An excellent rebuild of an excellent game.
The Dragon Quest series is an anachronism, harkening back with few exceptions to the early days of console RPGs in its structure and style. That's no surprise, of course, as Dragon Quest helped to establish that structure and style without much of a template to work from. These games don't have real-time battle systems with advanced artificial intelligence to guide non-controlled characters. They don't have the modern storytelling upgrades, with the political intrigue and angst-riddled hero characters that have become synonymous with the genre. And they most certainly don't have the trappings of modern society nor modern warfare. These are classic RPGs for classic RPG players. If you don't fit the profile, you're going to be left cold. And the legions of fans over in Japan wouldn't have it any other way.
If you do fit the profile, however, Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen for the Nintendo DS is exactly what you want to play. The remake of one of the favorite games in the venerable series makes significant upgrades to the viscerals of the game while remaining very faithful to the original NES game.
The first thing that will strike the player upon booting this game up is the upgrade to the graphics. This is definitely not a code-dump. The old one-piece character sprites have been replaced with completely redrawn two-piece sprites which carry far more detail and appeal to the eye. The world map is still a 2D plane of background sprites that perfectly matches the old map, but the towns and dungeons have been completely rebuilt in 3D and they look awesome. Because the DS is not capable of the same kind of excellent 3D detail as the other hardware out there today, developer Arte Piazza chose to build the environments to look a bit rough-hewn and ramshackle, which serves to obscure some of the issues that can crop up when fields are rotated or seen from weird angles. And you will need to see the game at some weird angles, as the 3D buildings can hide important objects such as doors, treasure chests, and even people. Towns generally can be rotated to any angle you choose, but many of the game's dungeons can only be rotated slightly in either direction, helping to keep the direct path through as much of a mystery as it was on the NES game. One curious side effect of the field rotation is the orientation of the sprites. Your nine player characters all have diagonal-facing instances, but party NPCs and citizens are limited to facing the cardinal directions. This is the one part of the graphics design which seems like it was done on the cheap.
The battle graphics remain similar to those of the NES game as well, but they've definitely been enhanced. You can now see the environment behind the enemies, including a light tint to indicate the time of day. But most importantly, the monster sprites are now fully animated, with most of the enemies having at least two "attack" animations and a "magic" animation as well. The old days of the monster flashing and you getting hit are definitely gone, even though your own characters are still unseen in this first-person perspective. Your own attacks are no less impressive, with physical attacks represented by swooshing weapon paths and magic attacks displayed with effects ranging from the smallest fireball to enormous whirlwinds. This is about as much eye candy as you can get without doing a fully-3D battle sequence as you'd find in most modern RPGs, and it looks incredible. The whole game is a visual treat.
And the sound fares just as well, starting with the opening overture recorded by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and continuing all the way through with excellent arranged versions of the old soundtrack. This is what the game would have sounded like if it had been on the SNES or even the Playstation. Sound effects are similarly sweetened up, especially the battle sounds which now represent the attacks and skills being used. In truth, the sound effects aren't really anything special — no surprise for any RPG, where they're often drawn from pools of sound clips and called good. But they're effective at conveying the information they're supposed to, and they definitely don't detract from the experience. As has become standard for Square Enix games on the DS, this game deserves to be heard through headphones. While other developers often have excellent sound creators for their games, Square Enix consistently has some of the best sound work in the business.
The last visceral upgrade is the new translation, which relies heavily on dialect and slang for its flavor. While most of Square Enix's work these days has a very staid, proper form of English that works well but doesn't bring anything special to the work, the translation team chose to bring in Scottish, Irish, French, and Russian forms of English which can sometimes be confusing to the player. I found them to be quite clear and tasty, but I have a BA in English and have spent most of my life reading literary works which rely on dialect. The old translations attempted to use a form of Jacobean English — the kind you see in the works of William Shakespeare, for example — and mostly succeeded, so it seems completely appropriate that the new game would steer away from modern English as well. I don't know if I really have a specific position on this part of it, by the way, but the creators chose to ditch the old spell names in favor of the new terms used in Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Curséd King. I'd have been just as happy if they'd left it alone, but this isn't that big of a deal.
Overall, the work on bringing the production values to a current standard was a rousing success. This game sounds amazing, looks great despite its adherence to some of the old forms, and reads well. Square Enix totally succeeded at this component of the rebuild.
But the Dragon Quest series isn't just about looks and sounds. The gameplay often comes under fire for continuing to adhere to the old style. The creators chose not to make wholesale changes to the battle system this time, instead leaving it largely unchanged from the original work. It's a very easy battle system to use, but because of its use of rudimentary AI when choosing targets within a group, it loses some of the precision of other comparable games. This is a common feature even in Dragon Quest VIII, the latest main-series game, so it would have been more of a surprise if they'd changed this behavior. The strategy component of the battles also remains unchanged. You'll choose physical attacks, magical attacks, healing, and stats manipulation, but that's it. Status effects, a very common part of the Final Fantasy series, are almost completely irrelevant.
One major upgrade, though, is an addition-by-subtraction instance. The original game offered several AI options for the non-Hero characters in the game's fifth chapter, but there was no way to take direct control of those non-Hero characters. Because those AI options were not very intelligent, one of the most requested features for the new game was a tactic known here as "Follow Orders." Now you can take specific control of all nine player characters, ensuring that they won't fall in love with stupid things like casting low-percentage spells. Torneko, the arms merchant, still plays the fool during battle, sometimes doing the most random things when you tell him to attack or defend, but he's a special case. You do still have to let the party NPCs do their own thing, but they're generally intelligent enough to do what's best for the party. Why are these guys so smart when the party characters' system would be best described as "artificial stupidity"? I don't know. Let's just say that I'm really glad for the "Follow Orders" tactic. I've played some games which don't have this option, and there are always a handful of battles which break the AI and play much harder than they should.
It's most important to have "Follow Orders" available during the game's difficult boss battles. Dragon Quest has always placed a premium on stout bosses, and this game definitely follows that rule. While most of the common enemies are about as tough as wet tissue paper, the bosses will supply the game's main challenge. They're always fair, with only a couple of bosses getting multiple attacks per round, but unprepared players will find themselves back at the last town's church, looted of half their gold. This is not the hardest game out there, but caution is always indicated when going through the game's many dungeon levels.
The game's story is a very simple one, that of a powerful Enemy named Psaro the Manslayer who's out to rid the world of Humanity and a Hero who emerges to stop him. It's revealed over the course of five chapters. First, Ragnar McRyan solves the mystery of the missing children. Then Tsarevna Alena and her retainers go out into the world, where they learn of Psaro. Torneko Taloon opens his own weapons shop and sets off to find the world's best weapons. And Meena and Maya attempt to avenge themselves on the bad guy who killed their father. Finally, in Chapter 5, the Hero brings all these people together in the main quest to vanquish Psaro. Though there is a definite order to the game for you to follow, you're almost never compelled to immediately follow the path in that order. Side quests are not exactly plentiful, but they're valuable for the items you can gain and the level-grinding you accomplish. New to the game is a brief prologue featuring the Hero and a sixth chapter with another final boss. Neither of these are truly significant additions, but the game's fun enough that there's no good reason not to take full advantage. The story gets the job done, of course, but it's a very different experience for the player who's used to the modern games with the relatively bombastic storytelling. Dragon Quest games are more about the quest than the story.
The game does make use of some of the DS's features. While on the world map, you can see either a full world map or an area detail on the top screen while your people are on the bottom. In towns and dungeons, you get to see the field across both screens. And in battle, you get to see your characters' status, tactics, and actions on the top screen while the graphical representation of the fight takes place on the bottom. There are no touch screen features, not even to tap commands. (I don't think this is a big deal, considering most of the traditional games Square Enix has brought out on the DS don't really need the touch screen features.) Once you start your own town, you'll be able to engage the DS's wireless transceiver for "mingling." If you come across other DQ4 players, you can trade non-party representatives in your respective towns. I have not found any such players in the area, so I don't know how well this feature works. Obviously, though, it's a very minor bonus feature that most players probably won't even use.
This is definitely the best version of DQ4, but considering the only other version to make it to the States was the original, I think that's to be expected. More importantly, this is simply a great game. It's about 30–40 hours long, depending on how quickly you do your leveling and whether you're compelled to complete the new Chapter 6, and I think I spent maybe three or four of those hours level-grinding — an unusually small amount of time for a game in this series. I had all kinds of fun playing Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen, and I expect that I'll be playing it again.