Before explaining what Dragon Quest Heroes is, it’s best to say what it isn’t. It’s not related to Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime, which we’ve discussed before, even though it shares its name with the localized portable classic. It’s not a traditional Dragon Quest game, with turn-based combat and worlds to explore. It’s not massively-multiplayer or even marginally-multiplayer; though slashing’s often better with friends, Heroes is purely a solo affair.
Most importantly, though, Dragon Quest Heroes, despite being developed by Omega Force, is not a Musou game.
While certain characters definitely make the game feel more like Dynasty Warriors and its ilk, others play very differently, and it’s then that the game’s differentiating elements stand out. You can’t say these elements are unique; Dragon Quest Heroes certainly borrows from everything it can. Most levels fall into one of two categories: action base defense (like Dungeon Defenders or the eventually-it’ll-be-localized Protect Me Knight 2) or boss battles (clearly inspired by the large-scale fights of Japan’s Monster Hunter phenomenon). Some even combine the two, but never does it really feel like you’re just traipsing through areas and slashing hundreds of foes with no real tension.
While you’re doing this, you’ll be managing your spells and party members. Each character has four MP-based attacks, accessed by holding down the R1 trigger while pressing a face button. These are very powerful, making you hit Square and Triangle a lot less since those attacks are usually meant as filler strikes while your meter refills. They also have clear elemental affinities, and monster weaknesses are significant enough to always want to take advantage of them. You can also drag three companions into the fight, which would make it feel even more like Monster Hunter if Omega Force had at all learned to make competent AI fighters by this point. As it is, they’re mostly there for you to switch to and control for a while, and they’ll occasionally lob a slice or spell in the same way that the hordes of enemies do.
Most levels fall into one of two categories: action base defense or boss battles. Some even combine the two, but never does it really feel like you’re just traipsing through areas and slashing hundreds of foes with no real tension.
The good thing about having so many fighters in combat is that you can try out their different fighting styles. The roster is a bit light for an Omega Force game, but in exchange, each has a distinct feel. Bianca and Isla launch projectiles from across the screen, but Bianca’s straight arrows work better for big targets and Isla’s curved boomerang arcs are best at crowd control. For melee fighters, you could slash away with Terry’s fancy blade movements or swing the slow-but-effective mauls of Yangus, but I prefer the frantic fists in Alena’s repertoire. You’ll notice that Heroes generally avoids pulling protagonists in for this fanservice crew, instead picking people that are more interesting and varied to use. This was a very smart decision.
The only exception to this are the parallel hero options. You can choose a male or female lead, but the other follows along on the adventure, and both share very similar skills. Thankfully, you can differentiate the two using the skill upgrade system to push them in opposite directions. In my game, one focuses on health and defense as a backup unit that survives and revives everyone in a pinch, while the other just does a lot of damage all the time.
What makes it more like a tower defense game is the Monster Medals system. Defeated foes occasionally drop corresponding medals, and you can use a limited number of these at a time to summon these monsters to fight for your side. They stay in a general area, and some of them are one-time effects while others patrol an area until they’re defeated. This is very useful for defending multiple spots on a map or guarding two or three lanes, as you can leave some sentries to slow down one area while you deal some serious damage to another. It takes a bit to get used to this system, and it’d be nice to grab some of these medals in a setup phase rather than just snagging them after the wave of enemies has already set upon you, but it still generally works.
It’s an interesting perspective into the Japanese game environment that Dragon Quest Heroes has to explain all the things it does. After all, Dragon Quest is a phenomenon there, so there are way more series fans than there are people into, say, Dynasty Warriors, Dungeon Defenders or any other games from which this title borrows. These explanations have remained in the West, and as a result Heroes is a good introduction to games of its type. Also as a result, it’s a bit slow to start due to a plodding rollout of mechanics. It throws walls of text at you about how it’s a good idea to hit Triangle after pressing Square a few times and why you lose if a certain thing gets hit too much. Thankfully, though, this is a game that comes together well once all that’s through, rather than one that limits its complexity at the expense of gameplay depth.
Outside of combat, though, Dragon Quest Heroes desperately wants to feel like true Dragon Quest. How much you like the franchise will determine whether you feel this is overdone, but from the menus to the swaths of heavily-accented story text, it will certainly remind you of its source material. The voice localization is… well, I suppose I should say localisation, because this is certainly a project from our friends across the pond. It recalls the franchise’s early days in the West, as the Dragon Warrior era certainly dipped heavily into medieval English for its writing. (It’s also a reminder of Dragon Quest‘s strange European absence until roughly a decade ago.) The voice acting is well-done, but it’s clear that the silly accents don’t always translate well to the spoken word; the pseudo-Russian of Alena and Kiryl is certainly the worst offender. Regardless, it’s a solid localization job that seems to smartly allocate its limited resources.
It’s a solid localization job that seems to smartly allocate its limited resources.
Outside of the writing, it fills the periphery with Dragon Quest flavor. You fly around in an airship, because of course you do. This serves as your hub for shops, party adjustments and taking on quests, and its small footprint makes getting to things easy but lacks a bit in world-building. You still save at a church and perform alchemy in a pot, even if it’s not entirely necessary. The story allows you to revisit bosses and characters from games past, and while there’s definitely a lot of fighting, there’s also a chance or two to see them kick back and talk a bit.
What hurts Heroes the most is its lack of cooperative play. The reason games like Dungeon Defenders are so fun usually boils down to devising a strategy with a friend to split up the map or work together on objectives, and it’s just not part of this game’s package. (Its sequel, releasing next year in Japan, is said to remedy this.) It does a decent enough job to make your task doable by only one, but it’s unfortunate — especially given the party structure — that the adventure can’t truly feel like a collaborative effort.
Dragon Quest Heroes may be a strange candidate for the mantle of the franchise’s last Western hope, but it’s also not the worst one. It’s not the sort of gameplay to which Dragon Quest fans are accustomed, but the combination of fanservice and otherwise-underutilized mechanics make what could have been a cookie-cutter Musou release into something very much its own.
Also there are a lot of slime puns. So that’s pretty great.