Telling a single story from multiple perspectives is hardly an original narrative device. Books have been doing it for years, while the fact that it has become something of a trend in Hollywood in recent years shouldn't disguise the fact that film-makers like Robert Altman were using the technique decades ago.
And yet such smarty-pants narrative jiggery-pokery is still enough to have us punters oohing and ahhing with bewildered pleasure, like a caveman coming across a swanky Gaggia coffee maker. The reason is quite simple: we all like cleverly-constructed stuff, particularly when it makes us feel clever for enjoying it. It's this very same multi-faceted appeal that will draw you into Dragon Quest: The Chapters of the Chosen and past its extremely traditional RPG game mechanics.
The game sets out with a brief prologue, introducing you to a generic fantasy-RPG hero (whom you get to name) living in a typically verdant fantasy land. Wisely, the game moves on after mere minutes of play and switches its focus to another area of the world, placing you in control of the proud Royal Knight, Ragnar McRyan. Without wasting too much time you're set off on a mission to discover why the citizens of Burland are misplacing their children.
It's in this first chapter that you're introduced to the basics of moving about the world map and entering villages, castles and caves, engaging in conversations and buying equipment. The basic pace of walking around is pleasingly zippy, contributing to the sense of swift progression and momentum that the game so expertly creates.
It's also at this point that you're eased into the battle system, which is both turn-based (eek) and random (gulp). For those of you unfamiliar with the workings of your average role-playing game, randomly occurring battles that require you to take it in turns to attack your enemies (chess-style) are often seen as a bad thing, because they invariably become irritating and repetitive. Not so here.
Craftily circumventing rather than changing the standard RPG formula, Square Enix has kept the battles extremely slick and brief, without the laborious animations and labyrinthine menus of many other traditional Japanese RPGs. Levelling up - the process of improving your character's skills - is swift and rewarding, with new spells and abilities opening up constantly. While the system is neither particularly deep nor massively compelling (and the frequency of the battles is ever so slightly irksome) it's enjoyable and, most importantly, unobtrusive.
Back to the story and you'll no sooner have made a discovery in the case of the missing children and opened up a series of wider reaching questions when chapter one ends and you move onto chapter two, which concerns a precocious young princess. On you go for another couple of hours of entertaining adventuring and another sinister plot development before you're whisked off to yet another part of the game world for the start of chapter three.
In fact it's not until chapter five - some 10-12 hours in - that the game starts in earnest, as you resume the tale of your self-named hero. But you'll find something has changed since your underwhelming prologue meeting. This clichéd everyman (or woman) has somehow transformed into a mythical champion with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Your experiences over the preceding chapters - a snippet of incidental dialogue in here, a found text-book there - have partially fleshed out your reason for being, and you'll be desperate to fill in the blanks, and to reacquaint yourself with the characters you have come to know and love from this new perspective.
And it's character that stands as Dragon Quest's other outstanding achievement. Though fairly crudely drawn (this is a revamp of an 18-year-old game after all) the artistry with which the world and its characters have been rendered is outstanding. From the wide range of brilliantly expressive bad guys to the loveably wonky villages and varied terrain, you'll come to love spending time in this world. It's also received a welcome 3D make-over since the 8-bit original, meaning that you can rotate the camera with the shoulder buttons to get a better perspective on things.
This level of care and attention to character is displayed in the script, too, which is full of good-natured humour and plenty of chucklesome moments. Don't let the cutesy fantasy setting fool you: this English translation has been written with a sophisticated modern audience in mind. There's a layer of humour operating at a level far removed from fairytale castles and damsels in distress.
It's refreshing too to see a game incorporate regional European accents and inflections into the dialogue as opposed to the usual North Americanisms. It adds so much more flavour and personality to proceedings to enter a region and find the inhabitants speaking in a Scottish or an Irish accent, or to come across an ostensibly evil demon speaking in an exaggerated French-English drawl. Of course, it's only rendered through text, but it's so well written that you'll hear the voices loud and clear in your head. Previous Dragon Quest releases have been praised for this side of things, so it's wonderful to see the good work continuing here.
Dragon Quest: The Chapters of the Chosen is a very intelligently constructed experience. At its heart it's as traditional as they come, and a bullet-point summary of the game's core features shows it up to be a mechanically unambitious and derivative gaming experience. What is in no way common is the way in which it sucks you in and holds your attention during the crucial early stages by repeatedly cutting away to a new set of lovingly-created characters long before you've grown bored of the last lot.
By the time you hit the business end of Dragon Quest: The Chapters of the Chosen even those of you who are sick to death of traditional RPGs will be well and truly hooked on a sprawling adventure with a well written script and a likeable ensemble cast. It's a twist you're not likely to have seen coming. Very clever indeed.
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