One year made a big difference in the Dragon Quest franchise. Originally released in 1987 (1990 for North America), Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line greatly expands on the formula it introduced only a year before in Dragon Quest. The open-world exploration and turn-based combat remain but the developers’ ambition was much greater. The original Dragon Quest was important and influential for JRPGs but there was so much potential for creating a greater role-playing adventure. Dragon Quest II realizes some of the potential we saw in the original title. Instead of playing as a lone hero, the player eventually assembles a party of three heroes with different abilities. Everything good about the original was multiplied for the sequel, and while the franchise didn’t quite hit its stride with this entry, the progress was undeniable in that this was a vast improvement and showed how much growth potential there still is.
Set 100 years after the descendant of Erdrick restored peace to Alefgard by slaying the Dragonlord, the game begins by introducing a new villain: Hargon. The game begins with the Hargon minions attacking Moonbrook castle and generally mopping the floor with the castle guard. A wounded warrior escaped and makes the trek to Midenhall to inform the king of Hargon’s attack. The king, one of the descendants of Erdick, sends the Prince of Midenhall out into the world to put a stop to Hargon after he recruits his cousins the Prince of Cannock and the Princess of Moonbrook. I guess over the past century the Erdrick DNA gets watered down in each generation, so sending out three cousins that share the legendary lineage is comparable to the hero of the first game.
The three characters fit basic fantasy archetypes. The Prince of Midenhall is the typical tank. He has no magic but he gets all the powerful weapons and armor and serves as the team’s heavy hitter. The Prince of Cannock is the well rounded character, meaning that he is exceptionally great at nothing. He has decent attack power and some good magic spells. The Princess of Moonbrook is a powerful magic user and practically worthless in standard combat. She has the best spells and her magic might is an incredible offensive and defensive asset in battles but her lack of good protective gear and weak physical stature means that she has a high probability of dying a lot.
Dragon Quest II expands on everything in the original. Alefgard was the entire world in the first game which is now a relatively small continent compared to the rest of the game world. The freedom to explore the larger world opens up even further with the addition of a ship, allowing the player to tackle some of the quests later in the game in whatever order they choose. Compared to the original Dragon Quest there’s a much greater amount of quests and they happen to be more challenging and interesting. With the increased world size and exploration also comes increased danger, the variety of enemies is approximately double that of the first game and battles increase in complexity as the player will rarely face off against a solitary opponent. The group battle system opens up the strategic element of combat more than the first game, and while simple compared to contemporary JRPGs, feels less dated than its predecessor.
Dragon Quest II has the staples of modern JRPGs: a vast world to explore, different characters to master, several quests to complete and dozens of monsters to slay. The game advances through a mostly linear quest and story progression though what route the player is supposed to follow isn’t always obvious. Despite this, through exploration it’s not too difficult to figure out where the next objective is located and how to overcome the labyrinthine stairway system in the towers. The feeling of completing a quest after figuring out what progression the game wants the player to take is satisfying. Some areas can still be frustrating, not because of difficult enemies but because of hidden trapdoors or required backtracking, but overall this title strikes a good balance between exploration, direction and challenge.
Compared to the NES version, Dragon Quest II benefits from some notable quality of life improvements. The amount of gold and experience given by enemies has increased while the cost of weapons and armor has decreased slightly. There are still segments of Dragon Quest II where level and equipment grinding is required or at least strongly recommended but it’s not quite the grindfest it was in the 8-bit days. The game still can’t be accused of holding the player’s hand but some hints about where to go to next or key items such as crest locations aren’t quite as obtuse as they originally were. This doesn’t take away the sense of exploration or challenge, it simply means the player is less likely to spend time meandering around clueless about where to go next. The biggest quality of life improvement in this writer’s opinion is with the Zoom spell. Originally this spell returned the player to the last town where they saved the game. It now opens up a town menu, as was in the cast starting with Dragon Quest III, and allows the player to choose where they want to return which makes life so much easier instead of having to manually backtrack to previous locations or memorize where the various travel portals lead.
As with all Switch ports of the Erdrick trilogy, the graphics and sound are modeled after the 2014 mobile ports which are a huge improvement over the original NES and Game Boy Color ports. The visuals of Akira Toriyama’s creature designs look great in this update as they are probably how they were imagined for the original release. Some aspects still feel dated in spite of the updates, such as the extremely limited inventory space and high rate of random monster encounters. The lack of a bag feature that was introduced in later Dragon Quest titles is a mystery in this game, especially considering it was included in Dragon Quest III and so much inventory space is spent on different keys and other essential story items.
Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line may not be perfect but it’s a classic title that should be played by any JRPG fan. A vast improvement over the original, this title laid the groundwork for how Dragon Quest will continue to evolve after we first battled the Dragonlord. Criticisms about some of the dated aspects are valid but the game’s charm and sense of adventure outweighs these claims. Having first played Dragon Warrior II on the NES in the early ’90s, the upgrades are welcome improvements to the overall experience but the sense of adventure and wonder is just as prevalent as it was all those years ago. Veterans of this title should check out the Switch version as it’s currently the best version of Dragon Quest II. To Dragon Quest fans who missed this title when it was originally released, this is the best time to experience it.