There has always been something special about the JRPG genre to me. It’s something about the huge ambition of the games that just completely wins me over. No other genre has the sheer audacity to attempt to create an entire world for you to explore, imagine new cultures and civilizations or try to rival the depths of novels with their narratives. I remember so distinctly being absolutely blown away by the scope of the Final Fantasy games as a kid – you just couldn’t believe that something so complex and otherworldly had been conjured up for you to explore.
Despite my love for the genre, it’s very easy to have a mixed relationship with early console JRPGs from the 80s and 90s. The technology isn’t quite there to be able to match the ambition and it can often lead to quite brutally repetitive experiences that age like milk in the sun. Final Fantasy I and II for example are pretty rough chores to get through nowadays, requiring a huge amount of grinding but without any real narrative pay off to encourage you to do that. We’ve been spoiled by the ambition of more modern games and now expectations are higher than simply saying “you are a wizard, you can cast a fireball, isn’t that fun? Now enjoy 40 hours of casting the same fireball over and over”.
I think it’s this incredible ambition in the face of huge technical limitations which is why I’ve enjoyed playing Dragon Quest III so much. If you’ve read my previous review of the first two Dragon Quest games, you’ll know that while I definitely enjoyed them, they are certainly on the simplistic side of things. Dragon Quest I was helped by the fact that it is a relatively brief game at only about 8-10 hours long but DQII, with its lengthy obtuse objectives and huge world, was certainly more of a struggle to get through. DQIII however is the perfect conclusion to the trilogy, rounding out the harsh edges of DQII and creating something which must have been utterly mind blowing in 1988.
As there are a few different versions of the game, you should know that I played through the switch version as I strongly believe the portability element really helps reduce the monotony of some of the grinding which is inherent in old school JRPGs. I’d highly advise playing either the gameboy, mobile or switch version as it’ll allow you to fly through the leveling process! I must have watched about 30 episodes of Futurama during the course of my playthrough.
The core formula remains roughly the same as its predecessors – you’re a hero setting out from humble beginnings to defeat an evil power that threatens the world by recruiting friends, fighting enemies and finding items to help in your quest. Some may call it cliche but it’s a tried and tested formula for a reason. It’s engrossing to start small, fighting off a couple of slimes at a time, slowly building to the end game where you dish out hundreds of points of damage and have an arsenal of spells at your disposal. It’s a classic system that not only works but that I personally enjoy very much.
There is a natural power curve to JRPGs which I have always found immensely satisfying to play through. While you build your understanding of the world and the story, getting more confident and familiar with the rules of the game, your party reflects that in measurable progress through levels and damage. It’s uniquely satisfying to hear the fanfare meaning you’ve gained a new level and have potentially unlocked new spells to make reaching the next one easier.
One of the biggest changes between DQIII and II is that now each character comes with a personality type that affects their stat growth between levels. The game opens with a strange dream sequence where you converse with a goddess who asks you a pretty lengthy series of questions and depending on your answers, you’ll be assigned a personality trait. I believe there are around 40 different possibilities you can get from this questionnaire which range from the acrobat, who gets 120% agility growth, to the Mule who only has 60% intelligence but 120% resilience. Due to the length of this opening section it’s easy to feel like the personality traits have a huge effect on the game (judging by the amount of GameFAQs threads asking which the best are, it’s clear people get very stressed about this) but the reality is they barely make any difference.
The majority of the traits have only minor differences and there are plenty of items in the world you can get which can change your character’s trait. It ultimately means that while the opening sequence is definitely a cool change for the series, it ends up not making that much difference. I didn’t really notice it having much of an effect on my party.
Your party is another area where DQ changes things up. Instead of recruiting named characters with backstories like the Prince of Cannock in DQII, you now simply go to a tavern and select the level 1 party members you want to add. It’s pretty disappointing to be quite honest as unlocking new party members and getting to know them is a staple element of any good JRPG but there is a positive trade off.
What the game lacks in party interaction (there is literally none), it makes up for with tons of customizability and replay value. While there is only one way for the Hero to turn out, you can now choose from 6 different classes to give to the rest of your party with no limits on how many you can have. If you want to hire all fighters and do a no magic run? Go ahead. Want to hire all mages and do a magic only run? Be my guest! Want to beat the game with no other party members? You’re crazy but you can certainly do it!
Just to boggle your mind even further, once a character reaches level 20, they can change class, resetting to level 1 but retaining all of the spells they learnt and retaining half of the stat points they gained. This means you can hypothetically take a mage to level 20, learn some very high level magic and then respec them into a thief so they’ll benefit from all the speed a thief gets and always be able to get a super powerful magic out on the first turn. Maybe you want to raise a healer to level 20 and then respec them into a warrior so you have a super robust healer who can never die. It’s actually very comprehensive for an NES game and there is lots to sink your teeth into.
Another huge improvement over DQII is that while there are still secrets to be found and some odd puzzles to solve, you generally always have a clear idea of where to be going. The game follows a sort of loose rhythm of finding a new town, speaking to the townsfolk, discovering a problem and then heading out to solve it. It’s generally a monster that needs to be killed in a local cave or an item which needs to be retrieved from a tower or shrine. There is a classic JRPG tope where “each town is it’s own little story” and you can see that DQIII really started that trend here as the game is broken up into around 15 or so miniature adventures that play into the wider story.
As is clearly Dragon Quest tradition, things open up once you’re about 40% of the way into the game, where you receive a boat and can fully explore the world. Luckily things never reach the confusing directionless level that they do in DQII once the boat is unlocked. If you fully explore the map there is basically no way you can end up with no idea of where to go or what to do which is a very welcome change and clearly a sign of Chunsoft growing as video game designers.
Something that jumped out at me straight away was that the map now mirrors our own world with towns and locations being strangely familiar. For example there is an island nation in the very east of the world called Jipang and a sea faring people who live on the end of a peninsula called Portuga. My personal favourite was the “not-romans” who live in a city called Romuly, complete with a fighting arena and ridiculous over the top italian pronunciation. Maybe it’s because I’m reading it all in my head but having the king give you a quest to find his stolen crown while sounding like a new york pizza place owner is pretty funny.
Most of the thrust for your adventure comes from the main character (generally just referred to as the Hero) trying to track down his father Ortega, a legendary warrior who has set out to defeat the evil monster lord Barramos. You’ll journey all over the world trying to track him down before realising that you’ll need to collect 6 crests to birth a giant bird who can fly you into the overlord’s castle (it’s the perfect level of ridiculous for an 80s fantasy story). It’s about 30 or so hours of grinding, cavern exploring and equipment purchasing before you’re strong enough to battle the dark lord, save the world and find your father.
The battles themselves have certainly improved from DQII. While the second game innovated by expanding your party to three members and allowing you to fight more than one monster at a time, DQIII adds another party member and gives you an even wider array of abilities to be able to fight the forces of darkness.
In earlier games in the series, magic really just amounted to big damage spells and healing, now status effects have become a huge part of the flow of battle. Some of the most powerful spells in the game are Kabuff, which lowers the enemies defence and Oomph, which dramatically increases the attack of a certain party member. Along with the addition of a multiheal spell, you’ve now got more tools than ever to dispatch foes and to balance this some of the boss fights have really been tuned up in damage. It’s not uncommon for non-warrior classes to be oneshot by the later game bosses so you really have to work on making your party as strong and resilient as possible. It plays directly into the customisation options as there really are multiple strategies to taking out the more difficult late game bosses.
Despite my praise, I can see how this might just sound like typical JRPG fare – getting stronger, exploring the world and customising your party. However it’s near the end of the game when you face the evil Barramos, that things start to take an unexpected turn and really cement this as a fantastic sequel.
After your confrontation with Baramos, which is presented as a very climactic end game sequence, you save the world and return to your hometown to a joyous reception from the king and your people. It’s almost exactly like the endings of DQI and II except half way through the celebrations, the earth shakes and a voice speaks out claiming to be Baramos’ master – Zoma, the lord of the underworld. He claims to have sent Baramos as a vanguard to his invasion and kindly informs you that he’ll shortly be invading the surface world himself. As any conscientious hero would do, you reassure the King that you’ll handle this new threat and head out to take on the lord of the underworld himself.
And that’s where things start to get really interesting.
During your journeys you’ll have discovered a supposedly bottomless pit surrounded by an impassable wall. Well guess what’s now accessible after the earthquake?
So you do the obvious thing and decide to throw yourself into the pit as it’s clearly a route to the underworld (let’s not try and question the logic of a 1988 RPG here). This leads to a section where I think DQIII sets itself apart from the typical old school JRPG crowd as it’s one of the earliest examples of not only a crazy twist but totally breaking the players expectations…
You throw yourself into the pit. Everything goes dark. You slowly awaken.
And you’re in the world of Dragon Quest I and II. Alefgard.
As someone who has recently played through the first two games I thought this was an absolutely genius twist. It turns out that there is no hellish nightmare land that you visit as a climax to your battle with evil. Instead it turns out that the land which you’ve become so familiar with in the previous games, began its life as a very dark and grim place. The game doesn’t go into too much explanation about how the worlds are connected but it makes it very clear that most of the monsters in the “above world” are coming via Alefgard and that the “below world” is dominated by Zemos the evil overlord.
The entire Alefgard sequence is virtually identical to the main quest in DQI, you travel the world collecting the magic armour and sword and using the rainbow drop to access the evil castle. Most of the items are even in the same exact locations that they are found in the first game. The differences come from some slight geographical differences and a few new dungeons.
Most people who have played Pokemon Gold/Silver will remember that moment when you beat the Elite Four only to find out that the entire world of Kanto from Blue/Red is also available. It’s a great surprise but really Dragon Quest did it eleven years earlier! That being said, I’d argue that DQIII goes one step further as after you finally beat Zemos you’re hit with yet another revelation.
With the ultimate evil in the world defeated, the pit finally seals up and Alefgard and the world above are completely separated, meaning you can never return to your home world. It’s a bittersweet moment that is tempered slightly by the joy of the people of Alefgard in being set free from their oppressor. In fact they are so happy that they bestow upon you the honorary title of Edrick, the legendary hero.
This is particularly cool as that’s the name of the legendary hero who’s footsteps you follow in during the quest in DQI. It’s a final recontextualisation that means you weren’t recreating Dragon Quest I but have been actually playing the role of the hero who is emulated in the original game. Dragon Quest III is actually a prequel to the first game and the final screen of the game tells you that the story will be continued in Dragon Quest I and II. It is a small but clever touch at the end of the game that perfectly ties all three DQ games together makes you feel like you’ve played through an epic saga.
It’s this level of sheer narrative ambition that makes Dragon Quest III so brilliant. It’s important to remember that this was originally an 8bit game developed for the NES meaning the developers were working with absurdly limited resources by modern standards. The ability to not only have a complex fully realised JRPG but also tie it masterfully into the previous games in the series, all with no cutscenes, no lengthy dialogues and no party interactions is absolutely genius and really speaks to why these games are considered classics.
These three games are commonly referred to as the Erdrick trilogy and I’d genuinely encourage anyone to play through them in order. It’s incredible really to think that the series, in just two years, grew from a simplistic 1 on 1 battle game with a very loose story into something that holds up by modern standards and tells a gripping story, not only enjoyable in it’s own right but that turns all three games into a sprawling epic. It’s often said that difficulty breeds creativity and I think Dragon Quest III certainly stands as a testament to that idea. An 8bit NES game from 1988 has no business being as grand and massive as this is and it certainly deserves its title as one of the best games in the series and one of the finest sequels of all time.