-by Dylan DiBona
Japanese Role Playing Games, especially the very early ones, follow a static formula:
- A little story
- Get a new party member
- Repeat steps 1-3 until the end
While not the very first of its genre, the forefathers of JRPGs are Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. These series helped craft and solidify the above formula as they grew. But what if one of those very same franchises broke the formula?
The year was 1990 and the fourth entry in the Japanese phenomenon Dragon Quest was released. The series is known for its simplicity in stories; you are the hero so go stop the bad guy and save the world. It’s really the environments and battle-heavy gameplay that bring the players back. But Dragon Quest IV wanted to spice things up.
You start off as an older gentleman known as Ragnar McRyan. You are asked by the King to figure out where all the children in your kingdom are disappearing to. You go to a nearby tower and find the scoundrel responsible and finish him off.
That tale is over, but the game isn’t.
You start taking the roles of other characters who have nothing to do with Ragnar, scattered across the land. Each time you start off at level one and have to build your new characters up all over again. The continent and purpose of your journey differ almost every time. One tale is driven by freedom, another for monetary success, and one for revenge. Slowly but surely you power through four unique stories, one name echoes through all four stories, Psaro the Manslayer.
It’s obvious that Enix and Chunsoft would want to advertise this new form of storytelling, so it’s fair to say that it caught almost nobody off-guard when they first played it. It’s even proudly displayed on the North American box art. But what I wonder is if players knew that these non-traditional stories would combine together, to form the traditional?
Four chapters have been complete, a fifth and final one opens up. You are (whatever name you choose, let’s just go with Hero) Hero. Hero lives in a quiet and completely irrelevant village. The villagers believe that he is to be the man who shall one day save the world, and raise him to be so. His training is going well, but one day monsters sent by Psaro attack and burn the village to the crisp. Hero, who was put in an underground bunker, escapes. He starts to explore the world and during his travels he meets Meena, Maya, Torneko, Alena and Ragnar; the main characters of the previous four chapters.
Now a complete squad of trusted friends, the group set out to defeat Psaro the Manslayer before he can reach his goal of killing all humankind.
It’s this story, and the way it’s told that makes Dragon Quest IV one of the greatest JRPGs I’ve ever played. The game falls victim to one of my least favorite old-school JRPG tropes: super vague to absolutely no directions at all. However, the characters, storytelling and world kept me intrigued. It also helps that DQIV features some classic enjoyable turn-based combat.
I see something very admirable in an artist creating a piece he knows will sell well, but also deciding to change things up for variety’s sake. If you haven’t played this game yet, and don’t mind games that require a walkthrough every now and then, this is for you.
Just a little heads up in case anybody decides to try this game, I’m referring to the DS version. So what do you guys think about storytelling in JRPGs? What do you think about breaking formulas? As always, thanks for reading.
This article is a part of JRPG JULY, a celebratory month where I post JRPG themed articles every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.