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Dragon Warrior III

Year released: 1991
Company: Enix
Genre: RPG

The second installment of the Dragon Warrior series was, by my account, a disappointment. It was an exercise in disorganization mainly, where the concept involved zig-zagging from one miniscule island to the next. I gave it up in mid-campaign. Dragon Warrior III managed to make a great many improvements to the design and format of the series. It was as if the series was finally getting a hang of itself and understood the paradigms it was using, and is much more polished than its predecessor.

As I write this review, I keep thinking about the NES website maintained by Jason Vincion, in which he gives the game a 98% - the highest score out of any review in his library.1 My previous score for this game was a 79%, and I tried hard to preserve if not improve upon the rating I had once given it, for Jason's benefit. Only problem was, that score was given without a look at the entire game, and now that I've finished it I find that this series still has some kinks to work out.

If you're at all familiar with the Dragon Warrior story arc2, you're probably well aware of Erdrick, the figurehead character in the series' plot. The first game involved a descendant of Erdrick thwarting an evil being. The second game was about three further descendants thwarting another villain. This time around, the main character who leads the party is none other than Erdrick himself (although he doesn't receive that name until the end), and even he has footsteps to follow, being the son of an oft-referenced man known as Ortega. I really enjoyed this plot, I gotta say. Not just because the story is carried full circle, but it's executed brilliantly. The Non-Player Characters, for example, have more personality to them, and their dialogue isn't as strained as it once was. Also, the game has two foes - one who the hero sets out to destroy at the beginning, and another who comes along when the first is defeated. While not a plot twist per se, it's enough of a surprise to be intriguing. Granted, the introduction of the new nemesis could've been a little more spectacular, but I won't fault the game for that.

What I will fault the game for, however, is the anachronistic Dark World, which is essentially the kingdom of Alefgard from DW1. Why a society would revert from a casual vocabulary to the King's English is unknown to me. Even the King of Alefgard talks like he's the manager at a fast food restaurant and not the divine ruler of the land. Also, while I like the parallels made between this game and the original, such as seeing the eventual founder of Garinham as a child or meeting up with someone who wants to devise a guardian for Cantlin. Only problem is, there seems to be too many of this kind of thing going on at once. One or two of these little hints at the future would've been nice, but not as many as we got.

As far as the visuals are concerned, I'm finally getting used to the drawing style implemented in this game. And while the terrain still looks stampy, it doesn't seem to clash as much as it once did. The land doesn't look as if the programmers randomly sprinkled deserts and swamps and forests and hills around the land anymore. Perhaps this is because the first kingdom looks suspiciously like Earth, albeit with one extra continent. Also worthy of praise is the job done on conveying the passage of time. There are eight distinct tints for the land as day becomes night and vice versa, and the coloration is quite nice. There does tend to be some flicker, however, when five characters line up along the same horizontal row at the same time, and I have to dock a point for that.

The music has also undergone the same kind of improvements as the graphics. Hark, is that percussion I hear during the battle music? For once, the one theme the player has to hear several thousand times a campaign actually has a rhythm to it! Now, I might be going soft on the Audio rating for this very reason, but this is the first Dragon Warrior game whose music doesn't force me to strap on my headphones and listen to a CD in its stead. The other music isn't too bad either; having played the fourth chapter in the series as well, I can tell where the themes have evolved from DW2 and where they're evolving into what they'll become in DW4.

Play Control is not a gigantic factor in the playing of an RPG. That being said, the control scheme to Dragon Warrior still has some problems. For one thing, opening doors is still a major pain. They once had a "DOOR" command in the first game, but now you have to go to "ITEM", select the character with the appropriate key, select the key, and then select "USE". That's still five keypresses against two. I also have some issues to take up regarding the battle scenes. Rather than being able to pick the actual foe I want to attack, I can only select the group of enemies, and the computer randomly chooses the ultimate target. While the game does tend to maximize the amount of damage the party inflicts, I have to question some of its choices, such as going after the one baddie that's been put to sleep while its three cohorts are still awake and hence able to retaliate.

My only real concern about this game lies with its Experience levels. From the get go, your main character gains levels at a noticeably slower rate than any of his companions. Eventually he catches up, but I would imagine most of us doing what I did to rectify the situation - create more characters for the hero to go level-hunting in. Unfortunately, these new players can overtake the hero, and you'll need to create a third party before the main character is level with his first string. And three parties equals 11 people to buy equipment for. A little more than halfway into the game, the rate at which the others gain levels will tail off, but at that point the game starts tugging on the leash. At level 28, the party hits the Chrono-Trigger-esque wall3, when the next challenge takes a substantially higher level than the one before it. By then, level building takes a long time to occur, and doesn't really get better. One little note about the battles, though - this is one game where I use spells a lot more aggressively than I do in most other RPGs. I like the fact that you can't just rely on brute force to win battles.

As one might assume from what I've said above, slogging your way from level to level can be a grind. To the game's benefit, though, it's really fun to play if you're at the appropriate level for the cave you're exploring. Many of the battles are quite frustrating, but it's a good frustration, the kind of frustration you get from a rival who's really challenging you to excel. The dungeons themselves have enough extra features to keep you interested; for instance, a couple dungeons prohibit any spells - on either side - from working. The Castle of Baramos manages to be involving without sprawling out to the degree as the Dragonlord's Castle in DW1. I can take or leave the Monster Rings, though. I don't think I played those things more than 2 or 3 times during my game.

But in the end, though, it's the lulls that occur in the midst of bulding levels that might serve to be the game's downfall. I had essentially given up this game along with its prequel as a result of the sluggish accruement of experience. To the game's credit, I did eventually return - about two years later. The game just seems to run out of momentum midway through. You'll get a second wind when you reach Alefgard, as you explore familiar surroundings, but even that doesn't really carry a player through to the end. If you have a Game Genie to accelerate the growth, the delays will become much shorter and the game becomes much more playable, but as it stands this game really doesn't have the staying power that it could've had.

To put it succinctly, the Dragon Warrior series found itself in the third installment. What it found, though, was that there is still some room for improvement.

1. Although none of his reviews have ever been lower than a 70%. C'mon, Jason, you're going to have to unload a stinker eventually.

2. Read: If you aren't Willyman. Twice he's been on Who Wants to be a Wizard, and twice he crashed on a DW question. Perhaps he should use some of the 33,000 rupies he's won on the show to buy a copy.

3. True, this game predates Chrono Trigger, but that game was the first game which had that kind of effect, hence the namesake.

Overall Ratings:

Play Control:
Technical Score: 14
Challenge: (Hard)
Thrill: (Boring)
Aesthetic Score: 18
Overall Score: 76%