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What a weekend!
It started with a craving to see Inception on an IMAX screen and was filled with slime and questing. Some quick words on both.
I don’t think it has quite enough to supplant The Dark Knight as my favorite Nolan film, but it’s certainly up there with his best work. The less you know about Inception, the better. Seriously. I’ll have something more substantial up later, but for now I want to stay relatively spoiler free. All I’ll say is that Tom Hardy is now definitely on my radar, Ellen Page did precisely what I love in her movies without being a pretentious-seeming teen like in Juno, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was fantastic and hilarious in a role much better than in (500) Days of Summer, DiCaprio continues to impress with his post-Titanic roles, Marion Cotillard has, like Tom Hardy, become one of my new favorites, and Ken Watanabe was also fantastic, if unintelligible, in the movie. Special mention to Dileep Rao for bringing humor and eccentricity to an otherwise tiny role. His tiny quirks made Yusef a funny character to witness.
The movie plot is brilliant and the concept is so meta that it makes me love it even more. You should definitely see this in theaters, it will wow you, especially if you know next to nothing going in.
Dragon Quest IX
It doesn’t have the stronger narrative ties of V because the characters are supposed to be ciphers, but I don’t think that Horii has sacrificed much in the way of his storytelling ability. The quests and experiences seem relatively trite to the uninitiated, but the thing about DQ games is that there is skillful storytelling in even the most basic of stories. I can see the emotion and the attention to detail that remains and I love the puns introduced by the localization team. So far so good, just gotta find more time to play it.
In the meanwhile, enjoy a nice bit of Dragon Quest cosplay.
Dragon Quest is inexorably tied to the Japanese video game space. The series was the first big hit RPG and its core qualities, simplicity, relative ease, and lightheartedness touched that first generation and continue to bring the same degree of fondness with each installment. It is unquestionably the premiere mega-franchise of Japan. Somehow it just never caught on in the states. In the states we play Final Fantasy.
Until Chrono Trigger, I’d never played an RPG with Enix’s stamp on it. The difference is unmistakable. Final Fantasy’s most iconic figure is an angsty blond teen with a huge sword. Dragon Quest’s most famous character is a smiling ball of slime. The difference speaks volumes. I think the most hilarious part about it is that Dragon Quest V, for all its puns and lighthearted humor, feels way more mature than any self-serious Final Fantasy I’ve ever played.
There was a period of time shortly after I left home for university that I had a somewhat contentious relationship with my family. Like many 18-year-old kids, I needed my independence and I went about grabbing it in the most contentious, painful way possible. I’m not proud of it, but it happened and it left a hole in my relationship with my parents that needed patching. The inflection point came, not coincidentally, as I started to mature and grow as an adult. Over the course of the four years I was at school and the few after I started to realize that I needed my family more than I cared to admit and I did my best to begin repairing the damage I had done.
I grew up in a family that valued family. It’s not out of the ordinary for a movie or game to awaken the memories of my upbringing and cause me to get emotional. Both Secondhand Lions and Mother 3 made me want to call my brothers. Dragon Quest V made me call my dad and tell him how much he meant to me. Sure, it feels a little silly to say that playing a video game caused me to feel guilt about my stupid actions as a kid, but that’s exactly the point. What I’d done was stupid and immature. This game, with its smiling slimes and stupid puns, recognizes the truth about family. It knows that there is nothing more important than the bonds we make with each other. It knows that life is beautiful and fun. It also knows that life is cruel, random, and unfair.
The angsty, loner teens with huge swords may learn by the end of the game that they need their friends, but the Hero knows that he needs his family from the moment the game is turned on. Everything about Dragon Quest’s systems point to family building. There’s more maturity in this one game than the entire Final Fantasy series combined (save one or two of the thirteen). I don’t mean to bash Final Fantasy here; I just want to emphasize that Yuji Horii is doing something different here.
Shigesato Itoi started the Mother series because of Dragon Quest. Mother games carry the unmistakable sign of Itoi’s authorship. The games are highly personal to him and every detail, from the dialog to the art, is a reflection of one man’s vision. I would be seriously shocked if Itoi ever consulted a focus group to help him design even one character in his games. I have a strong belief that Yuji Horii has similar creative control over his Dragon Quest games (or at least over V). Recent Final Fantasy games reek of audience pandering. Everyone loved Cloud, so Nomura has been designing endless rehashes of the same idea since then. Squall, Tidus, and Lightning are all iterations on the same theme. Every other cast member is expressly designed to cover some kind of anime trope. It seems like their designs are festooned with endless amounts of nonsense for the express purpose of selling replica jewelry.
Maybe I’m getting a little too conspiracy theory here, but it feels too purposeful. It feels like they are trying too hard. It feels like they are creating sequels to make sales rather than to tell new stories. I sound like a hippie artist and I realize that. Square Enix’s job is to make money, not write the next Homeric epic. For some reason, Dragon Quest just feels beyond that. I need more experience with the series, but I wonder if the merger will bring a tonal shift in the series.
It’s hard to not talk about Final Fantasy when I talk about Dragon Quest, especially since I just beat XIII last night, but I’m going to do my best for the rest of this post. Dragon Quest V did more than I ever expected an 18-year-old game to do. It was equal parts touching, funny, and gut-wrenchingly depressing and I enjoyed every minute of it that I played. I’m looking forward to experiencing more games in the series.
Some of Toriyama's famous and iconic monster designs
There are these little moments in Dragon Quest that are so lighthearted and ridiculous in the context of the tension of the narrative that I can’t help but laugh out loud. Tasked with re-entering the fairy kingdom to find a replacement Golden Orb, I noticed a cat outside a house. I don’t often talk to the animals in RPGs, but I’m sometimes struck with the desire to do so. This time the cat actually spoke. He told Dan that he was a magician disguised as a cat trying to get access to the fairy kingdom and asked Dan not to blow his cover. It’s tiny and insignificant, but it’s the little details like this that make me love Dragon Quest V. Yuji Horii is all about the small things.
Dan met with the Fairy Queen with the intention of getting a new Golden Orb, but instead found out that their attempts to make a new one had failed. They could only make a worthless imitation. However, all was not lost. A magical plan was hatched that only Dan could undertake and complete. By using a magical painting, Dan was able to travel back in time to Whealbrook, where I realized that I was not paying enough attention in the early game at all. Why did I realize this? Because I suddenly remembered interacting with a man dressed rather like me in purple in Whealbrook before. This man asked to see Dan’s Golden Orb and gave him some words of encouragement. The cleverness of it was almost too much. Future Dan had come back in time and swapped the real Golden Orb with the fake Golden Bauble. Ladja failed at his mission: he actually destroyed a fake all those years ago.
Beyond that, it’s also neat to get to talk with other people in the past and learn how they felt about Dan and Pankraz. Dan could even go and talk to Pankraz himself and fail at trying to convince him not to go to Coburg. It’s a well thought out sequence that doesn’t feel that cheap for a time travel story. I just love how Dan takes the time to tell his past self to stay strong and hold on. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to meet my past self after enduring the great multitudes of pain and sorrow that Dan has endured. What did Dan from the past tell Future Dan in response? “I won’t give up no matter how hard it gets, just like you said”
Golden Orb in hand, Dan returns to Castle Zenithia and raises it back into the heavens, awakening the actual Zenithians living within the magical castle. These winged dudes inform Dan that his next task would be reviving the Zenithian Dragon, which involves going to the Talon Tower and meeting up with some old enemies bent on stopping Dan’s progress…
After yet another long hiatus in this series, we continue where we left off: Dan, his children, and Sancho are en route to the hometown of Dan’s mother, Mada, but have decided to take a few detours along the way to see some of the people Dan hadn’t seen in the eight years he was a statue.
At one point Dan went into an inn in Whealbrook and had a nice chat with an old lady. Incidentally, her only line of dialog was to tell me that whenever hard times struck, she was able to get by thanks to being able to watch her daughter grow up. I wanted to laugh at how pointed the comment was, but I found myself struck by how tragic it was that Dan was denied that simple pleasure. Here was Yuji Horii reminding me that family is something worth fighting for, especially considering that Dan had next to no childhood and didn’t get to raise his own children either.
That little aside completed, Dan went on over to Mostroferrato to help out my father-in-law with a little problem he was having. Suddenly the task he set me on earlier in the game (check on a jar in a tower) made sense. There was an ancient evil sealed away in that jar by Rodrigo Briscoletti’s ancestors that he was tasked with protecting. When Dan went on over to check on it again, he found that the seal was broken. Immediately following that, a giant moose monster (Bjørn the Behemoose (haha)) rose from the sea, walked across the ocean, and attacked my party in a pretty cool-looking in-engine cutscene. After a hard-fought conflict, Bjørn was bested and resealed, saving my in-laws from certain doom and netting me the Ultimate Key.
A quick aside:
Looking at the boxart for this game, it seems that the “canon” choice for the Hero (Dan) is to marry Bianca since she’s the only option featured on the boxart and the Hero’s children are also blond in most of the official artwork.
Dan finally made his way to his mother’s hometown, Lofty Peak, and learned about her role in the events that had taken place. Madalena is being held in the Demon World by Grandmaster Nimzo. From there she was doing her best to protect the other world. In order to seal off the evil in the world, Dan would have to continue to gather up the Zenithian armaments with the Zenithian Hero, Dave.
Dan’s first step would be to find and restore the Castle of Zenithia, which seems to be submerged under water. On his way to the castle, he met a man named Dr. Agon (pay attention to this, it will be important later). As he descended underground and to the throne room, Dan and company discovered that there would be a problem with raising the castle. They needed the Golden Orb to do this. If you don’t remember, this was the same orb that Dan and Bianca found adventuring as children and that the Bishop Ladja smashed shortly after killing Pankraz. Dr. Agon suggested that the party go talk to the fairies…
Pankraz facing off against Ladja right before he kills him and destroys the orb.
Well I wrote this already once, but the internet managed to lose it thanks to some internet problems. So here we go again. When we last left Dan, his children and Sancho had just discovered his statued form face down, the world going to hell all around him. I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for Dan to see Sancho roll up with what could only be his children eight years after their birth.
I’ve gotta say, I felt pretty emotional seeing Dan’s children and Dan finally meet for the first time. Dan learned right away that Dave was able to wield the Zenithian Sword given to Dan by Pankraz all those years ago. It might be a bit premature to call Dave the Zenithian Hero right now, but I’d say his chances are pretty high. The happy family returns to Gotha to regroup. Dan still has a mission.
His attempts to protect his children are quickly thwarted, they are going with their father to save their mother. Dan’s protests are met by the ironclad argument that Dan used to adventure with Pankraz when he was the same age as Dave and Rebeca. Heading out to the field with Dan’s children in his party bookends the gameplay themes from the very beginning of the game. Dave and Rebeca may not be as weak, offensively, as Dan was back at the start of the game, but he’s certainly a lot sturdier than they are, a reflection of his age and experience (way to co-opt the mechanics to prove your point yet again Horii!) compared to that of his children. It’s a clever way to finally make the abstractions of levels and experience finally really mean something where they typically don’t in these games.
The next stop for our heroic family: Helunaptra. They’ve got that Zenithian Helmet and I have a sneaking suspicion that it might fit Dave.
Get Dragon Quest V!
Life continues to be difficult for our intrepid hero, Dan. Quick recap: After killing one of his father’s murderers, Dan and his wife, Debora, were turned into living statues by another of Dan’s father’s murderers, Bishop Ladja. They were then found by treasure hunters and Dan was sold to the rather rich Porgie family. At this point, I don’t think his life could get much worse.
Oh wait, how about if Dan had to spend the next eight years as a statue. That’s bad enough, but here’s the real kicker. Horii goes and twists the knife once it’s inside your heart with one simple twist. Mr. Porgie bought Dan for a reason. Dan is intended to be a good luck gift for his newborn son, Georgie. The emotional twist is that Dan is forced to watch Georgie grow up before his very eyes, in lieu of his own progeny.
The helpless statue is forced to watch Georgie take his first steps, say his first words, and just live his first six to eight years of life. Meanwhile, his own children are being raised by Sancho who is witnessing these very precious moments and relishing in the joy that is rightfully Dan’s.
Dan’s torture abruptly ends somewhere between Georgie’s sixth and eighth birthday. Hawkmen swoop down and kidnap the poor lad, no doubt agents of the ancient evil whose power is brewing. A month later, Mr. Porgie’s despair is so great that he begins to abuse Dan, knocking him over and screaming about how Dan was supposed to bring good luck to his family. How ironic that Dan, the very definition of unlucky, could ever be a worthwhile charm.
Seasons continue to pass with Dan face down in the dirt until one blessed day when Sancho appears with two children in tow. It seems Dan might be back in business soon.
After last week’s cliffhanger I’m sure that it’s pretty easy to guess that Dan’s wife, Debora has been kidnapped. Way less predictable, the infants were left unharmed and within the walls of the castle. It initially seemed odd to me that such a mistake would be made by the villains, but then again, traveling or abducting someone with infants in tow seems a lot harder and like it might be easier to get noticed. Also obvious was the chancellor’s involvement in the plot. Yuji Horii’s narrative stance on traitors seems to be a bit on the disapproving side, as the monsters double-crossed the chancellor and left him for dead in a rural cathedral. His last moments were spent begging the hero for forgiveness.
His wife still in danger, Dan didn’t have much time to dilly-dally, so he quickly headed into the dungeon to confront her captors. The scene at the top of the dungeon is where things get hairy yet again. One of your father’s murderers, Kon the Knight stands atop holding poor Debora hostage. A battle ensues, but Dan is unable to damage Kon on his own. He posesses a shield that prevents any significant damage to his person. It’s yet another unwinnable battle, which started to bring back those feelings of hopelessness and vulnerability that I felt when Pankraz was murdered before Dan’s young eyes. Once again, Horii does something big here by forcing you to stay alive and fight Kon without losing the unwinnable battle. It’s important to see that Dan, the hero, is no longer as weak as he once was. The defeat that he suffered directly at Kon’s hands cannot be replicated, but neither can Dan prevail against this sturdy foe. It’s a stalemate (you know I had to do something with the chess-influenced titles of the antagonists in this game!)
Just when things are looking most dire, Debora intervenes in the fight, lowering Kon’s shield with some mysterious power she posesses. In yet another brilliant Horii moment, Dan is shown that no matter how much he has grown in strength since he lost Pankraz, he is not alone and the strength of his family is a force that cannot be reckoned with. By leaning on his wife, Dan and his merry band of monsters are finally able to defeat Kon and complete 1/3 of the vengeance for the murder of his father, but things are never as easy as they seem.
Bishop Ladja shows his ugly mug again to make Dan’s life miserable yet again. We learn that Debora’s power is the result of her blood line. She is a direct descendant of an ancient hero. Waitaminute…she’s the hero of legend? Talk about turning convention on its head. The joyful rescue and reunion is tragically cut short when Ladja’s magic transforms both Debora and Dan into statues. There is yet another cruel caveat to this cruel result, both Dan and Debora are fully aware of their surroundings. It’s not a Sleeping Beauty-type affair where they are unconscious throughout this whole ordeal. They are being forced to watch the end of the world by Bishop Ladja’s cruel hands.
After losing his mother to a kidnapping, being forced to watch as his father was brutally murdered in front of his eyes, and being forced into slavery, now Dan, a recent father of twins and more or less a newlywed finds himself a self-aware statue on the auction block of some strange amphitheater. The two guys selling the statues found Dan and Deb at the top of the tower where they fought and brought them here to turn a buck. Dan is purchased for 20,000 gold and sold and separated from his wife. Players are treated to a hint of what is to happen to Deb as one of the sellers has “other plans” for her.
If you couldn’t already guess, a midwife/doctor type confirmed that Debora was not only pregnant, but quite far along. It brings up the tricky point of time in these video games. What seemed like hours traveling around the world map in my control must have been nine months, because Deb is apparently ready to pop. It makes sense, considering the scale of the map and the modes of transportation, but without an outright statement of “Nine Months Later” (too obvious), I find myself pulled out of the narrative a bit. Speaking of getting pulled out of his narrative, Dan is summoned down to see King Albert, prematurely ending the joyous discovery.
Expecting a fight for the throne, I went downstairs to go talk to Uncle Albert. Horii goes ahead and defies some expectation by having King Albert all but pay me as he tries to abdicate the throne. He goes ahead and plays right into narrative tropes by having the chancellor, the real head of this mostly puppet government, scheme to delay my ascension by requiring me to complete a meaningless task required of royals before obtaining the crown. My suspicions were confirmed when Dan learned that the guards were under strict orders to reveal to no one that he was the son of Pankraz.
The task was fairly mindless and easy and, predictably, Dan was jumped by some hired hitmen who were easily dispatched. Expecting more trouble, both Dan and I are surprised when our return was not met with more assassins, but there was no time to get into royal business upon Dan’s return, because Debora started to go into labor.
In a delightful callback, Yuji Horii calls back to the very first scene of Dragon Quest V by forcing Dan to pace around the throne room awaiting news of the children. Every detail was identical, down to the ticking clock in the background, only this time it was less of a cutscene and more of an interactive experience. Your mileage may vary, but as a helpless bystander forced to walk around in circles awaiting an event that I, the player, had no control over, I admit to feeling anxious and powerless as I hoped for the best, but feared for the worst, since the Chancellor was still lurking around. At last, tension broke as the good news was rushed downstairs. Dan was a father…twice over. Twins!
The callback continued as Dan rushed up to the royal bedroom and was greeted by the sight of his wife and children. The conversation naturally led to names for the children and, once again, I was able to pick names. Having missed the chance to name my pet sabrecat after my buddy Min, I briefly considered naming either of the kids after him, since Min is an acceptable name for both men and women, but since I was in Florida with my younger brother at the time, I went with David for Dan’s son and Rebeca for the daughter. Just like in the cartoons, Dave resembled his father pretty strongly while Rebeca looked a lot like Deb. Not that this is all that hard, since most Toriyama art looks very similar, but it works in this situation. The boxart seems to imply that the twins would be blonde instead of having black hair if Bianca ended up wedded to Dan, so there’s one change that I spotted from the marriage decision.
With the childbearing out of the way, nothing could stand in the way of Dan’s coronation, so the ceremony proceeded and the main character’s robes transitioned from purple to red for the occasion. I noticed at this point that it was rather telling of Dan to be wearing purple, a color associated with royalty, the whole game. It’s this kind of attention to detail that I’m sure was not an accident based on what I know about Japanese game design.
What’s a good coronation ceremony without a huge party? Surely no harm could come with every man, woman, and child incapacitated from alcohol and fatigue overnight in the stronghold of a recently wronged Chancellor. I’m sure that part X will just be the blissful end of this tale…
It doesn’t take a genius to guess that Debora’s probably pregnant. I may have mentioned this before, but at any point in Dragon Quest V, the player can choose to have the main character chat with the members of his party. Dan spoke with Debora and she all but confirmed her impending motherhood with a “You know…I might be…never mind, let’s go.”
Further travels to Gotha are marked with few noteworthy events. Now that Dan is rather close to Gotha, he hears from the populace about the king Panrkaz whose travels took him away from his kingdom for near twelve years now. No one seems to know he’s dead. Dan’s mother even makes an appearance in some of the dialogue as some townspeople remark on Dan’s resemblance to Madalena. The recently married Dan is also offered marriage advice by some of the NPCs he speaks with, just to hammer home that family theme.
Dan finally arrives in Gotha only to be turned away at the gates. It’s not the most glamorous of homecomings and it makes me suspicious of treachery in the throne room. Lucky for Dan, there was a house adjacent to the castle. Even luckier, the house belonged to the ever faithful Sancho. I’ve mentioned Sancho a few times in passing throughout my narrative summary, but now it’s time to devote a little more time to this loyal friend. I was prepared to wonder why the localization team bothered to name the jolly companion Sancho, but it turns out that his actual Japanese name does phonetically translate to Sancho. It’s clear that Yuji Horii is trying to made a reference to Don Quixote’s loyal squire Sancho Panza. Thanks to this clear reference to Spanish literature, the localization team decided to give all of Sancho’s dialogue a written Spanish accent. I know they mean no harm with it, so I’m not really offended, especially as I consider that various regions and characters throughout Dragon Quest V’s world have their own respective accents to them. It’s just an odd localization quirk that some hate and I don’t particularly mind. I’m sure that some of the characters in the Dragon Quest universe do have distinct ways of speaking and this seems like an attempt to translate that intent.
Sancho might not be blood family to Dan, but his utter devotion to the royal family and elder status allows him to take on a fatherly role to the hero. If Yuji Horii did intend to create an extended family metaphor with his party and wagon systems, Sancho fits into it perfectly.
It turns out that meeting back up with Sancho was just the key to getting into the castle that we needed. After getting into the castle, Dan learns that his uncle Albert is running the show. Given the rather unfriendly greeting that he received the night before, I’m not certain of what’s going to happen here. Will Albert betray his blood to retain the throne? Is Dan going to have a face-off against his last remaining family? The tension (from my end) behind the meeting is interrupted by yet another collapse by Debora. It’s becoming pretty clear that something may be up with her and it could be a very bad time for it, depending on what Dan’s uncle does.
Get Dragon Quest V from my aStore!
I like being surprised by a narrative. Too often, especially when it comes to video games, it’s always the same predictable plot twists and points. This was a point where Dan, the player, and Dan, the character, were both stunned at a convention being broken. It seems that Dan is most definitely not the hero of legend. The Zenithian helmet doesn’t fit Dan and Cleohatra is not willing to just loan it to him with the hopes that he’ll eventually run into the hero of legend. She sends Dan off to his previously unknown hometown of Gotha with the intent to track down the leads that Pankraz was following.
While we’re on the topic of defied expectations, there’s was an event along the route to Gotha that I found particularly telling of Horii’s style. Along the path, there was a cave containing a very suspicious old woman. Every statement she makes ends with a suspicious cackle and she seems to want Dan to stay the night. Knowing danger when I see it, I declined her offer at first, fearing for the safety of my party. Then I thought about this feature and made Dan accept this old witch’s hospitatlity to see just what might happen. Cut to a scene where Dan and Debora are sleeping in the same room and Deb complains to Dan about hearing strange noises upstairs. Dan has the option of going to check it out. Knowing that something was clearly amiss, I ordered Dan to get up and check on just what that old woman was doing, but he was paralyzed in place! Things were looking bad, I mean, Dan takes a detour on his way to Gotha and is about to find himself killed. The old woman walked downstairs and crept up to the hero. It turned out that she was simply enhancing Dan’s equipment and he received a +1 permanent strength enhancement. She just paralyzed Dan and Debora so that they would sleep through the night and not have fitful sleep.
It’s totally obvious, in retrospect, that nothing bad would have happened to Dan as a result of simply trusting someone suspicious. Horii is not the kind of guy to just screw over a player for doing something nice, so it makes perfect sense that your actions reward you. The question of whether or not it’s okay to outright punish a player for making a choice so tangential to the main game mechanics or story is bigger than this tiny DQV feature, but I think it bears thinking about. The player does not want to feel like he/she has been unfairly penalized, but I think it would be a fine choice for a notorious trickster, like Kojima, to force upon his unsuspecting audience.
The characterization of Debora also became a point for me. At one point along the path, it seemed like she said something rather nice to me. Quite frankly, the last thing I’d want in this game would be for her to become some sort of weak-kneed woman who is head-over-heels in love with Dan. If I wanted that, I would have had Dan marry Bianca. I’m really hoping that consistency and quality are Horii’s priorities over pandering to male sexist ideas about what a woman should act like. Marrying a Briscoletti continues to be a financially sound decision, as I received another gift on the way to Gotha. In other Debora-related story developments, our arrival in Batenberg was immediately followed by Deb fainting.