Square Enix keeps pushing out mobile titles packed with free-to-play mechanics but rarely seems to hit the nail on the head. Here in the west we’ve seen only a limited few based on the Dragon Quest series, but to the east they have already seen a slew, and with two more promising titles on the horizon (a Tactics RPG and a Geo Quest title to compete with ‘Fire Emblem Heroes’ and ‘Pokemon Go’ respectively), is Dragon Quest of the Stars worth playing?
For those who need a quick refresher, Dragon Quest is the granddaddy of all modern JRPGs and kicked off a revolution for RPGs on consoles that’s never really slowed down since its initial release. Like other banner franchises, it’s been spun into mobile games and sub-series over the years, and maintains a powerful presence in the gaming world, particularly in Japan where the series mascot character (a Slime) is immediately recognisable. Square Enix ported all of the early entries (and DQVIII) to mobile as premium purchases quite successfully and seems to be porting these wholesale to the Nintendo Switch at the moment, refocussing their efforts onto mobile original titles with a freemium edge.
Graphically the game seems to use the character models from Dragon Quest IX from the DS, which gives a relatively nice look to the 3D elements on screen but does suffer from some rough edges as a result. The characters and their environments never really fill the whole of the screen, and textures are not as high a resolution as they could be, giving this new game an already dated feel at times. This is a shame because the new elements built for this title exclusively are of a very high quality. Character portraits are wonderful 2D illustrations in the style of Akira Toriyama, and 3D screens such as the world map pulls in and out from great distances seamlessly, giving a great impression of the scale of the land available to explore. There is an over-abundance of buttons on screen at most times that serve to crop the play screen down significantly to a smaller scale, and whist they are large enough to easily tap with a thumb, they can be quite imposing on the experience.
Dragon Quest of the Stars does a great job of maintaining the musical style of the series and incorporates several musical beats and themes from the main-line games whilst providing just enough by way of new content to fill out the gaps and give the game its own identity. It’s a generically ‘Dragon Quest’ soundscape, that relishes the re-use of series staple sound effects and whilst in other games this re-use would be a mark against it, here it brings a familiarity and warmth that the series is known for. It’s immensely satisfying to hear the post-battle victory fanfare and opening a loot-chest feels great.
You start the game having washed up on the shore of a strange island with no memory, accompanied by two siblings (1 male, 1 female) who have been similarly affected with amnesia. Encountering a talking squirrel by the name of Cryil (and his pet Slime) you’re brought back to the local town where it’s established that the residents of the island are waiting for the next Questocrat. After some exploring, a book possessed by the spirit of Gaius, the first Questocrat is discovered (and it turns out you’re his descendant!) and the presence of an over-arching villain (the Dark Lord of the Skies) threatening the whole world begins to be felt. It’s softly integrated and whilst characters talk a lot before and after dungeons, usually nothing of any real value is said to forward the narrative. This is very much a game in the freemium style of setting up a premise that can run indefinitely, rather than having a fixed beginning, middle and end. Without this narrative structure to keep you invested, you will slowly find yourself skipping over dialogue sequences in sub-quests and with NPCs in town because it ultimately doesn’t amount to anything but padding and serves little to flesh out the lore or world.
Gameplay is where the title begins to show a few cracks and will be make or break for some players. The game is essentially a largely automated walking simulator with the player picking the path or dungeon floor the party will explore, kitting them out with equipment from a MASSIVE list of available options that can be found as loot or (for higher levels) drawn from gattcha-style chests, then sitting back and watching the game play out. Combat is turn based and the characters will attack automatically, but triggering special moves means waiting for their timers to fill and tapping the screen at the right moment, it’s a very passive experience. Equipment around levels 1-3 is largly useless, and though items drop at a very frequent rate, much of it isn’t very useful. Drawing a free daily chest and saving up enough premium currency to draw more is the name of the game here, and this gives access to higher quality equipment you’ll need to use, along with some grinding to level your characters for brute strength, in order to progress. The game makes use of a passport system (think premium monthly membership) that unlocks a ‘turbo’ fast forward and autobattle mechanic alongside other perks, both of which feel completely unnecessary given that most of combat is automated anyway and the game has a standard fast-play option. Outside of travel and combat the player can search to worldmap for ‘sparkles’, which provide free items, crafting using the lower level ones, and equipping or levelling gear. It’s very much a focus on getting ready for the next excursion and as the difficulty curve begins to climb that becomes an important factor. Subquests are available that add new locations to maps and pay out in items or gold, but this just repeats the core game loop without the benefits of adding to the story. Maps are available however, that act as reward sheets for beating daily/weekly/monthly challenges. There is a mild social element on show with a guest character that can be added to the party of 3, strengthening them with a class style you lack and adding power, but it’s not really a means through which players can interact.
There’s a little too much focus on automisation and pushing the player to purchase either a passport or more premium currency. Without a suitably gripping story to sink into or a meaty battle system, it’s easy to get bored and simply not return to the game. Ultimately, we’ll be waiting to check out the next two proposed mobile titles in the series instead of continuing to play this one.