Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below Review
You could probably get away with saying that 2015 was the year of the musou spin-off. This genre, which features "you versus literally everyone" action gameplay, comes from Koei's Dynasty Warriors series. This year, we've seen three spin-off games with borrowed licenses released; Hyrule Warriors (Legend of Zelda), Pirate Warriors 3 (One Piece) and Dragon Quest Heroes (duh). Whereas Dynasty Warriors has grown stale, these games have injected new life into the genre with varying degrees of success. While Hyrule Warriors still rules the roost, Dragon Quest Heroes is a delight to play and makes the well-worn territory of its gameplay feels fresh and exciting again.
The Heroes of the title are Luceus and Aurora, two new protagonists who are eventually joined by an all-star cast of Dragon Quest characters past and present (Jessica, with her... um... huge tracts of land and Yangus are favorites, and both play a role in this adventure). The story is a bit thin but does well in explaining how all these characters from different worlds come together. The main plot point is that monsters in this world have always been friendly to humans, a nice nod to the Joker spin-off series, but something causes them to go berserk and on the attack. This seemingly minor event causes a chain reaction and leads the heroes on a world spanning Dragon Quest-style adventure that, unfortunately, is slightly less deep than the series' main storylines. The game does a nice job of reminding the player of the main story as they tackle missions and side quests, but there is awfully little there to go on.
The game's visuals were the aspect that really drew me in as the characters are all from Akira Toriyama, father of the Dragon Ball series - my favorite anime/manga of all time. His 2D art style translates to 3D models particularly well here, something not every Dragon Ball game has managed to nail down, and that goes for in-game and cinematic scenes both. On top of the excellent character designs, the game has an almost light-hearted fairy tale look to it, which contrasts nicely with the near constant combat. And for a genre that often suffers from framerate slowdown due to a massive number of characters and enemies sharing screen time, I never saw so much as a hiccup; the game runs silky smooth no matter how many hundreds of slimes are populating your television.
What makes that last bit even more impressive is how well it handles Dragon Quest Heroes' specific twist on the musou formula. As you defeat enemies, and there will be literally hundreds upon thousands by the time you finish, you'll be able to recruit them and send them into battle as support characters for the good guys. I didn't think this was explained very well in the game itself, but I soon caught on to the enemies sometimes dropping monster coins when bested. Not only does this recruitment add a welcome layer of depth to the fighting, it also inspires the part of me that caught the entire Living Dex in Pokemon to keep fighting for a complete collection of monsters. This alone kept me playing much longer than I would have, even past the end credits.
The musou gameplay, at its core, remains unchanged here. It's still you and your team of up to four characters versus entire armies at once, and button mashing is pretty much the order of the day. Each combo of hits is punctuated with a grander attack that sends foes flying, and these combos are the bread and butter here. Adding a wrinkle is the tension gauge, which fills as you defeat enemies and take damage. Filling the gauge allows you to choose a super attack from a smartly designed wheel of attacks, and working them into the main combos at the right times provides a lot of the strategic depth that other musou games have overlooked. Pirate Warriors 3, most recently, had a similar system, and it saved that game from being just another button masher. Along with the monster recruitment, the tension and super attacks elevate Dragon Quest Heroes beyond just another 3D beat 'em up.
As you might imagine, things can get a little repetitive, even with those neat tweaks to the existing formula. I won't lie to you; things can get a little tedious if you plan on playing for more than an hour or two at a time. A smart mission and side quest system, along with overworld travel by airship, can keep that tedium at bay for longer than some musou games. If you get into the side quests and crafting systems, you'll want to keep playing but will eventually view the game's main action as yet another battlefield you have to clear before you get the quest checked off or item obtained. Hyrule Warriors defeated the repetition by working with Zelda fans' nostalgia and introducing fondly remembered characters and enemies on a regular basis; Dragon Quest Heroes does the same, but not having played every game in the main series, I more than likely missed the excitement intended by some of the reveals.
In the year of the musou spin-off, Dragon Quest Heroes stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Pirate Warriors 3 and Hyrule Warriors. The monster recruitment and artwork were definite highlights, but the overall game is clearly aimed at bigger Dragon Quest fans than I am. I had plenty of fun in the 20 or so hours it took to finish the main game, and I still don't have every monster collected, but fans of the series or musou gameplay can dive into this one with little reservation. Dragon Quest Heroes isn't the best game of the holiday season, but it sure manages to carve out a nice niche for itself.
Final Rating: 80% - Musou monster mayhem.