I had only played one Dragon Quest game before trying Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below -- that was the wonderful Journey of the Cursed King on the PS2, which I tragically never finished. I had also only played a few minutes of a few different Dynasty Warriors-type action RPGs.
Despite this lack of expertise with both the lore of the franchise and the gameplay this installment has adopted, I found Dragon Quest Heroes to be an exciting and accessible combat RPG which combined the charm and humor of Dragon Quest with the fun of mowing down endless legions of enemies. Even better, Heroes brings some new tweaks to the Dynasty Warriors formula (also known as "Musou games") that adds surprising strategic depth to what at first appears to be pure hack-and-slash.
Fight, Story, Upgrade, Repeat
Dragon Quest Heroes is lighter on story than the biggest Dragon Quest games, but it does a decent job of combining some fan-favorite characters from the history of the franchise with a few charming new additions. The story treads a little too close to the "group of chosen heroes saving the world" formula to really be memorable, and the writing is clever and funny about as often as it is dull or irritating. The English voice acting is surprisingly good however, and you'll probably find yourself rooting for the mismatched gang of heroes as they seek the cure for the monster rebellion plaguing the land.
In contrast to most of the "classic" Dragon Quest games, Heroes is made up of a vast number of self-contained battles, broken up by cut-scenes and activities in your home base. To progress the main story, grind for XP, or upgrade your weapons, you'll be selecting available battles on a world map and charging into action. Gone are the days of wandering around, searching for hidden treasure chests, smashing pots, and being alternately pleased and aggravated by random monster encounters. Now the entire game is either 1) A fight 2) A cut-scene or 3) Downtime in your base, which contains shops, roster management, quests, and everything else you'd ever need in an RPG.
While I was sad to see world exploration set aside in Heroes -- after all, that was one of the best parts of Journey of the Cursed King -- the gameplay formula that this game does offer works very well, and cuts down on a lot of frustration present in typical RPGs. In Heroes you'll never have to worry about traveling to a specific town to buy a special item from a vendor or finding the elusive merchant who will sell you a treasure map you need. Instead everything -- from merchants to quests to save points -- can be found on your airship base, all within a few steps from each other. It saves a lot of time, and keeps the focus on what this game does best: the fighting.
Endless fields of slaughter
You'll be fighting a lot in Dragon Quest Heroes. Fighting is real-time, button-mashing action, and your characters will be fully capable of killing dozens of enemies with just a few simple combos, and hundreds of enemies in the course of a single fight. A typical fight will see you dispatching waves of cannon-fodder foes mixed in with some tougher opponents, and as the game progresses and the battles become more difficult you'll need to start paying attention to the strengths and weaknesses of your different characters. About half of your team members have traditional melee-focused skills, while the rest have stranger and more particular weapons, such as boomerangs or whips.
After winning a battle you'll likely be ready to level up, and leveling up means you'll be assigning skillpoints. There aren't really very many interesting choices to make when leveling up characters -- aside from three core "magic" abilities each character has (many of which end up being similar to one another) most of the rest of your options involve small upgrades to strength, HP, or some other skill. In much the same way as a fighting game there are some deeper strategies to be found if you choose to specialize in a particular character, but with a roster of around a dozen heroes and the ability to switch between four active characters in a fight on the fly, it can be more confusing than it's worth to try to keep all the different fighting styles straight. You'll probably be best off picking your favorite four and customizing them with skillpoints and items to make sure your team is capable of handling the challenges of any particular fight you encounter.
For the first few hours of the game, you'll be able to win most fights with button mashing -- but don't let that fool you. As the game matures and develops things get more complicated. Enemies start blocking your attacks, swooping down from the sky, and casting debilitating spells on you. At the same time, the set of options at your fingertips becomes richer and more interesting as well. The game's more advanced items and upgrades allow for interesting playstyle tweaks, such as weakening your normal attacks and boosting your critical hits, or greatly increasing your damage when you're low on HP. You'll also be granted the ability to teleport around the map, which becomes essential in big battles where you're dealing with multiple hot-zones and defensive points at once.
The most interesting ability you'll unlock as you progress is the monster coin system. In the middle of battles, your dispatched foes have a chance to drop coins which can then be used to summon copies of those monsters to fight alongside you. These coins de-spawn after a short time, and you only have a limited number of spots on your monster roster, so managing the team you build in the middle of a furious fight becomes a hectic and exciting challenge.
Once all the pieces of Dragon Quest Heroes start falling into place, you'll start to see influences from the tower defense and MOBA genres mixed in with the Dynasty Warriors action. Battles will often task you with defending one or more NPCs or key locations on the map, and you'll be deploying friendly monsters at chokepoints and fighting through tides of enemies to close the gates unleashing more monsters onto the map. Battles often take place on twisting, maze-like maps with multiple branches and terrain features which slow down friend and foe alike. It all adds up to a game that has a lot more going on than you might think at first, and which will draw you back into its addictive arms again and again.