It’s unfortunate that Dragon Quest didn’t become the phenomenon in the U.S. that it was in Japan, because as a result, we never got the 16-bit masterpiece that is Dragon Quest V. Like its predecessor, DQ5 changes up the story formula from the first few games in the series, while retaining the core gameplay. Indeed, despite being on a 16-bit system, the game plays almost identically to the NES versions, albeit with more colorful graphics.
The most fundamental gameplay change in DQ5 is that you can now recruit monsters into your party. Monsters join randomly and rarely, so unless you’re willing to do a whole lot of grinding to get the ones you want, you’re likely going to end up with a different party makeup each time you play the game. Not even your human characters exactly follow the traditional Dragon Quest classes, so you’ll find yourself mixing and matching party members and making a lot of tactical use of the wagon, returning from the previous game. For some reason, the party size has been reduced to three again, but if anything it makes combat tactics a bit more compelling.
I suspect the reason monsters were added to the party in this game is because the plot is far more linear than in previous Dragon Quest games, and you often have one or even no human companions. The monsters therefore guarantee that you have a full party available regardless of where you are story-wise. And the story greatly benefits from this decision, as well as the move to streamline the quest. There is no section in the middle where you have to explore the world and collect a half-dozen doodads or widgets this time. The fat has been trimmed from the story, and that’s a good thing.
The game is arranged into three distinct parts, taking place over multiple generations. You’ll adventure with your father as a young child, all the way until you bring your own children on an adventure. The way the narrative plays out is touching and extremely well done, resulting in one of my favorite RPG stories of all time. Any more than that would venture into spoiler territory, so suffice it to say this game will hit you emotionally.
Other than the great story and fun monster recruiting mechanic, this is very much a Dragon Quest game (and that’s a good thing!). The usual assortment of awesome items and traditional monsters are all here, with plenty of new stuff thrown in as well. The game even has some direct ties to Dragon Quest IV, though not to nearly the degree the first three games were related. Due to the linear nature of the game, there are a few less dungeons than usual, though they are no less fun. The game’s difficulty starts off higher than you’d expect, but for most of the game it’s actually quite easy by Dragon Quest standards. (The monsters you end up with can, of course, affect the difficulty as well.) The traditional end-game difficulty spike is done quite well, resulting in a final set of dungeons that are no pushover but never feel unfair, either.
The problem with games like Dragon Quest V is that explaining why they are good would undermine that very quality. If you like Dragon Quest gameplay and have a heart, though, you will probably love this game. That said, don’t feel obligated to play the original. While the DS/mobile version doesn’t feel as much like the NES games, it retains the great story and adds a bunch of extracurricular activities, if you’re into that sort of thing.