Like a Sweet Success from an alchemy pot.
Over the last few years, Omega Force has finally realized that the Dynasty Warriors/Samurai Warriors formula it has regurgitated over and over again actually has the same flexibility which the Lego series has. The developer adapted its familiar hack-'n'-slash gameplay with other franchises in Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage, One Piece: Pirate Warriors, and Hyrule Warriors, integrating the characters and the environments to bring their respective worlds to life. Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below is the culmination of this new shift and, with Square Enix supervising the project as publisher, the best game that Omega Force has created thus far.
What's impressive about DQH: TWTWBB (yes, even the acronym is a mouthful) is that it feels like a traditional Dragon Quest JRPG, just with the turn-based combat replaced with beat-'em-up action featuring a roster of DQ favorites beating slimes, hammerheads, chimera, and trolls. The roughly 30-hour adventure comes with numerous side quests, plenty of familiar DQ enemies, a mini-medal station, and classic DQ elements like confessions for saving, alchemy for mixing items, and grinding for hours just to nab an particular item drop. The graphics have a rounded, colorful aesthetic with smooth, clean, polished animations.
The opening trailer, for better or worse, reveals pretty much the entire plot of the game, though it shouldn't be surprising to anyone who has played any main Dragon Quest JRPG before. The city of Alba, which sits beneath the shade of the Norse legend Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, is under threat by hordes of monsters controlled by an evil sorcerer who has turned the monsters against their once human friends. It's your mission to protect the kingdom from the threat, gathering party members from across the Dragon Quest pantheon and ultimately defeating the hulking dragon representing all darkness. Dragon Quest fans probably won't be bothered by this traditional plotline, and it's a better, more evenly-paced story than anything that Omega Force has crafted before, but it's very cliché and uninteresting, apart from the fan service which sees beloved characters like Terry (DQVI), Alena (DQIV), and Jessica (DQVIII) mingle together.
Starting off as a male or female protagonist, with the unselected character acting as your best friend in the storyline, you'll learn the basics of combat through the first several hours. It might seem simple at first: two attack strings, a block, a dodge, and a jump. But about halfway through the game, stemming the tide of monsters spawning out of purple gates spread throughout the map becomes a challenging task that requires fast footwork, strategic on-the-fly thinking, and an understanding of spacing, well-timed blocks, evasion, and tension-based special attacks. As your party of characters accumulates skill points and learns new magical attacks and stronger physical attacks, the demand on your time management grows.
Most levels challenge you to defend a particular object or person as monsters continuously funnel through spawn gates guarded by mawkeepers. These gates are typically found at the end of one of several lanes, so you'll need to bash through enemies quickly enough to reach one lane before another lane of monsters reach the defense point. Eventually, your chosen protagonist earns the ability to zoom from one area of the map to the next, but the main helper is monster medals which randomly drop from enemies when they're defeated.
Every non-boss enemy in the game can transform into a monster medal, so taking the time to destroy a golem, gladiator, or killing machine robot is usually worth the time. While some monster medals only trigger one-time benefits like bonus attack or a tension boost, most medals turn into sentries that you can plop down as a temporary defense or a distraction. By completing side quests, you'll earn more slots for a wider range of monsters that's enormously beneficial near the endgame. There's no way to upgrade monster medals in any way, but that's more of missed opportunity than a fault.
Eventually, I settled on King Doric, a self-described Royal Rumbler with high attack and an awesome crowd-control spell called Deliverance which sucks small enemies and spits them out, and rounded out my party with the protagonist, Kiryl for his Kabuff defense spell, and Jessica for all-around healing and magical strength. The AI is mainly competent in controlling the three other members in your party, and no character on the roster is a slouch, though switching between characters to take advantage of their respective strengths is still key to success. The game rewards you for staying active and adapting your strategy to the situation at hand. As long as you pay attention to the map and stay healed through healstones and item drops, you'll triumph over any challenge.
On the downside, however, blocking has a short input delay and can't be done on the run, and the camera can be too close for comfort if your party is surrounded by three or more large enemies, especially with spell effects shooting off like fireworks. Status effects, notably sleep and freeze, become more of a nuisance near the endgame when more than one enemy attempts to inflict these statuses and some of them are outside of the screen. Accessories don't completely nullify status effects, and you can't shake out of status effects either. You also can't sprint around the battlefield; at best, you're left with roll-evading around the battlefield since it's slightly faster than walking.
It's befuddling that the game doesn't have multiplayer in either online or local co-op, given that Omega Force games tend to have multiplayer of some variety. Having a friend who can assist, even in a limited capacity in specific missions or strictly multiplayer levels, would have brought out the best of the party-based gameplay and added far more replay value. On that note, the game does have a New Game Plus mode where you can carry over weapons, items, and experience with 50 extra skill points for every character, if just to make sure you're absolutely overpowered in your second playthrough.
As I wrote in an earlier feature, Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below has the makings of a sleeper hit. In fact, the game has such a following in Japan that a sequel has already been announced called Dragon Quest Heroes II: The King of Twins and Ending of Prophecy. If you're looking for a classic Dragon Quest game with a twist, then this more than fits the bill, so long as you don't mind playing alone the whole through way through. As unexpected as it might be, Omega Force has proven that it can adapt popular franchises with surprising consistency.