do a huge amount to make your party feel a lot more like people rather than just collections of stats.

Not that Chapters of the Chosen ever really felt like that, mind you, even once the entire cast fell silent. By that point in the game, you’d seen enough context for who each of these characters were to understand why they might join your cause and why they were keen to fight alongside you. It’s just that Hand of the Heavenly Bride does this and then keeps you continually invested in these characters and your relationship with them even once they’re firmly ensconced in your party list.

There are a number of games that have done great things with intra-party dynamics over the years, with particular highlights being the incidental conversations between characters in the Xenoblade Chronicles series, and the Tales series’ use of skits. But nothing’s quite had the same feeling as Hand of the Heavenly Bride’s Party Chat, and I’m hoping there’s more of this sort of thing to enjoy in subsequent games.

I’ll have to wait and see, I guess! I still have a very, very long road ahead of me…

More about Dragon Quest: Hand of the Heavenly Bride

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