This is the article I wanted to write.
In my review of Dragon Quest Heroes, I noted that the story had serious issues. This week, I’d like to discuss those issues in depth. The narrative had a huge number of glaring narrative flaws making it ideal for dissection. I’ll also mention why the story remained coherent despite its numerous problems. Let’s start with the problems I mentioned in the review.
Not that anyone cares, but there will be SPOILERS.
The developers didn’t own there set up
The setup for the story is that the formerly peaceful monster denizens of Arba turned on the human population due to an evil spell. Fun fact: this is effectively the same foundation for every zombie movie in existence. Formerly peace people are infected by a virus which turns them on the healthy. The popularity of the zombie setting speaks to how great it is in exploring issues of societal breakdown, wealth, class, and setting up constant drama. There’s a lot of flexibility to the setting and all of it is dark. At the core of every zombie flick is civilization’s collapse and the destruction of the innocent. Dragon Quest Heroes doesn’t want to own any part of that. Developer W-Omega wants a light, fun romp through a horde of monsters which they can’t have if those monsters a) were turned evil against their will and b) could actually be saved in the future. In particular, the second part makes the tragedy of the setup unavoidable. Zombie movies justify zombie execution by claiming that the zombie virus wiped out the infected’s humanity. By introducing the possibility of redeeming the victims, Dragon Quest Heroes makes every monster killed an innocent victim that the player couldn’t save. It’s a dark premise that W-Omega does not want to engage. They’d have been better off with a different setup that didn’t necessitate plot elements they didn’t like. W-Omega shouldn’t have picked a setup that took them places that they didn’t want to go.
Surprise twists require support (or why deus ex machinas suck)
Towards the end, the heroes almost escaped a crumbling island before a dying boss monster cuts off their only escape route. At the last possible moment, they are saved by a magical flying bird who the game never showed before and only mentions again at the very end. Watching the scene, it feels like what it is: an unnecessary cop out. The reason lies with a compact between the storyteller and the listener. The listener agrees to accept the basic premise of a story (including unrealistic things like magic, shadowy government conspiracies, etc) while the storyteller agrees to stay within the premise they established. The storyteller gets flexibility to explore fantastic ideas while the listener gets consistency that helps them understand the story and become immersed. In introducing unsupported elements (new super bird that saves everyone), W-Omega refused to work within the rules they established. The player doesn’t understand what’s happening (Where did this bird come from? What are its goals? How did it know they were in danger?) and the bevy of questions that arise breaks the immersion. The developer never sets up this “twist” so the player spends more time figuring it out rather than enjoying the consequences.
Foreshadowing is a subtle art
The best way to prevent the frustration mentioned above is to foreshadow the change to come. In its most basic form, this means hinting at future events before they occur. Advanced foreshadowing establishes all the elements of the future events in a subtle manner so that the player isn’t aware of what’s happening until the event occurs. Dragon Quest Heroes foreshadows with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. The only monster to not lose their mind, Healix, prominently wears a crown which he claims is a powerful artifact. Meanwhile, the heroes are looking for the Circle of Light, a magical artifact that can defeat evil. Most players will quickly make the guess that the two items are one in the same, but W-Omega didn’t want to leave that to chance. Story characters repeatedly consider the possibility that Healix’s crown is the circle of light and then reject it out of hand. Many of the major conversations in the second half of the game mention this possibility. The end result is that the player all but knows of the artifact’s importance well before the game “reveals” it. This makes much of the dialogue tedious and the last 10 minutes of the story completely predictable. A subtler approach would have worked much better.
One note characters are dull
One of the biggest flaws with fan service games is that they take well developed, beloved characters and boil them down to their most notable attribute. In the well-reviewed Persona Q, the Persona 3 character Akihiko, who obsesses over fighting as a way to run away from facing the loss of a friend, is simplified to a guy who likes to punch stuff. Dragon Quest Heroes not only does this with its borrowed characters, but also with its new leads. Luceus, Aurora, Isla, and King Doric have one trait each which is repeated ad nausea. This turns every cutscene into a variation on its predecessors through the formula of event->the-reaction-the-character-uses-for-everything. Every event has a) Luceus ramble on about strategy, b) Aurora get tired of his ramblings, and c) Doric laugh. The game’s 40+ hour runtime gave W-Omega plenty of time to add in more, but they chose not to. Instead, the player knows everything about the protagonists in the first five minutes of the game and spends the rest skipping the cut scenes.
There’s a lot more going on in the story failures of Dragon Quest Heroes, but what’s surprising is how coherent the narrative is despite its quality. Dynasty Warriors games tend to only makes sense to baboons tripping acid so the fact that Heroes has a functional narrative is a real step up for W-Omega. The reason it all works is the underlying structure. The beginning establishes the characters and conflict. The middle logically escalates the conflict. The end resolves the conflict. By sticking to the basic structure of most storytelling, Dragon Quest Heroes maintains a consistent story, even if it’s amateurishly executed.