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Review by tankMage (April 2019)
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
Dragon Warrior II attempted to build on the foundation set by the first game and did so with a very modest amount of success. This sequel certainly bigger than its predecessor, but it also makes a lot of mistakes that could have been avoided. In fact, Dragon Warrior II encapsulates everything I don’t like about the series, particularly the boring dungeons and rather enigmatic flow of events that constantly had me wandering around in search of the next goal. On the other hand, this installment in the series had three heroes, each with their own abilities and felt more open ended than its forerunner, which made it slightly more entertaining. There were also a few challenging sections of the adventure that RPG veterans may enjoy if they aren’t afraid of Insta-Death spells.
One of the cool things about Dragon Warrior II is that it’s a direct sequel to the first title and there’s some degree of continuity between the two games. A few generations have passed since the events of Dragon Warrior and the descendants of Erdrick have spread across the realm. Things were hunkydory for quite some time until the evil sorcerer, Hargon, attacks the kingdom of Moonbrooke. A lone soldier escapes the devastation of Moonbrooke and warns the neighboring realm of Midenhall of impending doom. The main hero’s father, who happens to be king of Midenhall, gives his son some money and a sword, then sends him out to defeat Hargon.
The plot to Dragon Warrior II is about as simplistic as it gets and there’s not much more to say about it. The motivations of Hargon are even more obscure than those of the Dragon Lord from the first game, who at least could check off revenge as one of his driving motives. You won’t learn much about the heroes either, aside from the fact that they are direct descendants of the legendary Erdrick. Common NPCs seem to play a much greater role in telling the story than the heroes or main villain as players will visit towns on the verge of panic and townsfolk provide the vast majority of the exposition in this game. The only thing that I found really interesting about the story was meeting characters connected to places from the original game and seeing how things had changed.
By 1990, NES games were starting to look about as good as they ever would, but Dragon Quest II does not reflect this. To be fair, this title had originally been released in 1987 over in Japan and North America got a slightly more polished version. Chunsoft also addressed some of the graphical issues that plagued the first game. For starters, there is a greater variety of monsters and some creatures that would become staples of the series, like Babbles, make their first or second appearance here. Some of the buildings even have a roof, which is something that was conspicuously absent in the first game. There are also three playable characters, each with their own sprite. And that’s about it.
The battle engine was just as boring as that of the original, there are no magic effects or weapon effects outside of flashing screens and flickering enemies. Even worse, the first Dragon Warrior at least had backgrounds for the battle screen, which was overlayed on the map screen. Dragon Warrior II’s battle screen is just a black abyss with enemies hovering in it. This may not be so bad if you really like to use your imagination, but if that’s the case you may as well play a text based RPG.
Many of the sprites were likely taken from the original game, which is a double edged sword. On one hand, it lends the game world a sense of consistency as the player will see familiar enemies and NPCs. On the other, it comes off as lazy, especially for a game that had the benefit of two years worth of technological advancement over its predecessor. Chunsoft would have been wise to at least touch the old sprites up a bit or redesign them, which would have left a better impression. As with most RPGs from this era, you can expect to see a few palette swapped enemies, which is fine, but they went overboard with recycling sprites and even some of the final bosses are just touched up palette swaps.
The old menu system that was passable for the first game does not work for this one. The menus are a mess of drop boxes and commands that the player must micromanage in order to do simple things like swap items between characters or view status screens. Three also a feeling that I can only describe as resistance when moving on the map, which is both a good and bad thing. You have to hold the D-Pad button down for a moment to get your party to take a step, which can save you from accidentally stepping off a ledge or into a poisonous swamp, but it also makes moving around a bit painful.
Music and Sound
While I liked the vast majority of the game’s soundtrack, from the now iconic opening theme to the overworld melody, I hated the battle music. The intention seemed to be to make a song that added a sense of urgency to combat, but the end result was an annoying mess of beeps. Dragon Warrior II uses the exact same sound effects as its predecessor, which I rather liked, since effects like the spell casting sound are cool.
The actual gameplay is where Dragon Warrior II succeeds for the most part, but it’s really just a very standard RPG. Of course, my opinion comes from a context where dozens of games have copied Dragon Warrior’s formula, so it’s important to understand that there was still some degree of novelty to this title when it came out in Japan in 1987. At any rate, everything is a bigger and better take on the first game in the series. Unfortunately, rather than carefully introducing new ideas and reworking existing mechanics, Chunsoft just threw more stuff into the mix. They also removed the light mechanic, which was one of my favorite features of the first Dragon Warrior. Even so, they managed to make a product that is more compelling than the original, so keep this in mind as I proceed to nitpick at all of DWII’s foibles.
This game has players doing normal RPG things, like exploring the world, fighting random battles, and solving mysteries. The addition of two more playable characters is a nice improvement to this very basic system, especially since they have their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Prince of Midenhall is a powerful fighter, but lacks magical abilities, while his two companions are more geared to spell casting. You’ll also find a ship relatively early in the adventure, which will open up the entire game for exploration. Chunsoft added more equipment, including things like helms and magical weapons that can be used to cast spells, which helped make combat slightly more entertaining. Enemies also drop items in this game and I have to give the developers credit for this, because even my favorite NES RPG, Final Fantasy, didn’t have this basic feature.
While a lot of the ideas from the first game were built upon in DW2, there really wasn’t much innovation and it plays like an ambitious ROM hack of Dragon Warrior. There’s more monsters to fight, characters, items, and a bigger world, but it’s all running on the same framework. Magic spells are still very simplistic, with names like Stopspell, though there were a few new magical effects, like instant death, that spiced things up a bit. The battle system remained the same, except that multiple enemies can attack the party. Players will also have to rely on rather cryptic hints and luck to find many of the things they need to progress, though this time around I had trouble imagining how Chunsoft expected players to find certain items, because they were so well hidden.
Dungeons in this game are fairly dull, which I felt was a step backwards. An element of danger was still present thanks to high experience requirements that made power leveling nigh impossible, but the things that made the old Dragon Warrior dungeons fun are nowhere to be found in this game. The light mechanic (one of my favorite aspects of DW1) was done away with, which was a lost opportunity in my opinion. They also decided to put a lot of what I call “Staircase Mazes” in the dungeons, which basically means the dungeons have several staircases on each floor and you have to guess or deduce which set of steps will take you where you want to go. Staircase Mazes are a rather cheap way to build a labyrinth and their prevalence in this game did not endear it to me. There were also a lot of useless treasures in the dungeons, like weapons that your party has already grown out of, but some of the treasures were really good, so players have to waste time opening boxes full of trash or risk missing something important unless they are using a walkthrough.
Combat was ok, though it had problems. Enemies are split into groups that the player can target. I found this feature annoying and unnecessary, because there was no way to control which enemy in the group your character would hit unless it was a spell that damaged entire groups. Your heroes also attack dead enemies, often wasting turns. All this took some of the fun out of combat, especially since you have to spend hour upon hour grinding just to level up a few times. Later on, the monsters start casting insta-death spells on your heroes and can wipe your party in a turn. I’m not sure if this was a very good way to add challenge to the game, because there’s no surefire way to defend against it. The few bosses were also rather lame and tended to cast the aforementioned insta-death spells, though the last boss was kind of cool since he would try to out heal the party. All in all, I appreciated the challenge, but they could have found better ways to make combat more stimulating.
I was always rather curious about this game, having played DW1 and 3. Sadly, I wasn’t missing much and I can see why this game is the unloved middle child of the NES series. It lacks the complexity of the third game and fails to capture the spirit of the original. Still, it did advance the series and introduce ideas that would be refined in subsequent titles. I also thoroughly enjoyed visiting locations from Dragon Warrior and seeing how they changed. It’s rather ironic that this series was copied by so many other developers that the real deal feels derivative, but as they say “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.”.
Dragon Warrior II is more for people who really love the franchise than RPG fans in general and even then I would not place it high on my list of priority titles.