“Heroes’ Quests” is an ongoing diary chronicling my journey through the Dragon Quest series. The Dragonlord’s reign of terror is over, and our next adventure is Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line, originally released on the Famicom in Japan in 1987.
In May of 1986, Dragon Quest I effectively pioneered the Japanese role-playing game by adapting elements from western computer RPGs and condensing them into a format suitable for the living room. It wasn’t the first to try, but it was the first to truly succeed. A mere eight months later, in January 1987, Yuji Horii and his team returned with Dragon Quest II, a sequel that expanded on the original in nearly every way.
I’ve always been fascinated by the awkward adolescent years of video games, when everything was still so fresh and ripe for discovery. Many early sequels were highly experimental and differed drastically from their debuts. New ideas were being defined, refined, and explored as designers got bolder and developers learned their way around the burgeoning technology. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link took the Legend of Zelda formula, which would go on to become the boilerplate for action RPGs, and literally turned it on its side into a platforming RPG hybrid. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest retained many of the gameplay and design elements from Castlevania but reimagined it as a non-linear adventure with a persistent world, day/night cycle, and permanent character development. Other changes were more subtle: Super C eschewed the over-the-shoulder in-between stages of Contra for new top-down stages. Even Super Mario Bros. 2, the sequel to Nintendo’s flagship title, bore little resemblance to the original in North America. Sure, it was famously just a reskin of another game, Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, but it speaks to how fluid the expectations were that Nintendo felt they could release a sequel that was so different from the game that made them a household name.
Chun Soft wasn’t interested in upending the formula for their sophomore Dragon Quest game, though. In fact, they felt quite the opposite: Horii wanted to build on what they had introduced in DQI and flesh it out to feel more like the CRPGs that he loved. To that effect, every element of Dragon Quest II feels like “the same, but more.” You now have a party of three heroes instead of one, each with their own role in combat. Similarly, you encounter foes in groups now, too, rather than fighting them one at a time. There are more towns, more Kings, more plot points, more dialogue, more dungeons, more methods of traversing the countryside, and more macguffins to collect. I’m hard pressed to think of a single element that it reins in compared to the first game; Dragon Quest II is a sprawling expansion of all the concepts that were introduced by its forebearer.
Between the rushed development cycle, high expectations, and sheer scope of what they wanted to accomplish, it’s a wonder that DQII holds up as well as it does. There are some frustrating difficulty spikes and draconian design philosophies to wrestle with, but ultimately I felt that Dragon Quest II was every bit worthy of its namesake and, quite honestly, just as fun as its predecessor.
Learning to Fly
Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line is the second game in the Erdrick Trilogy, and it picks up one hundred years after the end of the first game. When last we saved the world, Erdrick’s descendant defeated the Dragonlord, married Princess Gwaelin, and set out to explore new lands and settle new kingdoms. Now, the world is threatened by a new supervillain named Hargon, and humanity’s only hope is for their own descendants to band together and triumph over evil once again.
And so you, the Prince of Midenhall, set out to join forces with the Prince of Cannock and the Princess of Moonbrooke. She’ll supply the casting, you’ll provide the slashing, and the Prince will keep you all alive. It’s as good a start as any… except the Prince is also on a quest to find you, and the Princess has been MIA since Hargon destroyed her hometown, so you’ll have to track them both down before you’re ready to begin the mission proper.
When developing the second game, the Dragon Quest team faced an interesting dilemma. DQI’s combat could be tedious and monotonous, and they recognized that its relative simplicity just wouldn’t suffice for the next outing. At the same time, players were still relatively unfamiliar with RPGs, and it was inevitable that many people would be experiencing the series for the first time with Dragon Quest II. They didn’t want to overwhelm new fans by rushing them into complicated systems.
Their solution: introduce the new features gradually, effectively making the opening hours of Dragon Quest II into a refresher course on the first game’s mechanics. Your Prince of Midenhall is a very straightforward warrior, lacking in all of the magical abilities of his ancestor. The enemies you’ll face at first are suitably low-level, of course, but the developers also made a conscious decision to limit the number of monsters you’ll face in the starting region to keep things manageable. By starting players out with a simplified experience, DQII both teaches newcomers the basics and eases veterans into a fresh adventure.
Mashing a Menagerie
Once you’ve found your adventuring legs, you’ll cross paths with the Prince of Cannock, and together you’ll seek out the Princess of Moonbrooke to yank her into your quest as well. This trio forms the party that you’ll be working with for the rest of the game, and while narratively they have as much personality as a Lawful Good brick, they can at least showcase their individuality in combat. Each character has a role that essentially plays like a spiritual predecessor to the “holy trinity” of MMORPGs. As mentioned, your hero Prince is a pure fighter and will never earn even a sniff of a magic point. The Princess of Moonbrooke is your primary offensive spellcaster. She’ll bring the thunder but is mostly useless without her spells. Finally, there’s the Prince of Cannock, your priest/healer archetype. His healing spells are essential, but when he’s not repairing the damage, he’s left to either cast a support spell or muddle his way through combat. It all works well enough, though the Prince of Cannock can feel like dead weight when you don’t need his utility belt and just want to heave out some damage.
Encounters play out much like DQI, only – again – more. You can take on several enemies at once now, even multiple types of enemy in the same encounter. The “group” system that Dragon Quest will utilize forever gets its start here. Typically, while you may be up against Slimes A, B, and C, you can only target “Slime” and your party will attack a member of the group. When I play a turn-based game, I always try to be efficient and avoid as much overkill as possible when planning out my attacks, so I was a little concerned about wasted motion; but here, your party will always dole out the hurt in the most intelligent way possible. If Slime A is near death and Slime B is at full health, your heavy hitter will move on to Slime B and leave the weaker party member to clean up Slime A. I was skeptical at first, but I never once had a noticeable issue with the damage distribution. My understanding is that this was added in the remakes and it is a welcome feature indeed.
There is a host of new enemies waiting for you in this outing, some returning faces such as the drackies, green dragons, and omnipresent slimes, and new series staples such as healslimes and bubble slimes. Sadly, I didn’t find the enemies to be quite as memorable as those from the first game – I thought they were sort of dull and lacking in character, especially compared to larger-than-life designs like the Knights and Skeletons. Still, they offer a good degree of variation and challenge, and the increase in scale from one-on-one combat to skirmishes between three party members and up to eight enemies lends to much more dynamic and interesting encounters. Mechanically, it’s a net gain.
Hunting for Hargon
The story once again follows your standard stop-the-evil-supervillain fair, but this world was crafted with much more depth than the first game. There are some surprises along the way and a fair few little subplots scattered throughout your adventure that give it some personality. Your mates will sometimes participate in conversation with NPCs and even get a story beat or two of their own. Townspeople will frequently mention other characters that you’ll actually meet along your travels. There are also some cute nods to the first game to tie it all together. Unfortunately, Hargon is another faceless ultimate evil, and you don’t interact with him at all until the final battle; it would be nice to have him characterized in some way and given some motivations beyond “bad guy.” You may not be getting a groundbreaking narrative in DQII, but all of the little touches still add up to make a world that feels alive and real anyway, despite its simple 8-bit origins.
After you’ve assembled your posse, the game opens up a little more, and you’re eventually able to explore beyond the starting continent by way of ship. In addition, you soon learn the “Zoom” spell, which originally returned you to the last town you’d visited but has been retooled in modern versions of DQII to act as a fast travel spell to any town you’ve visited. Your ship will even follow you into the nearest body of water. Teleportals exist to sweep you away between points on the map, as well, which is probably the primary mode of cross-country transportation that the game originally intended – though, honestly, I don’t know if I’d have had the patience to muddle through without fast travel.
I realize how spoiled that makes me sound, but traversing the world map can be a real grind. And I don’t just mean that in terms of level grinding: I mean it is tedious as all hell. The encounter rate in DQII is cranked up to a sometimes absurd level. It was not uncommon for me to go through several combat encounters with only a few tiles of movement between each fight. It was especially evident in a later dungeon where I had to navigate a maze of small rooms; I’d sometimes run across 2-3 fights per room, and if I took the wrong door, I was back at the beginning. I tried my best not to abuse the quick save function, but I’ll readily admit to save-scumming my way through times like this, just to avoid wasting time.
Adding to the frustrating encounter rate is the fact that DQII is not always very forthcoming with its objectives. In order to access Hargon’s lair, you will need to find five sigils scattered across the land, similar to the three artifacts from the first game. There’s an item you can use called the Echo Flute which will confirm whether a sigil is nearby, but otherwise your only hope at finding them is to talk to the townspeople and poke around the world. And some of them are definitely easier to find than others – a couple I found by accident. You’ll be bouncing around quite a bit as you look for clues, and while I really enjoy this freedom in theory, it can be discouraging when you’re out of leads and having to stop every five steps to fight a group of monsters. The only way to restore MP in the field is with a rare ring that has a 33% chance of breaking when used, and you don’t gain access to a method of resurrecting a dead party member on your own until late in the game – so you’re frequently returning to the nearest town to patch up the damages before wandering off again in search of whatever you’re supposed to be doing next. Sure, this is standard RPG procedure, but the constant interruptions make it feel far more tedious than usual.
So while it can be frustrating not knowing where to go next, and it took some modern concessions to add mechanics that complement its nonlinear nature, it’s hard to fault Dragon Quest II for how open-ended it is. After all, this is supposed to be a grand journey. I like to press against the boundaries that a game sets around me to see how far they’re willing to let me wander off the beaten path, and Dragon Quest II didn’t give me many boundaries. It left me some suggestions and then let me loose to figure the rest out myself. Sometimes that sucked, but when I did make progress, it felt very rewarding.
Your mileage will vary there though, I guess. As I said, I found a lot of things by accident – not just sigils, but other key items as well. On the other hand, some things, like the aforementioned Echo Flute, didn’t even cross my path until late in the game when I already had most of the sigils. I feel like your enjoyment of DQII will hinge on how much you like to roam around and poke into the unknown corners of a world map. If following a big glowing quest arrow on a compass is more your thing, you’re probably better suited relying on a guide – there were certainly a few points where I needed one.
Your enjoyment will also depend on which version you play, and your patience for the growing pains of a budding genre. I mentioned a few of the quality of life changes that the modern remakes added to Dragon Quest I, and those are all relevant here, too. More important than quick save or the Zoom spell, however, are the balance tweaks. Dragon Quest II was infamously unbalanced when it launched. They were already facing delays, and the developers ran out of time to properly playtest the last portion of the game before release, so they tested each encounter instead using a program that simulated combat against the later enemies. These stand-alone encounters lacked the context of an adventure with fluctuating resources between fights, and as a result, the final portions of the game are absolutely brutal, with super-strong monsters that have access to an instant-kill spell at the tail end of a grueling dungeon. I can only imagine the frustration you’d feel facing a party wipe that is out of your control and having to start again from the nearest town.
Thankfully, Square Enix has had several iterations to set things straight, and each new version of Dragon Quest II balances out the encounters a little better than the last. Despite all I’d heard about the difficulty of this game, I never really felt overwhelmed or underleveled in the Android edition. I did do a little grinding at times (having these games on a mobile device make them excellent candidates for mindless fighting while watching TV, talking on Discord, or exercising) but I wouldn’t say I ever power-leveled or min-maxed. And despite some of that brutal difficulty curve still existing in the last hour or so of the game, the quick save function helped me navigate those spikes without too much frustration. (I even used my own instant-kill spell successfully against a few of the end-game minibosses which I thought was a fun slice of karma.)
From an audio/visual standpoint, my thoughts on DQI still apply here. The graphics are fine, they’re serviceable, but the pseudo-16-bit look comes across as a little generic. I didn’t find the music to be particularly memorable in this entry, either, but it wasn’t bad or offensive by any means. I did like how the overworld music is different depending on which region you’re in – when you return to Alefgard, for example, the song changes to the overworld theme from DQI. That tickled me, as did catching up with the castle-town after 100 years.
Once you defeat Hargon, you’ll get an opportunity to trot across the globe at your leisure, unhindered by monsters, before talking to the King of Midenhall and bringing your journey to a conclusion. Going back and revisiting each city, you’ll get closure on some of the subplots you’ve encountered, along with everybody’s eternal gratitude for saving them from certain doom. I loved this! Dragon Quest I did the same thing, but the deeper story threads and better characterization of each town really made the final victory lap feel good, and certainly far more satisfying than I was expecting.
All in all, I really enjoyed Dragon Quest II. Difficulty quirks aside, the modern version is not too punishing, and there’s a lot to like about the world and its inhabitants. People and places get more room to breathe than in the first game, and there are old and new foes alike waiting for you in the towers and dungeons abroad. I don’t think I’d have the patience to play it on the original hardware, but the option is there if you’re truly old-school and don’t mind wrestling with some dated mechanics. For my tastes, the Android port suited me just fine.
But now that Hargon is in the dirt, the final game in the Erdrick Trilogy awaits. Dragon Quest III comes up a lot when people list their favorite games in the series, and I can see why: it’s packed with more stuff than ever, featuring a much more diverse selection of party classes, a legitimately interesting story with a fun twist, and the longest adventure yet.
It also starts to push toward the frustrating end of non-linearity, and complicates a combat system that I’ve enjoyed so far for its straightforward simplicity. We’ll take a look at how it all shakes out when I return for Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation.