Version tested: Wii
If videogame worlds were tourist destinations then Dragon Quest's would surely be among the most visited. The central castle's white marble pillars are plucked from the most imaginative six-year-old girl's princess fantasy. As you stand in front of its gates, looking out upon endless pea-green hills rolling under tireless SEGA-blue skies, the vista is nothing short of idyllic. Even when you venture down through the town and descend into the murk of a nearby dungeon, the air is warm, the monsters chirpy and charming and the ambiance devoid of Dungeons & Dragons' musty fear and danger. This world is Oblivion repainted with Super Mario 64 textures: knights, castles, valour, steel, and loads and loads of ChupaChups.
This warm feeling is helped no end by the world's residents, all of whom speak their funny lines with pantomime grandeur and overblown British accents straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The first boss you encounter, the Brian Blessed-esque Sir Dirk Worthington, seems to have been named precisely so an NPC can chirrup, "You defeated Sir Worthington, warrior of worth, in the worth of worth at the end of the walk of the worthy." It's all very silly and, if you allow yourself to get into the spirit of things, this kooky character elevates an otherwise mediocre game to one that's cute and interesting.
As you will gather from the mouthful of a title, DQ Swords Wii is a spin-off to the mainline Dragon Quest lineage, a series of games that have for decades now stood as Japan's most popular. The result is a peculiar RPG that has its roots in a much older DQ spin-off, the Japanese-only Kenshin Dragon Quest. A TV plug-in game, it was sold with a plastic sword and ran on its own hardware without the need of a console (a bit like those dodgy Atari knock-offs where the ROM-containing controller plugs directly into the TV).
With the advent of the Wii, the idea has been spun out into a fully-fledged adventure played entirely on the Wiimote. Control of your character (who is soon joined on his quest to rescue the queen by three others) is handled with the d-pad. Western players versed in FPS controls will find the control mechanism stifling, though, as you can only move forwards and backwards and have to stop to turn. You can't look up or down either, and there's no strafing - never particularly realistic, but something we've come to expect. Once out of town and on the game's pathways, the game switches to a kind of on-rails experience, movement restricted as the acres of lush greenery about you remain tantalising but out of bounds. After the freedom and wonder of the PlayStation 2's exquisite Dragon Quest 8, these limitations frustrate.
Battles are random but seamlessly play out in situ, with no special battle environment. The cutesy enemy creatures hobble onto screen from behind rocks and bushes nearby and, using the Wiimote, you swipe and carve them into cutesy enemy chunks. Akira Toriyama's designs exude charm and, no matter how feisty an enemy is in its attacks, in fighting back you always feel a bit like you're pulling the heads off small mammals in a petting zoo while watching children cling to their mothers in horror.
Rather than exactly matching your moves with the Wiimote, the game approximates your inputs to a set palette of move animations. So if you generally move the controller through a vertical axis, then the game will produce a perfect vertical slash on the screen. Likewise, a shuddery diagonal motion is translated by the game as a short sharp wipe from top left to bottom right. This abstraction of your inputs makes it harder to suspend your disbelief, but in time you grow accustomed to it and there is some fun to be had blocking attacks with your shield, triggering off counter moves and even timing your strikes to send projectiles back at your enemies.
By default your sword swipes are centred on the screen but, as enemies will run around the environment freely, you'll need to lock onto them with the A button. This realigns your attacks to their position on screen - a passable solution to what must have been a considerable technical headache for Square Enix - and as you battle enemies you fill a gauge, which can be deployed to execute a kind of 'summon' special move. These special moves require QTE-style actions and, if you fail to match the motion correctly within the time limit, the attack is wasted.
If your HP falls to zero during a mission, you're returned to the main town for a cost of half your money, and so it's important to keep applying restorative items (found by pointing and clicking on suspicious objects in the game environments), and directing your companions as they provide magic support from the sidelines. As the menu to select these options is accessed with the '1' button on the Wiimote your hand will often be contorted into uncomfortable positions and, while it's understandable the game doesn't use the nunchuk due to all the swishing about required, it still feels all the poorer for it.
Despite these interactive shortfalls though, the presentation of the game and attention to detail is excellent. Your footsteps ring out from Wiimote's speaker; occasionally you'll catch a glimpse of your character in a mirror and, at all times, the orchestral score brings life and vibrancy to the game world. But make no mistake, this is role-playing lite and, while the narrative and dialogue are fun, the actual plot they paint is thin. Likewise, the character progression is basic, customisation is non-existent and the range of different armour, spells and weaponry on offer to players is paltry. As such it's a game best recommended to non-RPG fans, those who want a short, light adventure that eschews grinding (until the final area at least) and detailed stat-management for bright character and brevity. But even on these terms, the recommendation is at best a very gentle one.
6 / 10