The kingdom of Moonbrooke is at hand: Released in 1990 by a little publisher known as Enix back then, Dragon Warrior II continues stately in the footsteps of its original predecessor, expanding the established canon storyline while introducing a few new gameplay wrinkles in an otherwise familiar-looking atmosphere.
Hargon the evil wizard has besieged the fair castle Moonbrooke, setting it aflame and defeating its noble king. The princess of Moonbrooke has managed to hide in safety, while one guard was able to escape and make it to Midenhall in warning. Once at Midenhall, the king hears the ill news, knowing that this warlock will soon rule the entire world if he remains unopposed. Who, then, to repel the forces of darkness but his own heir, the protagonist prince, descendant of the hero from the first game? Into this role steps the player, ready to begin an arduous quest.
Dragon Warrior II is a true old-school JRPG, representing early mechanical and visual influences from the role-playing game era of yesteryear. The player will travel along tile-based graphics from town to town, through the wild countryside and into caves, climbing towers and descending into dungeons. Along the way, the prince will gain experience points through turn-based battles, increasing the statistical representations of his strength and agility, while also utilizing stronger and stronger equipment and items as the gameplay progresses.
These sorts of RPG are among the most divisive types of gaming. They never reach a fast pace, nor require any sort of honed reaction time or twitchy reflexes, and rely on the gradual unfolding of a grand-scale plot. While some may be turned off by this, those who enjoy it can count on several dozen hours of fun.
DGII is no exception, presenting the same engine as the first title, with a few notable differences in gameplay. Firstly, the player can now use stairs automatically; that is, without having to select a menu option for Stairs, unlike in the ancestor title. Also, whereas the first had only a single character, eventually II will give the player three characters in the traveling, battling, adventuring party.
While having multiple characters in a party seems rather standard for RPGs now, back then it was an interesting dichotomy, providing a chance for comparison to the first game. And, honestly, the comparison is not entirely positive or revolutionary: Boiled down to its basic elements, while the variety of character types is nice to play with, it also means more enemies at a time, more menus to navigate, more choices to make, and less focus on developing one over-arching protagonist. From playing the first game to the second, this development is not quite as strikingly awesome as one may think, leading at least one reviewer to wonder whether more JRPGs should have tinkered with a single-protagonist format.
In fact, the biggest difference between I and II may be the world size. Dragon Warrior II hands the player a setting that feels large enough, but at a certain point in the game (and maybe this is a minor spoiler?), a boat mechanic is introduced. Suddenly, the player can sail the open seas, and disembark at any point of land, and explore tiny islands or set foot on entire new continents for the first time. This is an eye-opening bit of open-worldness, almost intimidatingly wonderful in its scope, especially for the time, even if titles like Final Fantasy were already accustomed to similar strokes.
Ultimately, this serves as a foreboding precurso to Dragon Warrior II's biggest strength and weakness, the double-edged sword of using improvement as ambition. If you never played the original Dragon Warrior, then you enter Dragon Warrior II and discover a very solid, immersing, if somewhat dragging-at-times RPG. If you played the original Dragon Warrior first, then play the sequel, you will likely leave with a similar impression – any salute to its advancements is balanced by noticing the lazy corners cut in its production, like reusing many of the same background music tracks.
Not that the music is bad. In fact, the Dragon Warrior series overall has some of the best, most engrossing tunes on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. They may not be the sort of tracks you drop into a bass-heavy dubstep remix, but for their value in fitting the scene utterly, with compositional skill and panache, one can hardly top them. But, again: Many bits are recycled, notably.
The presentational legacy continues in the lovely pixel visuals. The enemy designs are great, stretching creativity into the bounds where creatures such as the Magic Baboon can be found. While the static-screen, unmoving-characters mode of battle may raise some eyebrows, one benefit is that the enemy designs can have more than three colors, unlike most sprites for NES titles, where movement demands their palette be so limited. The dragons look nasty, the slimes look fondly familiar, and some of the otherwordly undead look downright scary. The tile backgrounds look fine, too.
Many consider Dragon Warrior II to be the weak link of the original 8-bit span for the franchise. This is understandable, given its middling, never-quite-reaching nature. A couple intriguing twists aside, the plot is a little generic when put under examination. Arguably, the addition of multiple characters to control means very little when those characters cannot be picked from a range of varying choices. They will be the same on every playthrough.
At least the playthrough is solid. Enix may not have knocked Dragon Warrior II out of the park with the mightiest blast they could muster; but on its own merits, the Sequel is still good. Genre fans will like it for sticking close to the standard. Newcomers can appreciate the dripping pace that new complications arise. Quirks like the lottery, Echo Flute, and humorous Middle English add nice touches. The looks and sounds can hardly be knocked. The result is a worthy place in the series legend, even if endless grinding and item-fetching
Overall Rating: 4/5 Stars