It’s been a busy year for Dragon Quest. The most recent entry in the long-running Japanese role-playing game series, Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age, recently came out on PC and consoles to much critical acclaim. But unless you live in Japan, you might’ve missed another crucial milestone: the release of the franchise’s first virtual reality game.
Dragon Quest VR made its debut this past April at VR Zone Shinjuku, a Bandai Namco-owned VR arcade located in the heart of Tokyo’s eye-popping Shinjuku district. It’s a first-person location-based experience that takes place on a huge 65 ft x 39 ft grid where multiple groups can play at the same time. Each team consists of four players and three different classes: two melee warriors, a mage, and a priest. Your goal is to fight through a series of battles before facing the powerful Zoma, an iconic Dragon Quest villain.
Given its novelty and regional exclusivity (along with a little prodding from Games Editor David Jagneaux), I had to try Dragon Quest VR for myself during a recent trip to Tokyo. As a non-Japanese speaker, it was … more challenging than I expected. It all started with trying to order my ticket. You see, VR Zone operates like a carnival. In addition to charging an entrance fee, each of the attractions — which also includes VR experiences based on Dragon Ball Z, Mario Kart, Evangelion, and more — requires a separate ticket purchase.
At 3200 yen (roughly $30) per person, Dragon Quest VR is one of the most expensive games there. But it doesn’t seem to have any trouble drawing in a crowd.
When I was trying to book my reservation online, the time slots I wanted kept selling out. It was a little nerve-racking because I had trouble filling out the registration form; I later realized I couldn’t submit it unless I wrote my full name in katakana. I also had to print out my ticket via the ticket kiosk — a machine that doesn’t have an English option — inside of a Family Mart convenience store. (If you’re in Japan and would like to do this yourself, these two sites were helpful for filling out the form, and using Google Translate on this Family Mart PDF made the pick-up relatively painless.)
Once I arrived at my appointment at VR Zone, however, the process was a little smoother. Since I was going in solo, three other people — a teenage boy and his parents — filled out the rest of my team. The language barrier was still somewhat of a hurdle. The staff member who was preparing the different groups for the game couldn’t speak English very well, and the instructional video that we watched before gearing up was also in Japanese. Luckily, I was able to follow along with the video thanks to an English transcript that the attendant handed me.
To keep things simple, I decided to play as one of the warriors. Their main job is to hack-and-slash through monsters while also protecting the mage and priest from projectile attacks with their shield. The two magic users aren’t useless, though: both have long-range spell attacks, and the mage can also temporarily buff the warriors by making their swords comically large, which increases the weapons’ power and range.
After choosing which class we wanted to play as, the staff helped us put on a bunch of equipment, including an HTC Vive, headphones with mics, an MSI gaming backpack laptop, and special controllers (a sword and shield for the warriors, and small wands for the mage and priest). According to the official website, this amounts to about 22 lbs. of hardware — and you definitely feel it. As we stepped into the play area for final preparations, I already felt a little uncomfortable carrying all that equipment around. You can see it all in the trailer above.
Going Inside Toriyama’s Head
Dragon Quest VR begins in a throne room, where you meet a human king and a floating pink blob named Ohealia (pictured at the top of this story). Surprisingly, all of the voice acting is in English. The two characters briefly explained our mission — defeat Zoma and his minions, or else we’re all doomed! — before magically whisking us away to a grassy field. Since Ohealia was our guide and narrator throughout the experience, she tagged along with the group as well.
Enemies immediately appeared once we arrived. I swung my sword controller to attack Slimes, flying Drackies, and other familiar Dragon Quest foes while the mage and priest launched a volley of spells from behind me. Though we were free to move around, my party mostly stuck to our default positions: warriors in the front row, mage and priest in the back. Ohealia yelled out helpful hints as we fought, like telling the priest when someone needed healing or asking the warriors to block incoming attacks.
It was during this first battle — while stabbing monsters and raising my shield to absorb fireballs — that I realized how weird everything felt. In elementary school, I used to imagine what it’d be like to be a character in JRPGs like Chrono Trigger and Pokémon Red, and Dragon Quest VR is the first game to let me live that dream. Of course, fighting with heavy gear is much harder (and sweatier) than just sitting on a couch and grinding battles for levels. But it also helped sell the illusion that I was an actual soldier covered in armor.
Another reason that the game’s sense of presence works so well: the artwork. Dragon Quest has always had a cheery, colorful aesthetic due to longtime series artist Akira Toriyama, and it’s a style that translates wonderfully into VR. Seeing his monster designs at eye-level was surreal. It felt like I was living inside of an anime.
When the battle was over, Ohealia guided the party to a portal that transported us to the next location. In the real world, this is how VR Zone manages the different groups playing the game: At the end of every fight, you walk further into the grid so you can “teleport” to the next battle. Eventually, you make a U-turn and end up on the other side of the play area. It seemed like a good way of minimizing any accidental collisions between the various teams.
The next battle took place on the edge of a cliff, where we faced tougher enemies like fire-breathing birds and burly knights. The fight climaxed with an encounter against a giant rock Golem that plowed through a cave like an angry Kool-Aid Man. My fellow warrior and I died at least a few times (you just respawn in the same spot when the priest revives you), but after a few more attacks, we were able to overcome the mini-boss.
Sadly, the third and last fight was a bit more cheap than the Golem. We traveled to Zoma’s castle, where the towering demon lord — I had to crane my neck up to see him fully — was hellbent on stomping us out. Zoma has a devastating and unblockable ice attack that you’re supposed to dodge, but I was never able to make it work. Even at the edge of Vive’s Chaperone boundaries, I was still susceptible to damage.
At one point, I accidentally ran into the other warrior while trying to move out of the way. Our attacks felt useless against Zoma, and it didn’t take long for him to wipe us out. A last-minute save from another Dragon Quest hero gave our team a second chance to kill the boss. But that attempt also ended in defeat, and before we knew it, we were back in the king’s throne room. The disappointed ruler basically told us “Better luck next time!” as the experience came to a close.
As we took off our gear, I noticed my clothes were a little damp from all the sword-swinging and dodging, but it was nothing compared to our team’s other warrior, the teenager. He was so drenched in sweat that it looked like he’d just climbed out of a swimming pool. His parents, meanwhile, looked amused, but it was clear that they were mostly there to humor their son.
The mother thanked me for playing with them (I told her in English that it was fun!) and the father asked me where I came from. In recognition of our bravery, the staff handed us Dragon Quest VR stickers to take home.
Our motley band of heroes — a quaint Japanese family and an American tourist who’d been eating way too much onigiri from 7-Eleven — failed to beat the nigh-invincible Zoma. But much like life itself, Dragon Quest VR is all about the journey and the friends you make along the way. Anyone who sweats that hard while fighting virtual Slimes will always have my respect.
Giancarlos Valdes is a freelance gaming journalist. You can follow him on Twitter for more of his work.