“Heroes’ Quests” is an ongoing diary chronicling my journey through the Dragon Quest series. We travel now to Aliahan, hometown of the mighty hero Ortega, to take up our father’s mantle and defeat the rising Archfiend. Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation was originally released for the Famicom in 1988. This article is based on the Android and Nintendo Switch ports of the game.
When I started playing through the Dragon Quest series a few months ago, I was only aware of its legacy in broad strokes. I knew that the games were ubiquitous in Japan, and I knew the original had done most of the heavy lifting in introducing the RPG genre to consoles. When I set out to write about the series for this blog, I wanted to find out just what it was that made these games so venerated, so enduring.
Now, three games in, I’m beginning to understand the true breadth of its impact. Dragon Quest didn’t just launch the genre, it nurtured it. It carved out a little recess in the budding role-playing homunculus and then delicately planted a beating heart within. Nowhere is this influence more apparent than in Dragon Quest III, a game that birthed several genre tropes and yet still feels fresh and exciting thirty years later.
The team at Chunsoft learned a lot from the rushed development of Dragon Quest II, and they knew they could do better. In a 1989 interview, programmer Koichi Nakamura noted that “Dragon Quest II ended up receiving favorable reviews from everyone, but from our perspective as the creators, we felt like we were only able to accomplish about half of what we had wanted to do.” They had barreled through development (remember, it was released just 7 months after the first game!) and didn’t even have time to playtest the second half of the game, let alone implement any adjustments or additional content.
Thanks to the wild success of the first two games, publisher Enix was willing to grant the team some additional time to polish Dragon Quest III to a shine. The overall development window was nearly doubled. Many elements of the game were expanded, from the party to the puzzles to the size of the world map. What didn’t work was changed – designer Yuji Horii noted that nearly 70% of the dungeons were revised from their first draft. They even playtested it from start to finish!
In the end, Chunsoft’s hard work paid off. Dragon Quest III sold over one million copies on its first day. The demand was so ravenous (and reports of truant workers and schoolchildren so plentiful) that Enix famously made the decision to launch all future Dragon Quest titles exclusively on weekends. Horii was exceptionally proud of their efforts and considered DQIII to be a perfect game, and for good reason: this is where the series truly comes into its own and sets the stage for all others to follow.
Seeking the Six Spheres
Dragon Quest III starts off by breaking the fourth wall with an opening sequence reminiscent of Ultima IV. Standing atop a precipice overlooking a waterfall, a mysterious voice asks you, the player, for your real name and birthday, along with a handful of questions about your personality and habits. Afterward, you find yourself in one of several different scenarios, each with a variety of paths designed to see how you would respond in that situation. You might be exploring a dungeon, or standing in line to leap off of a tower, or reborn as a demon attacking an unsuspecting town. When you complete the scenario, the voice returns to assign your starting personality based on your actions and answers. The dream melts away…
Hero! Wake up. It’s your sixteenth birthday! Yes yes, happy birthday and all, but it’s time to go see the King. You’re fated for greatness, and as the child of the legendary hero Ortega, how could we expect anything but? Come, hold mother’s hand now, we’re off to conscript you to your half-assed destiny.
Have you heard of Baramos? The Demon Lord? The Archfiend? No? That’s no surprise to the King – few people have. The citizens of your home kingdom of Aliahan don’t know that anything is amiss, but a foul evil is indeed afoot, and there will soon be no hope for us unless somebody steps up and does something about it. And, well, ever since your father fell into a volcano, we’re woefully lacking in heroes. Interested? Of course you are.
The King ponies up a paltry purse and a pocketful of provisions, then promptly points you to Patty’s Party Planning Place, a quaint little guild with a wide network of adventurers that would be delighted to join you on your quest. There are three party members waiting for you by default, and you can also talk to an agent to create custom teammates by specifying their names, genders, stats, and classes. I stuck with the defaults for my first time through (because it seemed like a fine, traditional, well-rounded party) but you’re free to experiment to your heart’s content.
Once your team has been assembled, you’re ready to take this quest on the road. Aliahan occupies a little island which acts as your self-contained tutorial region, complete with a dungeon and a town and plenty of low-level monsters to beat up. Before long, you’ll cross the ocean to the kingdom of Romaria and beyond, and that’s when your journey truly begins. Dragon Quest III is structured very similarly to DQII. It gives you a reasonable amount of freedom for a while, ushering you back and forth on foot towards various goals, and then finally lets you loose to explore the world at large.
And what a world it is! The promising seeds sown in the last game have blossomed into a richly-realized realm packed with characters, side stories, and charm. Every region feels unique and faces its own challenges. In one kingdom, the people are so far up their own asses that they won’t even let filthy commoners like you past their gates. In another, the king has gone mad and is terrorizing the townspeople under his tyrannical thumb. Yet another is built as you play, changing over time and eventually growing into a thriving metropolis. Each person you meet has something interesting or important to say, and there are little plot threads everywhere that bring the setting to life. There is even a day/night cycle in the game, and some towns are drastically different in the evening. There’s a definite sense of place here that I didn’t feel in the other games. I came to remember each town by its story and inhabitants, rather than just its layout.
I wish I could say the same about your flimsy, faceless, blank-slate companions. Your crew in Dragon Quest II didn’t have much personality, but at least they had identities, and they would chime in from time to time in conversation. Your party members in DQIII, on the other hand, are aggressively featureless. I can think of maybe two or three times that they ever have something to say, and even then their dialogue is strictly utilitarian. They are replaceable and interchangeable, a group of bored mercenaries rounded up at a tavern to toddle along behind some sixteen-year-old dork with a sword. I’ve never cared for freeform parties in RPGs, and in a world so full of life and personality, they stick out like a sore thumb.
The only other complaint I have is something that I don’t think will be going away any time soon, so I’d better just suck it up and get it out of the way now. The world map was designed to be an approximation of an actual map of the Earth, and as an added bonus, the dialects in many cities reflect English speech pattern stereotypes of their real-life counterparts. I hate this. I hate this very much, and not just in Dragon Quest – I think games and fantasy in general struggle with in-universe representations of real-world cultures. At best they were fine, for the most part they made me roll my eyes, and at their worst the broken English caricatures felt awkward and uncomfortable. I know this will continue into later DQ games and I’m not particularly happy about it.
But those two things weren’t enough to sour me even a little bit on the world, because everything else? Exceptional. A small hamlet frozen by a curse. A village inspired by Japanese culture living in fear of Orochi, a multi-headed dragon that demands a steady stream of maiden sacrifices. An eccentric king who relentlessly chases his every whim. A missing son. A recurring hoodlum. These are the kinds of things that set DQIII apart from its predecessors. There are so many memorable moments throughout and it was a lot of fun to watch them unfold.
This carefully-designed world is once again yours to (mostly) explore and discover at your own pace. I wasn’t kidding when I said that Dragon Quest III shares a similar structure to DQII, right down to the non-linear open-ended collect-a-thon. You start out on a pretty straightforward path, eventually open up access to the rest of the map, and then it’s time to start hunting down some Goddamn macguffins. The five sigils of DQII have manifested here as six magic orbs, and you’re going to need to travel everywhere and talk to everyone to have a chance at finding them.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing! I enjoyed the non-linearity of Dragon Quest II and this was no different. There’s even an added wrinkle in that your world map is covered by a “fog of war” so you can’t necessarily see what’s on the horizon before you venture there yourself. I love the thrill of pressing onward into dangerous territory, knowing you’re low on resources but hoping you’ll find that next town before you collapse. I also felt that DQIII did a better job at guiding you toward the orbs, and the fact that there are interesting sights around every corner made exploration fun and interesting.
If you’re not into that brand of wanderlust, though, I can see where it would be a frustrating experience. Dragon Quest III comes from a time when difficulty was used as a tool to lengthen a game, and players were expected to spend a lot of time on their own, figuring out where to go next. That said, I thought it was still a very accessible game, and I never felt that it was being unfair with its expectations. For the most part, the orb locations are pretty clearly telegraphed. There was only one that I had trouble finding, and that was because I hadn’t properly triggered the scene I needed to continue.
The Seeds of Salvation
Once you collect the orbs, the stage is set for the final act, which in my opinion is the best part yet. Dragon Quests I and II were pretty simple affairs plot-wise – bare skeletons designed to keep the action moving. Dragon Quest III, on the other hand, features some honest-to-God surprises toward the end, and while the statute of limitations is probably over on spoilers for a thirty-year-old game, I don’t want to risk ruining anything for those who read this but still intend to see it through. As such, I will wrap the rest of this section in spoiler tags.
Alefgard – the setting of Dragon Quest I – is roughly the same size and shape as it was before, giving you an entirely new world map to explore. It’s not very large and you still have access to your ship, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. In any other game, the final boss bait-and-switch might have felt a little exasperating, but I love DQI so much that I never once resented this development. It reminded me of the inverted castle at the end of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night: you know where you are, but everything has been changed, and it’s a pleasure to revisit a familiar place under strange new circumstances.
Now, Alefgard had appeared in a condensed form in Dragon Quest II as a small region of the map, so I had hoped to see it at some point in the third game. After all, I knew this was the last game in the “Erdrick Trilogy,” so I assumed my hero was just another descendent of Erdrick, taking on the torches passed down by the heroes of Tantegel and Midenhall before him. I’d even renamed my warrior “Kain,” in reference to my Prince of Cannock from DQII, and decided in my head-canon that he was the Prince’s direct descendant. Despite all my previous efforts, something had clearly gone wrong since my last trip to this world and now it was doomed to eternal darkness.
But something wasn’t right. Where I expected to find Galenholm, the city named for its founding bard Galen, I simply saw… Galen’s home. Cantlin, nestled among mighty mountains and guarded by a fierce golem, was just a budding settlement surrounded by some unimpressive hills. The Swamp Cave, an underground passage between continents and lair of the ferocious green dragon guarding Princess Gwaelin in DQI, was still under construction. Beneath Tantegel Castle, in the room where I once collected the Sunstone, I instead met a man who said “Hm? What say’st thou? The Sunstone? Alas, no such treasure is to be found here, friend.” As I roamed around this dark and forsaken Alefgard, it began to dawn on me that I wasn’t seeing its future at all. Instead, I was witnessing its birth.
You soon learn that the only way to reach Zoma’s lair is to collect three more relics, and they just happen to be the same ancient treasures of the legendary Erdrick from the first game, only… well, they don’t belong to Erdrick here. And, sure enough, when you eventually take down Zoma and finish your quest, the King bestows upon you the title of “Erdrick,” meaning Dragon Quest III was a damned prequel all along.
It may not seem like much, but this little twist made me so giddy. I’m grateful that I’d been able to remain largely spoiler-free going into the game. In hindsight, I do recall reading years ago that DQIII is a prequel, and I had caught wind that Alefgard was in the game somewhere, but I wasn’t expecting the pieces to come together the way they did. That slow revelation, that dawning realization, and the opportunity to go back and see a world I know so well from a brand new perspective – I grinned like a fool as I revisited each continent in the world of darkness. It was a really clever way to wrap up the trilogy and tie everything together.
The first two games laid a strong foundation, but Dragon Quest III is the first time that I felt invested in more than just the setting. I found myself getting drawn into its fiction. I wanted to know more about Ortega’s mysterious disappearance and get to the bottoms of the problems plaguing the people I met. This is exactly the kind of gradual improvement I was looking forward to experiencing when I started this series. It’s so cool to see these concepts evolve over time.
Dragon Quest III improved on more than just the story elements, though. The combat mechanics have also been given an overhaul, finally allowing players more than just one path through their party’s development. These new systems are a large part of why DQIII is considered a masterpiece, and while they weren’t all my cup of tea, I can absolutely appreciate their significance nonetheless.
Wherein I Whine About Waging War
For the most part, if you’ve played a Dragon Quest game (or honestly literally any JRPG), you know what to expect from the core mechanics in DQIII. Encounters are entirely menu-driven and turn-based, with your party planning its moves in advance before trading blows with your foes. The third game introduces a major wrinkle, however: not only does it add a fourth member to your party, but each person also has a unique vocation, making this one of the earliest (or perhaps even the first?) examples of a job system in a JRPG.
The protagonist is the sole character with the “Hero” class, and she or he (you can choose between the two) is locked to a single progression that can’t be changed. The rest of your party members will take on the role of either a warrior, martial artist, mage, priest, merchant, thief, or gadabout, with an eighth vocation – the sage – reserved for characters that have met special requirements. Warriors are tanky stalwarts, slow and steady soldiers at arms. Martial artists are fast and strong, but are strictly limited in terms of equipment and best left unarmed, making them heavily reliant on pure stats instead of weapons. Mages have strong magical abilities and access to a bevy of powerful offensive spells. Priests are similar to mages but instead offer healing and support, and also carry some utility in combat. Merchants are an odd class: they increase the gold you earn from monsters and are able to appraise and describe items, but are subpar combatants. Thieves are an addition to later versions of DQIII that can use new weapons that hit groups of enemies and also have a chance at stealing items after battle. Gadabouts are lazy, useless things, prone to disobeying commands and generally content with taking up space on your roster. However, they are also the only class that doesn’t require a special item to later upgrade into a sage, a powerful caster capable of slinging both defensive and offensive spells.
These vocations lay the groundwork for what is easily the most sophisticated and complex engine yet in a Dragon Quest game. The developers weren’t content with simply introducing a class system, you see, so they busted it wide open by way of Alltrades Abbey, a mid-game locale wherein you can change a character’s vocation while still keeping remnants of their existing job. Think of it like multi-classing in D&D, or Transmigration/Reincarnation in Disgaea. Once a character reaches level 20, they are eligible to switch to any other vocation, returning to level 1 but keeping all of the spells they’ve learned along with half of their current stats.
If you like to min-max or theory-craft, DQIII is the game for you. This is the type of system that was built to be mastered and abused, the kind of thing that somebody with a lot of time and a knack for experimentation can break wide open. Convert your warrior to a martial artist to take advantage of her unshakable defense while giving her devastating speed and critical attacks. Upgrade your priest to a warrior, unlocking a thunderous cleric who can both hurt and heal. Searches on various forums reveal players with party members on their third and fourth vocations, absolute units with devastating strength and a cadre of powerful spells to back them up.
Personalities are another way to fine-tune your team and guide their stat growth for maximum value. These were not part of the original release but have shown up in every version since. Every character is assigned a personality, such as “Contrarian,” “Princess,” or “Socialite,” that determines how their stats evolve over time. Equipment can temporarily modify a personality, and there are books that can change it permanently. If you know what you’re trying to build toward, and have a grasp of what each personality does, you can exploit them to inject a lot of extra efficiency into your characters’ growth.
If this all sounds firmly like your thing, then great – you’re going to love Dragon Quest III. It represents an incredible shift in complexity: the power to fully customize nearly every aspect of your team, accomplished merely two games after the singular and mostly static progression system of DQI. It’s definitely an achievement and worthy of all the praise it gets. But… that being said, it didn’t entirely click with me. The impact of these systems isn’t very clearly conveyed, and as a result, I didn’t feel like I was able to make informed decisions without consulting a forum or guide.
Let’s start with personalities. It’s hard to fault DQIII for its implementation of personalities because they were added in future releases, but they feel like an afterthought. Nothing in-game explains or attempts to explain what each personality actually does. Furthermore, the books that teach them don’t even tell you which personality they teach – you have to glean that from titles such as “The Girl’s Own Annual” (Tomboy) or “Look, No Pants!” (Clown). The only way that I can tell to truly take advantage of personalities is to look it all up online (and good luck with that – with several versions of the game floating around, it can be tough to find specifics that pertain to the translation you’re playing). Luckily, they are not that impactful, and if your goal is to simply complete the game, you can ignore personalities entirely and you’ll be just fine.
I had similar issues with the vocation system, though I am fully aware that a large part of that is due to my personal preferences, my disinterest in min-maxing, and my aversion to grinding. Changing a character’s vocation is a very risky move. Let’s say you’re converting your priest to a melee class. Their priest path ends immediately – they will never earn more max MP, nor will they learn any additional priest spells beyond what they already know. On top of that, though they keep half of their stats, they are sent back to level 1. Dragon Quest III can be a very difficult game, and having a low-level character in your party is a real liability. That means that you’re going to have to do some grinding to take these useless babies back up to fighting form.
Much like the personality system, there is little available in-game as far as documentation to support all of these big decisions you’re about to make when you want to change a vocation. The only way to learn, aside from some quality research time on the Internet, is to play around with it and experiment to find the best results. Of course, nothing is stopping you from looking up class progressions online to see when the ideal time will be for you to cut off your current class and move on to the next. While you’re at it, you can even research which personality will best suit your new career. Again, if that’s your thing, fantastic – this is a deep, robust system that will definitely be satisfying if it appeals to you. Unfortunately, that’s just not what I’m looking for in an RPG. I didn’t intend on sinking dozens of hours into this game to experiment with builds, and even if I wasn’t being stubborn about online research, I just don’t have the patience to map out the ideal class progression for each of my characters.
Luckily, personalities and vocation reassignment are optional features, and neither is necessary to see the game to its conclusion. It’s there if you want it, and it’s all but required if you want to tackle the challenging post-game super bosses and reap their best rewards, but in theory you can safely ignore it all and still finish your quest. As I played for the first time, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing everything wrong. As I mentioned earlier, Dragon Quest III can be very difficult at times. I struggled early on with some tough breaks, and ate my share of party wipes. I kept wondering if I was supposed to be investing more time into personalities, or if I’d just chosen the wrong classes from the start. I thought I had a pretty balanced composition – hero, warrior, priest, and mage – but I had a lot of trouble surviving in the wild. By the time I fought the final boss, I still felt so underpowered that I ended up reclassing my team to a martial artist and two sages, then spending several hours grinding them back up to a respectable level. (It turns out that I was just approaching that fight all wrong, but that’s another story.) It was all very draining, and I was honestly relieved when I finally wrapped it up and could move on.
I’ve since replayed a good chunk of the game using a different party composition (hero, martial artist, thief, priest), and I’ve had a far easier time of it. Is that because I picked stronger classes, know more about the game, or have just had better luck? Maybe the Switch edition is easier than the mobile ports? Who’s to say, but I thought it was worth mentioning that your mileage may vary.
Monsters, Mini Medals, and Micro-Management
Though tactics wouldn’t technically show up until Dragon Quest IV, the modern versions of DQIII have implemented it anyway, and I wholly approve of this decision. Tactics are a precursor of sorts to Final Fantasy XII’s Gambit system which allow you to assign loose commands to your party members so they act intelligently and autonomously. You can tell your teammates to “show no mercy,” “fight wisely,” “watch my back,” “don’t use magic,” “focus on healing,” or “follow orders,” which gives you manual control over their actions. In other RPGs, I’ve never liked to use “auto-attack” functionality, but it’s really well-implemented in Dragon Quest. Sometimes I wish there was a little more discretion on the part of my spellcasters (“It only has a couple hit points left! Don’t ‘Whack’ it, just punch it for chrissakes!”), but it makes combat so painless, and anything that alleviates some of the grind is hard to ignore.
They also prove the importance of status effects. To somebody raised on Final Fantasy, where the only targets worthy of special spells are bosses who are immune to them anyway, Dragon Quest represents a real shift in philosophy. Here, spells that debuff your opponent aren’t just effective against most enemies – they’re encouraged. This isn’t particularly new, since DQII did things the same way, but letting the AI take advantage of their full arsenal of spells can be eye-opening. Oomph makes your physical attacks stronger, and Sap drops an enemy’s defense against physical attacks. Acceleratle raises your agility and improves the odds that you’ll act first in a round. Fizzle prevents spellcasting. Dazzle lowers accuracy.
Yeah, none of this is groundbreaking, but the key here is that the use of these spells is actually meaningful. In some of the more challenging encounters, the wise application of status effects is the sole difference between victory and defeat. If Final Fantasy’s four-digit damage output is the Home Run Derby, focusing on flashy expressions of power, then Dragon Quest’s emphasis on moment-to-moment decisions is small ball, solid fundamental combos chained together to ultimately outmaneuver your opponent.
Those opponents are another high point of Dragon Quest III, though at this point that probably shouldn’t be a surprise. I was a little disappointed with the roster that DQII presented and felt that DQIII was a real return to form. There are a few familiar faces, but for the most part the slate has been wiped clean and replaced with delightful new baddies with signature punny names, like the Bunicorn, Rottenweiler, Stark Raven, and Drac the Vlad. The importance of Akira Toriyama’s illustrations can’t be overstated given how much they add to the experience. The enemies have even been redrawn in high definition for the Switch version; I think the added clarity actually enhances the already-excellent designs, though you could also argue that the move away from pixel art detracts from some of the charm.
Another innovation cribbed from DQIV for the mobile and Switch versions is the inclusion of mini medals. Mini medals are the optional collectibles of Dragon Quest, the Golden Skulltulas, the Red Jewels, the Figments. My understanding is that the mini medals here replace the Treasures N’ Trapdoors (Pachisi) minigame from the Super Famicom and Game Boy Color versions of DQIII, though neither were in the Famicom original. Essentially, you’ll find mini medals everywhere: in pots, on the ground, in treasure chests, etc. You can take them to a certain character to trade for items and equipment, and some of the most powerful equipment is only available by way of mini medal rewards. Finding and trading mini medals is completely optional, though if you’re doing your fair share of exploring, you’ll probably come across a good chunk of the medals naturally. I shamelessly admit to looking up a guide to find a handful of them at the end of the game, because I was exasperated by exploration and wanted to kit my martial artist with the best weapon I could.
I can see why people love Dragon Quest III. There’s a wealth of depth to the underlying system that the first two games simply didn’t come close to. And when I think about the fact that this is an NES-era RPG (some updates notwithstanding), it’s even more impressive. There is a rock-solid, well-balanced engine beneath the hood of this classic, and there’s absolutely an audience for its brand of experimentation and freeform party planning, even if it didn’t really appeal to me. That’s no surprise, really, because I’ve never cared for job systems no matter what game they’re in. I guess I’d just rather my party members have traditional, pre-defined roles. On subsequent playthroughs, planning the right party from the beginning and knowing what to expect, I think I’d enjoy it more.
So even though I had some frustrating experiences with Dragon Quest III, I agree that, overall, this is a masterpiece among early role-playing games. Its setting and writing do a lot of heavy lifting to outweigh some of my struggles with its mechanics. Add in the quality-of-life improvements that come standard with the modern re-releases and you have a classic console RPG that is still extremely playable today.
Historically, Dragon Quest III couldn’t be more relevant. In a lot of ways, this feels like the true beginning of Dragon Quest as we know it today. It has a stronger emphasis on story and setting and exudes a cheerful, adventurous character throughout. The vocations introduced here are core to its DNA even to this day; I know later entries will revisit the job system and I’m a little nervous about that, but I’m still excited to see where it all goes.
If all of this sounds like your kind of thing, then Dragon Quest III is well worth your time. You’ll have a greater appreciation for some of the later stuff if you’ve played the first game, but it stands just fine on its own as well. If you’re like me and aren’t really fond of job systems, I think I can still recommend it, but maybe with a little more caution. It kept me entertained throughout thanks to a well-crafted world and some fun plot beats. Guides will definitely be your friend, but just be prepared to wade through some conflicting language across the various localizations.
So concludes Dragon Quest III, and with it, the Erdrick Trilogy. The first game created the template; the second game expanded on it; and the third game refined it. In just two years, the console role-playing game, at least in Japan, went from “relative unknown” to “cultural phenomenon,” and that is due in no small part to Dragon Quest. That’s a hell of an achievement.
But Chunsoft didn’t rest on its laurels. The series continued to evolve, and our next stop brings us closer to the comfortable, narrative-driven approach that I have come to associate with JRPGs. Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen is the last game from the 8-bit era, and I will again be playing the mobile port, which is an implementation of the Nintendo DS remake released in 2008. Dragon Quest IV begins the Zenithian Trilogy and leans heavier into storytelling than ever before. Eight chosen heroes will need to convene from across the world to prevent the resurrection of the Lord of the Underworld and the subsequent destruction of all humankind. Can they do the thing? A flying city, a punchy Tsarevna, a sympathetic villain, and Torneko Taloon await!
References & further reading
Shmuplations, “Dragon Quest III – 1989 Interview”
YouTube, “The History of RPGs Ep. 7 | Dragon Quest III (Dragon Warrior III) Analysis (1988)” by Mr. Gentleman
Wikipedia, “Dragon Quest III”
Box art source: dragon-quest.org