Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Reverie is the third game in the Zenithia series - and if that means anything to you, you know more about Dragon Quest than I do. This is my first Dragon Quest game, apart from a brief mucking around a field on Dragon Quest IX - yet the wondering round, getting attacked every 12 paces on a quest to lamp some ultimate bad guy and bring peace to the world certainly seems familiar. And while on the surface most role-playing games all sound the same, it's the little details and the stories they tell that help differentiate them all.
Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Reverie begins in the middle of a forest, with the hero (in my case, Sarah) and his companions Carver and Milly around a camp fire. After the hero wakes, they head off to the evil demon Murdaw's castle to do battle with him, but it all back-fires, and they get turned into lifeless lumps of stone... only to find the hero Sarah waking up in bed in Widow's Peak, unable to remember anything before the fight.
The mayor of Widow's Peak then tasks the hero with fetching the crown for the annual Mountain Spirit festival from nearby Haggleton - but once you get there, you find the man responsible for making the crown has headed off into the forest and not come back. So what else can you do but head into the forest and look for him? Eventually, you come to a clearing, where you find Cliff the crownsmith hanging onto a cliff-face for dear life - reaching for him, you manage to pull him to safety, but you fall down into the abyss below instead...
And this is where it gets weird. Having fallen quite a way, you find yourself in an alternate village, where no-one can see or hear you (you're invisibility means your character is a paler version of himself) - although, thankfully, some of them have a tendency to think out loud, and you discover there's a well to the north where people never return from. Hoping in this well sends you back to your world, where the crown-making man is rather pleased to see you, hurriedly sending you on your way, with crown in hand.
Once the Mountain Spirit festival is underway, you get a mysterious vision that tells you you must leave the village and prepare for an incoming disaster, when a greater evil will take over the world. Rather ominous really. The mayor of the town later tells you of the 'Phantom World' you visited, and gives you a pass to Somnia to see the King and inform him of the world's fate. These two parallel worlds - the 'real' and 'phantom' worlds play an integral part in the story, and you'll often find yourself switching between the two, as completing certain tasks in one world directly impacts the other. While it is a novel idea, and does make the story interesting, it can also make things quite confusing.
The two worlds thing is worst when you need to go and visit somewhere - for example, you might find you need to head to Somnia, but seeing as there's two, you're not sure which one, as once you get the Dream Dew and turn visible, it's hard to tell which world you're in - let alone which one you need to go to. And it also doesn't help that the maps are a bit different for each world, as well as being a bit crappy, having no labels on them and just flashing red dots to indicate each 'place', (you can also press Y to zoom in a bit, but it's not much more help) so you'll often head to where you thought Somnia was, only to find it's in a different place in this world - something that could have been avoided by something as simple as adding labels to the map. One plus is that once you learn the spell 'zoom', you can cast it to teleport to any previously visited location, assuming you're in the correct world, anyway.
This not really sure where to go runs through the game, as you'll have more than a few moments where you have no idea what to do next, or where you're supposed to head - with no quest log or anything, it's left to you to try to remember what you did last, or run round talking to every one in sight in the hope someone says something of use. What I did find was useful in this situation was pressing the B button, which lets you talk to your companions, who sometimes give you advice on where to go - although you have to wade through a few useless comments and '…' to get to them.
These are only minor annoyances though, and don't really impact you're enjoyment of the game that much, as you're rarely stuck for too long looking for where to go, providing you talk to enough people. But what does impact the game is the random difficulty spikes from time to time. It's at it's worst right at the beginning of the game - the time when you would think they'd be trying to make it nice and easy so people don't give up. It all stems from the fact that you're all on your lonesome, against groups of 3, 4 or even 5 monsters at a time, who manage to do half your health in damage in one hit - and some of them have an annoying ability that lets them call for backup, increasing the number of enemies you have to fight. Some enemies - mainly the mud-slingers you meet a bit later - know a very annoying move called 'Whack', which will instantly kill anyone (or so it seems), no matter how much health you have. You will die, and it will be often.
Battles are turn-based - you and your enemy take it in turns selecting attack, using items and casting spells in an effort to reduce the other one to zero health. After each successful battle you (and your party members) gain an amount of experience that'll bring you closer to reaching the next level, where your health, attack power, defence and other stats will receive a permanent boost, making you stronger and future fights easier. Which is definitely a good thing, because of the sheer difficulty of some of the enemies, especially early on.
Thankfully, about 2 or 3 hours in (depending on number of deaths), you meet up with the natural fighter, Carver, and you learn the spell heal - splitting the damage over 2 of you, doing twice as much damage and being able to negate some of it with heal really makes a difference. You'll go from dying every other battle to hacking through monsters like nobodies business - and suddenly the game seems a lot more fun.
The next difficulty spike comes about 10 hours in, where you're doing battle with Murdaw in some underground caverns, and he manages to do 30+ damage to every party member in a single hit. The only way round it is to die over and over, gradually levelling up your herd as you trek back to his hideout over and over, until you eventually manage it. Generally, you should use Milly (who should have learnt the stronger healing spell, MidHeal) to heal the worst-hit members every turn, whilst casting Sap every time Murdaw tries to raise his defence with Buff (cast it a few times before too, so his defence is as low as it can go), making him easier to hit with Carver and the Hero (who can double as a healer when needed), and Ashlynn can also spend her time doing all sorts of battle magic too. But be wary, as Murdaw has a nasty habit of changing your parties Tactics, making them act differently in battle - simply hop over to the Tactics section on the menu in battle to switch them back to Follow Orders so you can tell them what to do each turn. This battle is also a
good time as any to make sure you and your party members have best equipment you can find to give them the best chance - weapons like boomerangs will hit everything on the screen and do decent damage, and the various clothes will up your defence - which could mean the difference between beating Murdaw and (yet another) death.
A bit later on in the game, after beating Murdaw, you're informed that Alltrades Abbey has mysteriously re-opened after the fall of Murdaw - here you and your party members specialise specific areas of battle, and gain special abilities and moves as they level up. There's Warrior for those who wish to master weapon-based combat, a Martial Artist for those who prefer hand-to-hand fighting, a Mage who's able to master a wealth of attack magic, a Priest who's adept at casting healing and protective spells and a Thief who prefers to attack with stealth and speed rather than strength. More unusual vocations include Dancer who uses their moves to help allies and confuse enemies, a Merchant who's gifted at amassing funds and has the ability to summon things in battle, a Monster Master who can commune with the monsters and steal their abilities and something called a Gadabout, who spends their time goofing off and not doing a lot, often ignoring your commands on the battlefield, although can be useful at times (so says the description, anyway). You're free to change your vocation at any time, and you won't loose any of the abilities you've amassed either - in fact, a change in your career may open up one of the advanced classes, such as the Armamentalist, who combines a mage's powers and a warrior's attacks to make what sounds like a rather formidable character.
Beneath the random difficulty spikes and sometimes confusing story is a game with a sense of humour - some book shelves hold joke books written by a slime, with such gems as 'What grade did the pirate get on his sea-faring exam? A high sea' and some hold copies of '1001 Jokes For Adventurers' ("What do you call a robber hiding in a suit of armour? A thief in the knight!), as well as books containing "one cat's catalogue of feline fabulousness" , written by a warrior cat born to be a brawler, who suffered one catastrophic defeat. The names of the enemies you face are often groan-inducing too - like a Barksman who's essentially a canine archer, the angry fire-breathing cloud known as a Hell Nino, or the big, blue hard to kill dragon-like Arrghgoyle. And beware when you're smashing pots to find random things - one might just contain an Urnexpected enemy...
Released way back in 1995 on the SNES Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Reverie is from the era when games were hard, and a lack of explanation and knowing what to do was the norm. And while it's not as flashy as the rather popular Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, having no customisable characters (I was stuck as Sarah the blue-haired man because I hadn't realised there'd be no option for a woman until it was too late) and no multiplayer, it doesn't mean it's any less worthy of your time. If you like role-playing games, then you're sure to like Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Reverie - and if you're willing to persevere through the horribly hard parts, you'll find an awesome game with an interesting (if a tad confusing) story to it, as well as more puns than you can shake a Scare Root at. As well as some of the most varied modes of transport and some of the best designed enemies ever - who couldn't like the Slime's happy face?
Format Reviewed: Nintendo DS