Dragon Quest IV: Of Heaven and Earth

“Heroes’ Quests” is an ongoing diary chronicling my journey through the Dragon Quest series. A murderous scheme emerges in the lands beneath the legendary castle in the sky, Zenithia, and eight strangers must band together to thwart this new threat. Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen was originally released for the Famicom in 1990. This article is based on the Android port of the game.

“The era when RPGs competed over who has the biggest map is already [over]. Today it’s the content that matters: quality over quantity.”

I don’t think anything sums up my experience with Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen quite like this quote from a 1990 interview with series designer Yuji Horii. Up to this point, every new Dragon Quest game I’ve played has grown and stretched to bigger proportions. DQII expanded on DQI in nearly every way, adding more monsters, party members, continents, dungeons, spells, towns, and everything in between. DQIII took it even further, adding a whole new combat system under the hood alongside more content to explore than ever before. How could they possibly continue this pace with the fourth game? “DQIII had around 70 dungeons,” Horii says, “and there was no way we were going to double that with something like 140 dungeons!”

Instead, Dragon Quest IV takes a much different approach and focuses on fleshing out that big world with excellent writing and compelling characters. It introduces a truly likeable cast with goals and aspirations and private reasons for their quests, and presents them in a way that gives everybody an opportunity to shine. The rock-solid gameplay is all here, as it should be after three games’ worth of development experience, but the intricate systems of DQIII have been scaled back in order to complement the storytelling and keep those characters front and center.

It also marks the beginning of the Zenithian Trilogy, three games loosely connected by their setting (a world containing a big ol’ castle in the sky known as Zenithia). DQIV represents more than just a fresh start: it’s a paradigm shift for the series at large, and the first title to deliver the familiar story-driven experience I’ve come to expect from RPGs. I’ve enjoyed each Dragon Quest so far for various reasons, but DQIV quickly catapulted to the top of my list and stayed there throughout its duration. It’s a thoughtful, pleasant, and well-paced game that breezes by in about 30 hours and never overstays its welcome.

In Dragon Quest IV, eight chosen heroes must come together – one of whom is the chosen chosen hero – to unfold, unfurl, and foil a nefarious artifice formulated by a confederacy of ferocious fiends. As the legend goes, one thousand years ago, the Lord of the Underworld, Estark, used the Secret of Evolution to become the ultimate lifeform, but the Zenith Dragon stopped him and sealed him away underground. Centuries have since passed and Estark now stirs, on the verge of being released by a band of unwitting humans. Meanwhile, a demon by the name of Psaro knows that his awakening is nigh. Psaro wants to harness the Secret of Evolution for himself – it would allow him to become the new Master of Monsterkind and wipe away the pithy humans once and for all – but there’s a pesky Hero out there somewhere that he’ll need to deal with first.

The game is divided into five chapters (six if you count the special alternate ending from the remakes, and seven if you’re ornery and count the prologue). The first four chapters each explore the origins of a person or group of people in the Hero’s ka-tet, their karass, their crew, their stable, their inner circle – the Chosen, if you will. It all leads up to Chapter 5, where every path converges and the full scope of the quest presents itself. This structure is such a breath of fresh air after the open-ended and blank-canvas design of Dragon Quest III. Your goals in each chapter are very focused and straight-forward, and all of the Chosen are so likeable that it’s never a drag to see how their tales play out. Everybody’s grappling with real stakes, too, with personal motivations and goals driving their actions. It really brings the team to life in a huge way, and is an unspeakably enormous improvement over DQI and II’s “royal descendants of the legendary hero” or DQIII’s rent-a-party.

Dragon Quest IV spins a lovely little yarn, with just enough depth and emotion to keep things interesting without getting too heavy-handed. It’s impossible to discuss all of the game’s merits without going into some detail about its story and its surprisingly sympathetic villain, so be aware that there are some spoilers below for each chapter. I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum, and the joy of DQIV is more in the way the story is told versus the story itself, but if you want to remain blissfully unaware of it all, skip ahead to the heading titled “Pristine Presentation.” 

Chapters of the Chosen

The prologue introduces us to the Hero, a green-haired teenager nestled away in a remote mountain village. She or he (your choice) lives here with their parents, their best friend Eliza, and several others. They spend their days in training with a master swordsman, yet are never allowed to step out into the valley – it just isn’t safe. The locals hint at a greater purpose for all of this, and a destiny for them to fulfill, but for now, everything is serene and peaceful, and nothing could possibly go wrong.

After this quick introduction, we fold the Hero up and store them away neatly in a drawer for several hours. We’ll come back to them, but first we have to learn about the seven other Chosen heroes who will aid them in their ultimate quest.

First up, we meet Ragnar McRyan, knight of bonnie Burland. Several of Burland’s children have gone missing, and the King has gathered his men to set their skillful hands to the task of finding them and bringing them home safely. Does Ragnar, in his shiny rose armor and magnificent, billowing mustache, look like the type of knight to turn down such a request? Hell no! He’s on the case, and within minutes, our investigation begins.

Ragnar is selfless and noble, brave and stalwart, willing to put his shield in front of any evil that wishes to harm the innocent. After saving the children and learning about a deeper, sinister plot, he takes up the search for the legendary Hero, intent on offering his protection. His section of the game is a cleverly-designed tutorial – like DQIII’s Aliahan or Breath of the Wild’s Great Plateau, the Greater Burland Metropolitan Area is a microcosm of an RPG, with a couple of towns, a couple of dungeons, and a variety of things to do and see and fight. It’s the Dragon Quest I experience distilled down to a few hours, teaching you the ropes if you need it and letting you acclimate to the game’s mechanics.

After finding the missing children of Burland, Ragnar’s chapter is over, but he doesn’t disappear. Throughout chapters 2 through 4, you’ll run into him several times on his search for the Hero. It’s a lot of fun to see where he turns up, meeting him as a stranger but knowing that you’re going to end up as companions when the time comes. This is another way that DQIV makes its characters feel alive: you see them and hear about them through the eyes of others, reminding you that these are real people and not just props.

Next we meet Alena, the Tsarevna of Zamoksva, and honestly, the game could’ve just followed her the whole time and I would’ve given it 10/10. Alena is strong-willed and free spirited but forced to live a boring life of royalty at Zamoksva Castle by her overprotective father, Tsar Stepan. The Castle is no place for Alena, because there are only two things that make her happy: punching, and adventuring. She wishes to be the strongest fighter alive, and she can’t very well accomplish that by sitting around in some fancy-pants palace. She slips away at every opportunity and is eventually followed by her close friend, Kiryl, and her tutor, Borya. Both men know that they have no chance at stopping the Tsarevna from whatever she’s put her mind to, so they decide to join her instead. 

Alena is the best. I love her straightforward and unflappable nature. She reminds me of Ayla from Chrono Trigger – never willing to back down from a challenge, always willing to put up her dukes and slug it out with evil. Whenever she finds somebody in need of help, she springs to action, eager to put her skills to the test. She never loses her resolve or her sense of adventure, and she’s an excellent complement to wise, cautious Borya and timid Kiryl.

Soon, Alena is informed that her father has been rendered mute by a curse, and after curing him, he tells her about a vision he had of the reawakening of Estark, the Lord of the Underworld, and the subsequent destruction of the world. By lifting the curse, she has proven that she is capable of taking care of herself, so he grants her passage to Endor. She’s heard of a grand tournament taking place there, and she’s desperate to compete; what better place to prove that your punches are powerful and your kicks are wicked?

At Endor, she hears about Psaro the Manslayer, the frontrunner in the tournament, a vicious and heartless combatant who insists on fighting every man to the death. This is our first characterization of the game’s antagonist, with plenty more to come in the chapters (and paragraphs!) to follow. Alena’s disgusted by his conduct and intends to teach him a thing or two with her fists. She ultimately earns the right to challenge him in the finals, but he’s nowhere to be found: she wins by forfeit. Sadly, her celebration is short-lived. A messenger tells her to return to Zamoksva immediately, and when she does, she finds it utterly vacant. Something has swept everyone away, or worse, annihilated them. Alena needs to find out what happened, and the trio sets out to investigate.

So far, everything we’ve seen has been pretty standard fantasy hero stuff, but after Alena’s chapter, Dragon Quest IV turns its own formula on its head with Torneko Taloon. Torneko has dreams of being the greatest, as well, but he doesn’t aspire to be a hero, he wants to equip the heroes. He is a merchant, you see; it’s his passion, and he intends to be the very best. Every day, Torneko wakes up, collects a lunch from his loving but restless wife, kisses his son goodbye, and heads off to work at the local weapon shop. His boss is a hardass, berating Torneko for sleeping in and griping when he isn’t around to man the counter. He comes home late at night to his wife and sleeping son, then wakes up and does it all again the next day.

When Torneko’s at work, the game turns into a commerce sim of sorts. Customers come in and offer to sell the weapons they’ve found, and you can choose to buy them for resale or turn them away. Money spent on purchases affects your commission at the end of the day, but if you can find a buyer to pick up one of those expensive Cautery Swords, you’ll make up for it in profit. It isn’t the most detailed or in-depth system, but it’s actually a pretty fun diversion, and it’s possible to bank some good items for later if you’re tenacious about it.

Working for another merchant just isn’t cutting it, though. Torneko wants more, and his wife, Tessie, reminds him every day about their dream to own their own shop. He’s heard tales of a legendary sword, and he knows that its acquisition would make him the most famous merchant in the world. And furthermore, Tessie’s right – he DOES want to own his own store. Motivated and determined, Torneko takes his first steps onto his path of greatness.

The last two members of our party are Maya and Meena, two sisters who perform in the recreational town of Laissez Fayre. Maya is an exotic dancer, reckless and full of energy, always acting on her whims and prone to hedonism. Meena, the younger sister, is a fortune-teller. She is much more soft-spoken, conservative, and rational than her older sister, and she tries her best to keep Maya grounded.

Their occupations are merely a means to an end: the sisters’ true goal is to investigate the murder of their father, Mahabala. Mahabala was a brilliant alchemist and inventor of several key technologies in this world, such as the Night Light and Sphere of Silence. Most recently, his research uncovered the Secret of Evolution, which had been lost with Estark a millennium ago. The sisters suspect that he was killed by his assistant, Balzack, and intend to track him down and gain proof (and closure) once and for all.

As the seven Chosen each barrel toward one another, an evil presence looms near Burland. Psaro has discovered the sleepy mountain village where our Hero has been living and has sent his monsters to burn it to the ground. The townspeople run them off into hiding and impart some cryptic, fleeting advice, as if they have been preparing for this day for a long time but didn’t expect it to come so soon. The Hero is locked away in a storeroom for safekeeping, and then Eliza says goodbye, shapeshifting into their doppelganger and sacrificing herself to the monsters in a desperate bid to buy them some time.

When the smoke has cleared, the Hero emerges to find that the town has been levelled. There’s nowhere to go now but out into the countryside to find the destiny that the people of the valley had been training them for. They head to a nearby kingdom where they encounter Meena and Maya; Meena reads the Hero’s fortune and discovers their true nature, and, seeing that they are destined to be companions, decides to join them. Maya soon follows, as do Torneko, Alena, Borya, and Kiryl. The last man to join the party is Ragnar, whom they meet as he is heroically cleaving his way through some guards in order to square off against one of Psaro’s monstrous lieutenants.

With the eight fated Chosen finally together, the stage is set for our heroes to skewer evil through its black, bilous heart. They’ll need the fabled Zenithian gear to do this, a set of equipment that only the legendary Hero can wield. With it, they’ll be able to ascend to Zenithia in the heavens above, meet the Zenith Dragon face-to-face, learn how to stop Estark, and defeat Psaro once and for all.

A Foe with Feelings

But just who is Psaro the Manslayer? What does he want with the Secret of Evolution? Why’s he all bent out of shape about humans?

So far, the Dragon Quest series has always featured some run-of-the-mill featureless big evil bad guy hell bent on destroying something or other. Much like Dragon Quest IV improves on its fiction with its in-depth portrayal of the protagonists, it also excels in the way it depicts its antagonist.

Psaro is a demon from the underworld of Nadiria. He hates humans and wants them all dead, so that’s cool. He’s mentioned during Ragnar’s chapter, but you’re truly introduced to him once Alena reaches Endor, where his name is whispered in hushed tones through the castle halls. Psaro caused Tsar Stepan to go mute so he wouldn’t wag his tongue about the vision he’d had of Estark’s resurrection. It’s implied that, when he caught wind that Alena had lifted the curse, he fled the tournament for Zamoksva in order to silence Stepan once and for all.

Despite his cruelty, Psaro is actually exceedingly gentle and loving to non-humans. Eventually you’ll find the town of Rosehill, home to elves and dwarves, and none have a single bad word to say about him. They aren’t brainwashed or evil, either – they’re just an oppressed people that genuinely appreciate everything he’s done for them. Rosehill was named for his love, an elf named Rose, whom he rescued from humans that were trying to harvest her ruby tears. He built a tower for her here to keep her safe as he carries out his plan to exterminate the human race. Everybody at Rosehill loves Rose and Psaro, and can’t understand why humans are just so awful.

It’s hard not to feel for Psaro after learning his story. I mean, sure, he’s a demon and all, and yeah, he wants to resurrect the Lord of the Underworld and use the Secret of Evolution to wipe out humanity, but he’s driven by his love for Rose and hatred for the way she’s been treated. His interactions with humans have all been piss-poor, and seeing them abuse her just to steal some ruby tears – which shatter when they come in contact with human hands anyway – has pushed him over the edge. He wants to protect Rose, and help the non-humans thrive. Humanity stands in his way, and that’s a meager price to pay for the safety and happiness of his loved ones.

I love that DQIV takes strides to make its villain sympathetic, and I appreciate that you hear about his exploits several times throughout the story. His actions drive the plot. It really feels good to have an antagonist who is present and active, rather than just a big chaotic-evil jerk sitting on a throne in a moody castle at the end of the game.

That said, I don’t think it does enough along the way to sell Psaro’s point of view. Yes, we hear about his struggles with humans, and there’s a flashback where he saves Rose from some human louts, but I just didn’t see that kind of behavior elsewhere in the game. I don’t recall seeing humans picking on non-humans, or witnessing the kind of corruption that would justify the eradication of the entire populace. That’s not what Dragon Quest games do. These are fairy tales, whimsical and charming, not afraid to touch on dark subjects while keeping the settings light and cheerful. I thought “I feel bad for Psaro,” but not “…because he’s right.” For all of the game’s strengths, I thought this was a missed opportunity.

As your journey nears its conclusion, Rose is found murdered at the hands of humans. Driven insane by her loss and the corruption of the Secret of Evolution, Psaro is consumed by his hate and transforms into a grotesque Estark-like abomination, leading to a thrilling battle that takes place over multiple phases as his body expands and contorts into one badass final boss. It’s a pretty challenging fight, too, and since he gradually gets harder as it progresses, you have to carefully manage your resources in the early stages to be able to survive against the later ones.

Alas, woeful tale or not, Psaro is defeated in the end. Our Chosen heroes save the day, tucking the threat of tumult and terror back into the void. Unfortunately, there’s no real redemption for him in the main story, but every remake since the 2001 PlayStation edition has featured a special sixth chapter which serves as an alternate ending. This time, the party is given the opportunity to revive Rose by way of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. When she is brought face-to-face with the Manslayer, Psaro’s anger and hatred is nullified. He learns that humans alone were not behind her death: they were hired by Aamon, his subordinate. Aamon has been using Psaro’s naive trust of monsters to plot behind his back, hoping that Psaro and the Chosen would destroy each other so he could step in and take control of the Secret of Evolution. With the truth revealed, Psaro reluctantly joins the party and agrees to help them stop Aamon, who takes on his own variation of Estark but with a wretchedly powerful new array of moves.

So, while the execution isn’t perfect, I found Psaro’s role to be among the most interesting aspects of the game. He caps off a marvelous cast that I won’t soon forget. Each new Dragon Quest has given me bigger bites of story, but DQIV made me a whole pie and then filled it with all of the decadent crap I love.

Pristine Presentation

One of Dragon Quest IV’s most effective tools, and one that I honestly haven’t ever seen anywhere else, is its Party Chat feature. Party Chat wasn’t present in the Famicom/NES versions, and it was cut from the English release of DQIV on the Nintendo DS, but it’s been fully localized as of the iOS/Android ports, and it is a treat. Any time you tap the Party Chat button, your teammates will comment on whatever is happening at the moment. This could be somebody’s fear of heights in a tall place, or sympathy for the dying citizens of a plagued village, or just some thoughts on the pervy comments of a lecherous old man you met in passing. There is a ton of party dialogue in this game – I believe about 2/3rds of the overall script – and it does wonders in fleshing out your companions. I found myself checking it after talking to every NPC, just to see what my friends had to say.

I felt that the mobile release in general was very good. Up until now, the forced portrait orientation in each rerelease has felt a little questionable at times, but it makes perfect sense here given the remake’s DS bones. The game is presented with 2D sprites in full 3D environments, with a rotatable camera so you can see behind buildings and obstacles. It took some time to adjust to the style – the wavy, curvy lines of each building remind me of the wobbly polygons of the PlayStation era (which makes sense, because this remake was originally released on the PSX) – but I got used to it and it all ultimately added to the charm.

Mechanically, Dragon Quest IV feels like the perfect marriage of the distinct and predetermined roles of DQII with the robust class development of DQIII. That’s kind of hyperbolic for what boils down to a pretty normal turn-based RPG by modern standards, but everything in DQIV just feels so good. Nothing is clunky or confusing or imbalanced here. The execution is flawless.

Each character plays exactly the role that you’d expect. Sweet, punchy Alena is ferocious and devastating with her claws. Endearing himbo Ragnar swings hard and can soak up the damage in turn. Torneko Taloon is an adequate combatant but is far more valuable in the field, where he offers a wealth of details about the items you pick up throughout your journey. Borya and Kiryl provide excellent support magic, Maya brings furious offensive spells, and Meena offers solid utility from the bench. The Hero, meanwhile, can do a little bit of everything, and the Zenithian set makes them a formidable force on the front line.

Honestly, though, combat is worth noting for the presentation alone. Holy crap is it good. Akira Toriyama’s excellent monster designs absolutely shine thanks to slick animations that bring them to life and send them crashing through your screen. Slimes somersault toward you and then hop back into place. Skeletons bark and roar. The evolving phases of the final boss, mid-combat, are a sight to behold. Each monster manages to have its own vibrant personality, which I guess is fitting of a game so intent on cramming it into every nook and cranny. Commands are brisk and responsive, and battles typically stay tight and short. DQIV also has my favorite battle music yet, a rousing, pulsing theme that I never got tired of hearing. In fact, there are a couple of battle themes used throughout the game, and I enjoyed each in equal measure.

I mentioned in my Dragon Quest III retrospective that the remakes had implemented Tactics, an AI-driven combat automation mechanic. Tactics were actually born here in the Famicom/NES version of DQIV, but interestingly enough, they weren’t optional – once you brought the party together in Chapter 5, you were no longer able to directly control any party members except for the Hero. They put a ton of work into this system, too; concerned about making the AI either too inept or too smart, they programmed every character to “learn” enemy weaknesses and how to exploit them in each fight. This apparently led to some hilariously unintended results, such as Kiryl taking several turns to realize that his instant-kill spell just doesn’t work against bosses, but it was extremely innovative and a heck of a risk. In another 1989 interview, Horii and programmer Koichi Nakamura noted that Tactics were designed to make the Hero into a “General” of sorts, strategizing by commanding his teammates to fight in a certain style. However, each expressed some regrets with the final product, feeling that it didn’t quite live up to their expectations once the system finally came together.

Their hard work can’t be understated, though, because it was enough of a hit to make Tactics into a staple of the series. It’s more than just an interesting design quirk, too: delegating decisions to the AI means each fight is that much snappier and grinding is that much more bearable. The remake refines it even further, bringing the feature to parity with its later incarnations and allowing for manual control of your party members.

Overall, I thought the difficulty in Dragon Quest IV was just right. The AI is as sharp as ever, and I can think of very few instances where I felt that I needed to grind to improve my stats. Bosses and mid-bosses provided a comfortable challenge that never felt insurmountable. There were no grueling gauntlets or unfair spikes: everything fell right into place on a smooth, accessible curve.

I only have one real complaint about the gameplay in DQIV, and it’s more a fault of the game’s episodic nature than anything else. When you start a new chapter, your new party always starts at level 1, and you have access to most of the same equipment and end up fighting most of the same monsters each time. It’s not a huge deal, but some variety would’ve been welcome – by the time I met Maya and Meena in Chapter 4, I was sick of experiencing the beginning of the loop again with the same Walking Sticks and She-Slimes I’d been stepping on for hours. Again, this is a very minor complaint, and one that was eased somewhat by the engaging narrative, but I thought it was worth mentioning.


If it isn’t obvious from the glowing paragraphs above, I adored everything about Dragon Quest IV. I admit to feeling a bit of ennui after finishing DQIII (my first playthrough was not kind to me) and I was a little worried that I would have to force my way through the fourth game, but that fear dissipated almost immediately after starting.

I’ve heard it said that Dragon Quest games are “bedtime stories,” the kind of simple but pleasant fare that you can relax with and enjoy in small chunks. They’re comfort food. This is extremely evident in DQIV. It’s just a breeze the whole way through, a refreshing and uplifting experience that I truly look forward to playing again at some point. It’s surprisingly rare to find games where the characters are all likeable, and this is definitely one of them. 

When I wrap up each of these retrospectives, I ask myself “Can I recommend this game to others?” Dragon Quest IV is the first time that I can unequivocally say “yes.” I don’t have to qualify this one with “if you like old-school RPGs” or “if you’re into job systems” – yes, I wholeheartedly recommend Dragon Quest IV to everybody. Its story is thoroughly enjoyable without ever getting in the way, and characters like Alena, Ragnar, and Torneko have stuck with me long after I said goodbye. The smooth, satisfying combat and delightful presentation wrap a bow around what I feel is easily the best Dragon Quest yet. If you’re interested in the series but haven’t taken the plunge yet, I think this is an excellent place to start.

And so we close the book on the Chapters of the Chosen, leaving our green-haired Hero and their pals to join the annals of history. Their story may be over, but the legacy of Zenithia is just getting started. Many years from now, a baby will be born to King Pankraz and Queen Mada; we’ll share his journey from childhood to parenthood in Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride.

References & further reading

Shmuplations, “Dragon Quest IV – 1989/90 Interview”
Shmuplations, “Dragon Quest IV – 1989 Developer Interview”
Character art source: dragon-quest.org

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