Dragon Quest vs. Final Fantasy: A Friendly Comparison
Both Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy truly define the Japanese role-playing genre; lengthy stories, involving fantasy plots and turn-based combat are just a few things each series is known for, and over the past two decades, each has helped define JRPGs the world over. However, the big question is, how do they stack up side by side?
Generally, most Japanese gamers would agree that Dragon Quest trumps Final Fantasy every time, whilst most Western gamers would hold the opposite to be true. Despite both series coming from the same company (Square-Enix), and each offering a lengthy and enjoyable experience to those who dare pick up the controller, DQ is still a comparatively small franchise compared to the Final Fantasy behemoth, particularly in the West. So, in the interests of friendly competition, I have broken each series down into respective areas, and given each a score out of ten, purely for the purposes of comparison. Let the judging begin!
Design: First up, game design and presentation. Whilst both games have evolved with the times, making a transition from 2D to 3D and beyond, both have ended up quite polar opposites from a visual point of view. Final Fantasy generally offers highly accurate and involved artwork, ranging from sweeping vistas and technopunk cities to more traditional settings - often within one game. DQ has instead remained true to the original scope and idea: Manga-esque characters and art are the way forward here. Whilst FF has offered increasingly realistic cut scenes, character models, and animation, DQ has stuck to its roots, and whilst later iterations have only become prettier and prettier, the essence of the world (and its inhabitants) have stayed true to the original core idea.
I´m scoring FF just above DQ here, mainly thanks to the lavish FMV sections; a real visual treat for any gamer.
Game world: OK, tricky ground here: Final Fantasy games are each detached from one another, offering a different world each time with no correlation with previous episodes. DQ instead offers a series of continuing tales (sometimes referenced between titles) set within a more consistent world (although not always exactly the same one): characters can often be descendants of previous heroes, for example, or reclaiming items from earlier games. While Final Fantasy worlds differ, they have a tendency to feel very familiar, and sometimes offer similar areas within a changed landscape.
DQ wins hands down here; each title feels like part of a larger world, and the familiarity permits a very deep experience for those prepared to invest the time and effort. FF tends to recycle elements into standalone games, and lose the feeling of depth when considered as a series.
Plot and Continuity: It is hard to argue that FF games haven´t offered some seriously deep moments of gaming: Aeris, Jecht, and Gestahl stick in the mind for a long time. However, there is a tendency for FF plots to run along similar lines, generally involving some great evil trying to destroy the world, and the player having to be the one to stop it. FF games can also fall into the trap of trying to be too involving, often failing to explain key moments well.
DQ tends to tell more localised tales: save your family, perhaps, or become an angel after falling to earth. The continuity is important here, too. Many of the DQ games were grouped into trilogies, allowing the developers to feed from previous titles to create arcing plot lines, and deeper tales interwoven between the main stories.
Again, I have DQ as the victor. Although the basic plots were simple, each tale felt epic on its own, and as part of a world of adventure. FF often recycled ideas too often, and occasionally lost the player by trying to tell too much story in one game.
Characters: Props to FF: Many characters have been memorable from the Final Fantasy series, and often each has a rich backstory and involvement in the overall plot. However, recent titles have been more generic. Main characters tend to be ambivalent, angsty teens, and also err on the side of shallow (I can´t help but feel Vanille from FF13 was the most aptly named character ever in a game!). Looking back over the entire series, however, and FF certainly has created some real gems over time. DQ at first glance offers cookie-cutter character choices. However, play any of the titles for a couple of hours, and you discover a simplicity which polarizes the gaming experience. Characters are certainly memorable, too: Jessica in DQ8, Erdrick/Loto from the original trilogy, or even the Slimes!
Final Fantasy just nicks it, but only thanks to the earlier titles; later games suffer from becoming too generic.
Combat: The staple of any good RPG is it´s combat system, and DQ really trumps all here. The series basically invented turn-based combat as we know it, and also added ideas such as classes/jobs, monster taming (beastmaster skills, which open up a whole new gameplay option if you see it through) and the party systems. All of these became present in FF too, but at a later time. FF has also made several attempts at shaking up the formula, and not always been successful. Many gamers found Final Fantasy 12's battle system to be unwieldy and inaccessible, despite it offering a good control balance once the player got to grips with its intricacies. DQ hasn´t changed too much over time, but merely refined a classic system; FF has tinkered a lot, sometimes well, but often badly.
DQ for the win here, although an encouraging nod to FF for at least trying to break the mould.
Final Scores: FF 40/50 DQ 43/50
So, I mark Dragon Quest the winner, although opinions may vary. Personally speaking, DQ wins thanks to its timeless qualities mixed with a persistent world, which allow for an engaging experience every time. That isn´t to say Final Fantasy games aren´t good, but the constant tinkering coupled with the recent plot and character recycling have let the series slip from its prime spot. Whilst DQ recycles similar ideas too, they way each game is presented and integrated into the overall universe really makes it shine as a series - you could easily re-name most Final Fantasy games, and the series wouldn't be greatly affected as a result.
Either way, Dragon Quest IX has launched in the US, and will arrive in Europe on July 23, exclusively to DS. If you have yet to indulge in the series, it would be an excellent place to start. Reviews are scoring it high, and the game is designed to appeal more to the Western market. Why not see what we what the fuss is all about?