I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to play Dragon Quest recently, but I took the time to play some at lunchtime today, and it reminded me of some things I’d like to talk about.
What I’m going to talk about today relates to the series as a whole, but with the release of newest installment Dragon Quest XI looming at the time of writing, it’s particularly pertinent to mention these things, given some of the issues that have been brought up by recent reviews.
So let us ponder a core aspect of not just Dragon Quest, but of the type of RPG that Dragon Quest went on to inspire. Let us contemplate grinding!
The very term “grinding” was, I feel, coined to sound negative; it carries with it associations of going “back to the grindstone” and of performing repetitive tasks in exchange for some form of benefit. That is, of course, exactly what it means… but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience.
In Dragon Quest, you’ll sometimes find yourself needing to grind in some form or another in order to progress. You might need to gain a level or two in order to stand up to the monsters in the next area your quest will take you to. You might need to earn some money in order to afford equipment upgrades for your party members. In later installments, you might need to “farm” specific foes in order to acquire components you need for crafting.
When we break it down, mechanically speaking, most games involve repetitive tasks of one form or another; it’s just that it seems to be a lot more noticeable in RPGs, and thus people sometimes come to resent its seeming necessity at times, particularly in more “traditional” games of the genre such as Dragon Quest’s numerous installments.
I found both towards the conclusion of Chapters of the Chosen and at the point I’ve reached in Hand of the Heavenly Bride, grinding is essential. In the former case, the final boss was just too strong for my party to be able to overcome comfortably on my first attempt, so I went away, took an hour or two to increase their levels, came back and comfortably beat him without too much difficulty. This wasn’t a case of grinding to the level cap or anything ridiculous; I set level 40 as an arbitrary limit for myself to go and try again, since my party was in the mid-30s at the time, and it so happened that things worked out nicely in that regard.
In the case of Hand of the Heavenly Bride, meanwhile, grinding is beneficial because there tends to be a fair amount of level disparity between the members of your party at any given time. While your protagonist is, as you might expect, with you for the whole game, other party members come and go. Your children, for example, do not enter the picture until the final third of the game when they are old enough to be able to do things for themselves, and your wife spends a significant portion of that latter third absent from the party, meaning she will almost certainly be a number of levels behind the rest of you by the time you track her down.
Even aside from the core cast members, level disparity enters the picture, however. Pretty much right from the start of the game, you’re given the opportunity to recruit monsters into your party — effectively allowing you to build a full four-combatant party before any other main cast members have entered the narrative — and these typically join you at a low level, requiring you to grind somewhat in order to get them “fighting fit”.
Thankfully, levelling up an underleveled character isn’t a case of gimping yourself. As in Chapters of the Chosen, Hand of the Heavenly Bride allows you an eight-person party, with four active members at any given time. Everyone in that complete “squad” gains experience when you win a battle, not just the active members, so battling in areas that are appropriate for your strongest, highest level characters will see those underleveled members catching up fairly quickly.
There’s an interesting twist on this mechanic, though; you only have access to that full eight-member party when you’re somewhere that your horse and wagon can fit. This means that when you enter most buildings, castles and dungeons, you only have access to your current four active members, and thus only they will gain experience. This means that when it’s time to actually make some progress by exploring a dungeon, tracking down a treasure or beating a boss, you’ll need to make sure your best fighters are up and running, ready for action.
This is one aspect where Hand of the Heavenly Bride’s grinding actually works well, because it affords you the opportunity to experiment with various party combinations in order to see what works well in different situations. It also highlights an aspect of the game it’s worth thinking about from a slightly different angle — particularly if, as several reviewers of Dragon Quest XI have seemingly felt recently, you feel that individual characters in the game lack the level of customisation you might get from a more “Western” take on the genre.
Here’s my theory: in Dragon Quest and games like it — there’s an element of crossover with dungeon crawlers here, too — your “character” in mechanical terms is not just the person you named as your narrative protagonist. Your “character” is the entire party, and the way you customise and build them is not just a matter of levelling up individual members — it’s how you organise your party lineup so that you have a good mix of capabilities for the situation at hand.
It’s no good charging into an environment full of magic-resistant enemies with a bunch of mages, for example, so after struggling a bit, you change your lineup. You fight a couple more fights and realise that a physical-centric lineup is working better in this scenario, but it’s also handy to have some healing available, so you make sure you include your son, who has Fullheal and Multiheal spells in his arsenal as well as being a formidable physical attacker.
In other words, while you may not be able to put points into your stats or choose what abilities you learn as you level up in Hand of the Heavenly Bride, you most certainly can customise your experience and your overall effectiveness in combat by switching your party members around and experimenting with the game’s mechanics. Dragon Quest is a series where the mechanics of various abilities and items are extremely useful in different situations, so it really pays to familiarise yourself with all the possibilities.
The parts of the game where grinding is necessary for success afford you ample opportunity to do just that. It’s the game telling you that it’s time for you to figure some things out. So rather than just spamming “attack” over and over again and getting increasingly bored in the process, take the time to try out some abilities you might not have really rated before; try using some of those items of equipment that indicate they can also be used as a tool (pro-tip: the Zenithian Sword is extremely effective against bosses who like to buff themselves); try out a different combinations of characters and/or monsters in your lineup.
Grinding was often highlighted as a negative thing in those recent reviews of Dragon Quest XI I mentioned earlier. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s all a matter of perspective; take those moments as an opportunity to experiment, grow and learn — you might even find that grinding those levels is less important than you thought, once you discover the effectiveness of spells like Kabuff, Insulatle, Kasap and Oomph in the right contexts!
Of course, things get a whole lot more complex in the next game Realms of Reverie when we introduce a class system… but that’s a story for another time, after I’ve finally beaten Hand of the Heavenly Bride!
More about Dragon Quest: Hand of the Heavenly Bride
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