Traditionally speaking, role-playing games adhere to a strict format when it comes to representing the personal progression of the player character. You start as a wet-behind-the-ears individual who becomes more adept as the journey moves forward. Yet this life-changing alteration is rarely shown visually; it's only when you inspect your character's statistics that you get any tangible sense of development.
While Dragon Quest: Hand of the Heavenly Bride is old school enough to subscribe to this customary stat-based malarkey, it also affords a far more obvious sense of evolution. The game starts with the birth of your character (The Hero, although you get to name him), before moving on through his adolescence and eventually onto adulthood, where he's given the opportunity to start a family of his own.
Throughout these 20-odd years, you'll do your fair share of travelling, confront ungodly enemies and learn the truth behind your shadowy birthright (thankfully you're spared chronic acne and raging hormones during the teenage portion of your hero's life). All things considered, it's a pretty ripping yarn, covering family ties, kidnap, sacrifice, and time travel.
Indeed, Hand of the Heavenly Bride is a game that’s already celebrated in its native Japan for its exemplary storytelling - you see, just like recent hits such as Final Fantasy IV and Dragon Quest: Chapters of the Chosen, this is actually a remake rather than a fully-fledged sequel to one of the most popular Japanese games ever - that will have to wait until the much-hyped Dragon Quest IX eventually sees the light of day.
Originally released on the Super Nintendo (or SNES to you and me) in 1992, Dragon Quest V set a new high watermark for emotive storytelling and quite rightly remains revered amongst RPG aficionados. Amazingly, this DS outing as Hand of the Heavenly Bride marks the first time that the game has made it to western shores in any form other than unofficial fan-translated ROM hacks.
Although the plot is different for the massive period of time it spans, the actual setting and theme will be instantly familiar to anyone who has previously experienced this kind of caper. Set in a fantasy world packed with rolling hills, imposing fortresses and dark, sinister dungeons, Hand of the Heavenly Bride ticks all the pre-determined boxes as far as your typical Japanese RPG is concerned.
The adventure can be divided neatly into two sections: traversing the landscape, visiting towns and chatting with the locals is one aspect. The other involves trudging through various castles and dungeons engaging in turn-based combat, which not only furthers the story but also allows your character and his band of followers to boost their stats via experience points and new objects such as weaponry and other status-affecting items.
In common with the vast majority of Japanese role-players, battle situations arise randomly without warning and are strictly turn-based affairs, with the player and computer-controlled enemies politely taking turns to bash the seven shades out of each other.
The battle engine doesn't really contain any surprises but is relatively streamlined and this prevents the player from getting too cheesed off with the inevitable interruptions that are commonplace in such experience point grinding.
However, dealing out punishment to the nefarious monsters that populate the game's often savage world isn't the only pastime available to the player - many foes will be so overawed by your physical and tactical prowess that they will cease hostilities and offer their own services to your party.
The concept of recruiting various monsters to your team has since become something of a series hallmark for Dragon Quest. In Hand of the Heavenly Bride it's possible to convince practically every monster you encounter to join your cause and experimenting with different party line-ups is startlingly addictive. Also, you'll find that it's impossible not to feel a warm sense of achievement when you realise that the lowly enemy you signed up several hours ago has been transformed into suitably imposing killing machine.
Visually, Hand of the Heavenly Bride is a feast for the eyes. Taking inspiration from the previous Dragon Quest IV remake Chapters of the Chosen, it features a full 3D environment that spans both screens of the DS and can be rotated at will using the L and R shoulder buttons. Not only does this allow you to appreciate the gorgeous locations, it also serves a practical purpose; some doors and items are only visible when you spin the viewpoint through 180 degrees.
Despite this three dimensional trickery, the developers of the game clearly retain an undying love for 2D visuals as well. All of the characters and enemies are represented as flat, hand-drawn 2D sprites, but instead of sticking out like sore thumbs when overlaid on the sumptuous 3D game world, the denizens of Hand of the Heavenly Bride exude bags of charm. Indeed, when faced with a battle situation you'll be privy to some of the smoothest 2D animation yet seen on the DS.
The DS is fast becoming the RPG fan's platform of choice (it even threatens to dwarf the impressive reputation of its illustrious predecessor the Super Nintendo in this regard) and Dragon Quest: Hand of the Heavenly Bride is yet another excellent title to add to the already imposing ranks.
While it contains a few antiquated elements that betray its 17-year-old lineage, the core gameplay and immaculate storytelling effortlessly smooth over these superficial cracks. It's been a while, but this is well worth the wait.