Videogames have come under heavy criticism in recent years for conventions they refuse to retire, conventions that, the argument goes, are rendered absurd by the graphical realism and sophisticated 3D environments that have become commonplace. The RPG genre in particular has been the target of much of this criticism, but the reason is fairly complicated. Unlike most other videogame genres it actually predates the medium, finding its roots in the pure abstraction of pen & paper role-playing games. In these games events of the story were created by combining the players imaginations with a set of governing rules that were designed to represent or approximate the experience of being at the center of a mythic scenario. Since many of these rules were simply borrowed by video role-playing games they have had an uneasy relationship with the growing standards of realism that evolving technology has made possible. Games like Final Fantasy X have been criticized for adhering to conventions like random combat when many feel that the impressive sense of reality suggested by its visuals is only undermined by such techniques, since the limitations that made them necessary no longer exist.
Such arguments are on-going, and I wont dwell on them in this review. However, a basic comprehension of them is important to understand just what is special about Dragon Warrior VII (DW7), Enixs old-school-style RPG recently released for the PlayStation. DW7 is a game that not only employs but revels in practically every convention that console RPGs have used since their birth in the mid-80s, and it is an excellent example of how, when matched with the appropriate sense of style, these conventions still work beautifully.
Although the Dragon Warrior series does maintain a linear fiction of sorts, DW7 is an independent story that should not be mistaken for a continuation of Dragon Warrior IV, the last game of the cardinal series that actually came out here. (Incidentally, IVs story was resolved in V and VI which never saw American release.) DW7 opens in a small fishing village on the coast of an island, or I should say the island since it is the only island in the world. In this bright and tranquil setting you are introduced to three friends: Keifer, a prince of the only castle on the island; Maribel, the daughter of a wealthy shipwright, and a third character, the son of a local fisherman, whom you play and get to name. Thats really it. The game begins with no expository momentum, but it isnt long before some spooky business about magic ruins, time travel, and saving the world turns up. From then on its all about exploration, combat, and dialogue in the grand tradition of classic console RPGs.
DW7 is a balanced game. Virtually every aspect of it works together smoothly making it a comfortable experience that is devoid of redundancy.
DW7 uses extremely simple graphics, offering old-style iconic characters in a modestly detailed 3D world. At first glace it seems primitive, but prolonged play will reveal that it is economical. The graphics are only as detailed as they need to be since they are complimented by a rich dialogue system. This succeeds in giving the world a personality that needs little visual assistance. Conversation can be initiated any time (even in battle) with party members, and they have something to say about practically every conceivable situation. The result is a potent one, an experience where you really feel like you are traveling with people, not simply leading a graphic around who only speaks up when a dramatic event takes place. The arbitrary nature of 90% of the dialogue in DW7 is why it succeeds so well in drawing you into the game, and this wouldnt have been possible without favoring text over graphics as heavily as it does.
Random combat also benefits from the minimalist graphics. Because they are so abstracti.e. because the visuals are obviously meant as representations of reality rather than reality itselfevents like switching to a different perspective for combat seems like a logical extension of this rather than an odd hold-over like in Final Fantasy. Of course, it also helps that, because the graphics are so simple, DW7 enjoys noand I mean noloadtimes. This (along with the fact that they are visually pleasing and reward strategy) makes the random battles in DW7 not the chore they have become in recent RPGs but the concise and fun experience they were originally designed to be in order to support countless hours of play.
DW7 is arguably one of the longest console RPGs ever made (topping out at a whopping 100 hours, give or take 20) and, unlike many other long RPGs, it is designed to be played at a comfortable pace. The plot has been cleverly divided into simple episodes that are neither time-consuming nor over-demanding of the players memory. In other words, the designers actually went out of their way to make a time-management-friendly game, something that can easily be picked up or put down without fear of losing interest. I find this refreshing after suffering through RPGs that expected me to remember details from hour 5 to comprehend the fourth plot-twist in hour 37.
The balance between graphics, dialogue, combat, and overall pacing wouldnt be enough to make DW7 a great game. Even the best craftsmanship must be tempered with a sort of inspiration if it wants to be considered something more. Thats why the tone of DW7s story is the finishing touch that makes the experience worth while. In a market where convoluted narrative and epic melodrama have become the norm DW7 provides a nice contrast. Like the previous games of the series, it depends on understated dramatics that gradually build an emotional investment rather than shocking the player at every turn. The melancholy tone of the various episodes offers refreshing unpredictability. Although the overall plot is rudimentary for RPGs, most of the individual stories that make it up along the way are original and involve resolutions that seem both natural and sad. This may not seem like a big deal, but the fact that it dodges clichs with such ease is one of the reasons DW7 works for a game of its length. Its a world worth coming back to since you honestly never know what youll find.
This isnt to say that the game is flawless. Although it practically has no impact on overall quality, I feel it should be pointed out that the few instances where this game uses CG are an embarrassing mistake. I dont think I have seen uglier computer graphics in my life, and it seems puzzling that Enix would bother to keep these sequences when their simple but effective combination of text and sprites was perfectly adequate for all their story-telling needs. Also, the game begins extremely slow, and although I wouldnt call this technically a flaw it does encourage the possibly that players could grow impatient and quit before the strengths of the game have a chance to reveal themselves. I almost did, to be honest.
It may seem strange that I focused on some of the more general elements of the game in this review. I didnt even discuss the class system or weapon/item management, but thats because I think those aspects are self-evident in their balanced design once you get into the game. Because DW7 is so understated in todays overstated RPG market, I feel its true virtue lies in the near perfect balancing of its basic, simple elements. It is an extremely refreshing example of how the abstract nature of traditional RPG conventions are not necessarily outdated, but only become so when they are awkwardly paired newer design elements. By understanding how delicate a balance this is, DW7 achieves elegance. Unlike some of the more ambitious and experimental RPGs of our time, it knows exactly what it wants to be and evenly distributes its classic design concepts so that they form a harmonious whole. It is a comfortable and manageable game playing experiencethe videogame equivalent of a long, dense novel that is best read over a series of weeks and best enjoyed with a cup of hot chocolate in front of the fire every night.