It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.
Upon reflection, I still stand 100% behind what I wrote about Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call. That game is still one of the finest games on the Nintendo 3DS and a rhythm game that deserves to be played. With that in mind, you can imagine how I felt about going into Theatrhythm Dragon Quest. I expected all the quirks that I liked before, but now with a formula that is more familiar to me. While this DQ version does some unique things, it does feel like a step backwards.
If you never played a Theatrhythm game before, this Dragon Quest version eases you in with its quick and snappy tutorials. In this game, players will follow the rhythm of a classic song and use the buttons or touchscreen accordingly. When you hit the notes at the right time, you will earn points and these points together will make for one final score. It has been like this since the very beginning and Theatrhythm's gameplay remains the most fun I had with a rhythm game in a while. Depending on the song and its structure, I like to swap between the different control schemes and just see what sticks. These structures radically change with the three difficulty modes and every higher step becomes harsher and challenging. To bring it closer to the Dragon Quest loving public, the developers have also introduced ''Simple mode''. With this, you only need one button or simple touchscreen taps to play the game. It truly wasn't the way I play the game, but it is handy for the newcomers to the rhythm music genre.
Unlike Curtain Call, which offered so much right from the start, Theatrhythm Dragon Quest feels somewhat shallow. At the beginning, you only have ten songs available and these are all battle songs. Theatrhythm games are made up out of three distinct types of tunes and those are battle, field and event song stages. Each follows the same format, but applies the rules differently to make it more stand out. The battle songs bring a first person perspective, similar to how you would see it in a Dragon Quest game. The notes will come towards you and I needed to get used to that. As you hit these perfectly, you will defeat known entities from the DQ universe like Slimes. In field songs, your party walks from the right to left and you will move the Circle Pad or on touchscreen to complete the line notes in a more challenging manner. Finally, there is a selection of event songs. It will give you classic imagery of each game and it layers the notes on top of that, which appear free form on the upper screen. They are the most grand moments in the game, but sadly just like Curtain Call, there aren't enough of them.
After playing through a few of the battle songs in the Music Mode, a brand new mode pops up in the main menu. This option, named Challenge Mode, sees you completing 52 different missions and each of them unlocks a brand new song for you to play. This is the mode where you unlock the rest of the songs. You will experience new environments in the field songs, find and destroy unique enemies in the battle songs and try to beat the additional goals this mode offers. Every row of songs, which represents a game, ends with an epic boss battle and this will unlock the event song of that specific entry. After wrapping up the initial 52 missions, a harder version will be unlocked and it is where your true test of skill shall begin. There is also a daily Challenge Mode, which brings you a new selection of content every day.
While the Challenge Mode is interesting, I realized my true problem with the tunes in Theatrhythm Dragon Quest. I don't dislike the songs one bit, but I am miffed and annoyed in how they are handled. The entire game, most of the free DLC after launch included, is filled with orchestrated music and not with the true classic versions of the tracks. The Final Fantasy versions did exactly that and it made for a powerful nostalgia trip that reminded me why I loved some of these games. The arranged music in Theatrhythm Dragon Quest made it feel, for better or worse, like any other rhythm music game. There is nothing wrong with them, but they aren't the way I remember them. Next to that, the Dragon Quest version feels really vanilla when compared to the Theatrhythm Final Fantasy games. You have only the ten basic Dragon Quest games, which is even less than the original Theatrhythm. It would have been nice to see various spin-offs represented, but apparently, Square Enix doesn't agree.
Theatrhythm Dragon Quest doesn't feature the Duel mode, which made me pick it up months after its initial release. The game offers instead Sogoroku Mode, which is featured in most of the modern Dragon Quest games. In this mode, you race to the end of a game board by rolling dice and face fun challenges that you get by landing on specific spaces. There is money to earn, which can be spent on collectible cards or special dice blocks, and there are various secret shortcuts that can be triggered by completing battle or field stages. It takes perfect rolls to reach the end, where a boss is waiting for you. Defeating this boss unlocks gems, which can grant you new characters for your party. More boards will be unlocked as you complete them and it keeps you going for a little while. Sadly, this mode, like all the other modes in the game, has no multiplayer and that makes nothing really last forever.
Theatrhythm Dragon Quest looks really sharp and the game runs quite smoothly on the system. There are colorful visuals on display here and it has a wonderfully cute presentation. There are some interesting details in the backgrounds, enemies and characters which fans of Dragon Quest will definitely appreciate. Where it falls short is in the 3D department, as in there is no 3D at all. This is extremely saddening, considering that Curtain Call did this so well. All the elements here seems to be made for 3D, but it feels that they pulled the plug out of it at the last second.
I am honestly a bit disappointed with Theatrhythm Dragon Quest. It is far from a bad game and I put a solid amount of hours into it, but at this stage, I simply stopped caring about it. That is honestly the biggest shame about the entire thing, considering the gameplay and its controls are still brilliant. What killed it for me is the orchestrated music and the fact that there is nothing everlasting like the Duel Mode in Curtain Call. What I can only hope for is that this DQ version can be the stepping stone to something bigger. And who knows? Square Enix could always take another stab at it.