Square Enix's latest RPG remake is a charming relic.
Fans of the Dragon Quest series always know what they're getting – there's very little gameplay variation from one game to the next, and story has never been the franchise's strong point, so it's more about having a new world to explore. As with equally stubborn series like Mega Man and Pokemon, the appeal is less about what's new and more about what's old and familiar. Or, to put it another way: Dragon Quest IV is an old game built on nostalgia for an even older game that has been remade for new hardware but still feels very old in spirit and design. This could either be a major turn-off or glowing recommendation, depending on your point of view.
The good news for fans is that DQIV hits all the notes you expect. The adventure is very long and generally satisfying. The DS version features attractive 3D environments and a rotating camera, made all the more impressive by spanning both screens. All of the classic monster designs are intact, and they are brought to life with excellent animations during battle. If all you want is a shiny, portable rendition of the well-worn Dragon Quest memes, this production delivers. Like the pre-reboot James Bond films, you know exactly what to expect, and you'll be mildly satisfied as each one of the boxes is checked off.
For players with less nostalgia and more curiosity about this legendary series, it's worth turning a more critical eye towards this edition. The relatively snazzy new graphics and resampled music do more to spotlight the archaic gameplay than they do to bring Dragon Quest IV up to modern standards of presentation. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing for fans of the series or similar RPGs of the era. Where the game does start to look crusty in an unquestionably negative way is when you compare it to Final Fantasy IV. Both were originally released around the same time (though on different systems), and both are now available in revamped forms on the DS. Having now played through these games back to back, it's abundantly clear that the revolutionary aspects of FFIV have aged far better than the conservative approach of DQIV.
That's not so say that the latter is totally predictable. It features an unusual structure in which you play as several supporting characters before finally taking over as the main hero (or heroine) of the story, which happens 15-20 hours into the game. Although their paths don't intertwine much through these chapters, the approach is effective in providing more background narrative for support characters who would be reduced to stereotypes in most other RPGs. Unfortunately, DQIV's story is so simple that the characters are presented as stereotypes anyway; the opportunity to break new ground (either in the original script or this new translation) is completely wasted. The other regrettable consequence of the prologue chapters is that each one has you starting at level one with the same junk equipment. Just when the tomboy princess or ambitious merchant starts to develop unique abilities and find cool weapons, the chapter ends and you have to start over again with someone else. By the time you finally get to play as the main character, you'll already be sick of fighting slimes with oaken clubs because you've been doing it for the past dozen or so hours with every other playable character.
Both in the early chapters and throughout the game, Dragon Quest IV requires heavy grinding for experience points and gold. There's little strategy required even against bosses, so the game never enters the same realm of difficulty as Final Fantasy IV; you just have to invest enough time and purchase equipment wisely. Thus, the game is never truly frustrating, making it a good choice for inexperienced RPG players or any gamer looking for a more laid-back quest. On the other hand, the grind for stronger characters may prove insufferable to players who don't have the patience to spend an hour or more getting ready for the next dungeon. Grinding is an element that always comes down to personal preference; I find it weirdly fulfilling, but I also understand why many people can't stand it. Just be aware that DQIV relies heavily on grinding, much more so than FFIV or even the more recent Dragon Quest VIII on PlayStation 2.
Ultimately, Dragon Quest IV is so steeped in retro gaming culture that it's bound to be polarizing. While it is certainly a well-made game in the traditional Japanese RPG mold, I can't recommend it to everyone. Hopefully, you've learned enough in this review to decide whether it's right for you. If it is, you'll find dozens of hours of entertainment and a continuous drip of nostalgia to make DQIV worthwhile.