Dragon Quest 5: Hand of the Heavenly Bride

By Filipe Salgado - July 30th, 2009

Dragon Quest 5: Hand of the Heavenly Bride

Dear Jonathan,

I’m sorry. I’m sorry because you lent me a copy of Dragon Quest 5: The Heavenly Bride for the DS with the intention of changing my mind about Japanese RPGs, and, frankly, it hasn’t really turned me around on the issue. Hear me out, though, because I assure you it’s not all bad.

I blame my prejudice on my childhood. Japanese RPGs just hit me at the wrong time in my development. While the other kids at school were playing Final Fantasy 7, I was busy in the wasteland of Fallout. I’d played some of the 16-bit JRPG canon, like Final Fantasy 6, Earthbound, and Chrono Trigger, but Fallout set the mold for what RPGs were supposed to be; they’re games about choice, about assessing your strengths and taking advantage of them. They are not linear affairs, where I simply steamroll towards the ending. No, RPGs are about exploration, freedom. First and foremost, to me RPGs were not about grinding.

I know, I know. What I call grinding, you call gameplay. This is what it feels like to play a JRPG for me: I go into the castle, fight some random monsters, confront the boss. I lose, because my level is too low, so I fight more and more random monsters until I level up, at which point some numbers on a spreadsheet change and suddenly the boss isn’t so hard. Dragon Quest 5’s turn-based system is one of the worst offenders of this in the genre. At times, it boils down to pressing A until you win.

Complaining about a JRPG just because it isn’t a western RPG is unfair, but I need you to know where I’m coming from.

Historically, there’s an appeal. There are some precursors to many now common RPG features. The monster collecting aspect eventually became the basis for Pokémon, and the collecting of random people for your party brings to mind the Suikoden series. These features are barely sketches though, and don’t have their predecessors’ appeal. The monster collecting is random; just keep beating up on enemies and eventually one might decide to join your party. There’s no strategy to it. The party collecting element doesn’t have nearly the same “must collect them all” appeal of the Suikoden series, nor is it clear who you can recruit.

Dragon Quest 5: Hand of the Heavenly Bride

For all these complaints, though, I didn’t end up disliking the game. As much as I went in expecting the story to be banal, I was drawn in. It’s not an especially great story–it’s only one step removed from the usual “big bad evil threatens land and only the legendary hero can slay him” sort of deal–but it’s well told. A great story can be ruined by poor telling, but a weak story can go a hell of a long way if it’s told with style.

I liked that the very first scene is your character being born, and the game follows him from a six-year-old boy following his father, all the way to him as an adult with children of his own. The main plot bored me. You’re the chosen blah blah blah find the super awesome set of gear from the last legendary hero blah blah blah world’s going to end, etc. The broad strokes of the plot had been done before. It was the small touches that charmed me.

Let me give you an example: Remember the very early scene where the protagonist’s father, Pankraz, is trying to rescue Prince Harry? It turns out to be a trap. Two goons appear and a fight ensues. Pankraz isn’t under player control, and easily beats the thugs. After the fight, someone else appears and takes your character hostage. He holds you hostage and threatens Pankraz. It enters the battle screen and there are two new goons. Pankraz has no choice, he just has to take the blows, and keeps selecting wait. What could’ve been accomplished with a brief cutscene is done in a more heartbreaking way. I was forced to watch Pankraz’s health slowly chip away with each hit. It was excruciating.

The world feels lived in. Your companions will comment on places you go to with their own anecdotes. One companion only stays with you for a brief stint in the game, but you can keep visiting him afterwards, and discuss your adventures. People get old, people die, and new people come along. As an epic story about good versus evil it’s banal, but as a story about a family, and the bonds that arise from mutual struggle, it’s compelling. Sure, the humour is cheesy, and awkwardly crops up in serious scenes: It’s a product of its time that way. It’s a welcome change from the angst-ridden melodrama of some recent entries in the genre.

Dragon Quest 5 feels like a sketch of a much better game. Its ideas have been refined in other, better games. If somebody is interested in the series I’d gladly recommend it, but its gameplay is too bland to serve as an entry point to the genre, and it’s not the best summation of the era. While I thank you for lending it to me, I regret that it hasn’t changed my mind about the genre. However, it did briefly show me that some of my prejudices were unfounded.


Filipe Salgado

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    4 responses so far:
  2. A great read Mr.Salgado, I suspect you will have a bright future as a writer.

  3. Posted on Jul 31, 2009

    It’s like something from the bible, minus all the boring.

  4. Posted on Aug 1, 2009

    Guys, my ego is big enough. It does not need any help. Regardless, thanks.

  5. By Pata
    Posted on Aug 12, 2010

    “I lose, because my level is too low, so I fight more and more random monsters until I level up”

    And this right here is a sign that you failed at the game.

    Very, very rarely does victory in a Dragon Quest game rely on your just grinding. You need to fight strategicly and smartly. Did you use your items? The secondary effects of your weapons? Your buffing and debuffing spells.

    A person who describes Dragon Quest V as “pressing A until you win.” is describing a game they are bad at.

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