The Same Old Dream
Gameplay in all Dragon Quest titles is a manageable affair and of course DQVI is not too different. It gains variety from mixing previous titles' concepts rather than bringing something completely new to the plate. The biggest new feature are two linked worlds, perhaps a staple borrowed from Zelda III since Realms of Revelation originally used to be a SNES game. Otherwise DQVI plays like a cross between elements from DQ III, IV and V.
True to its creed of never featuring as much story as to generate real depth, DQVI starts players as the archetypical nameless, voiceless, predetermined hero who is made by circumstances to set out and slay a great evil.
Before the game completely opens up to exploration, the aid of some standard RPG muscle needs to be recruited. In DQVI it's the brute strength of stalwart woodcutter's son Carver, the magical abilities of vivacious Ashlynn and coy Milly, the healing power of the righteous and slightly uptight Nevan and the ferocity of optional character Amos. Another blade, that of swordsman Terry, is added much later into the game. All characters are tied into the plot and have personalities based on their role in the story. A nice touch is the DS version's party talk feature already known from DQV - at the touch of a button active party members will share their thoughts on places and things recently learned.
The first quarter of the adventure is spent travelling around, advancing the plot towards the big promised confrontation and gathering a band of followers along the way. The formula is DQ's standard routine of turn-based random battles and resting and shopping sprees in towns. So far, so DQIV. What makes it a little more interesting this time around is the revelation that two different realms exist between which can be switched, first at certain places on the world map, later via magic spell. (A new and welcomed addition to the DS remake.)
Thanks to new party member #2, the hero realises that he inhabits a dream world which somehow has to do with the demon lord Murdaw's plot, although what exactly it is doesn't even become clear after slaying the fiend. True to JRPG fashion, Murdaw is only an agent of greater forces at work although who and what they are is left in the dark. Instead of resting on their laurels, the party decides to continue travelling, doing good and finding a way to unite their dream versions with their real world counterparts since doing so will conveniently patch their memories and provide the exposition needed.
To add a little flavour, professions now become available through the resurrected Alltrades Abbey. Every character may freely chose a new profession that comes with stat changes and new abilities. Unlike in DQIX, professions level up parallel to the characters' experience levels through winning a number of battles against adequately challenging enemies. After a profession has been mastered, new ones may be tackled which luckily doesn't affect the characters' abilities beyond a percental stat change. Their general level stays the same and all skills from previous professions are still available. Mastering certain combinations of professions opens up premium classes, giving the process focus. A slight change to the beastmaster class is that monsters don't join after their defeat in battle, that being a feature SquareEnix likely felt is and should remain DQV's big selling point. Beastmasters still acquire enemy skills and since some slimes can be recruited at fixed locations in the game this isn't too much of a loss.
On the technical side of things, DQVI is a DS remake just like its predecessors. Graphics are very similar since the same engine was used, resulting in the same 2D sprites of monsters already known from DQs IV and V. Other than playing faster than the SNES original, offering some comfort features and looking better, the changes to the DS version are a (negligible) stylus-based mini game and a tag mode message exchange feature bringing some (equally negligible) bonuses.
Dragon Quest VI is once again about what Dragon Quest does best - following a not-to-deep plot while grinding in battles against the charming DQ monsters. The formula works mostly because it is Dragon Quest, the decade-old embodiment of what JRPGs are (or used to be) about. On its own it wouldn't be enough to establish itself, let alone survive, in today's age of cinematic games. Tradition really works hard for each instalment of the series.
DQVI pushes the elements from the 8-bit and 16-bit offspring of the franchise to the limit, as well as the way in which the DS remakes can portray them. There's no denying that while sprite animation is as quirky as ever, the game looks slightly boring thanks to the fact that Chapters of the Chosen and Hand of the Heavenly Bride already featured everything the engine has to offer. As this will likely be the last of the DS remakes that is excusable, although only barely.
After the battle against Murdaw who is built up like the source of all evil in the world and the showdown against who is pretty challenging, the game's already straightforward plot loses some steam. It's not the most engaging thing to be dropped off in the world to do unrelated good deeds with only vague leads about the heroes' adventure's true purpose. On a side note, it's a little irritating that the real realm and dream realm don't have immediately recognisable features other than a slight tempo change in the overworld music.
While the profession system adds appeal to the later grinding, it's not as well thought out as the system used in DQIX. Although levelling the jobs goes much faster, the rewards are a plethora of skills of which only a handful will see repeated use in battle. Professions also work best when enhancing the roles party members are assigned from the start and don't turn their function around fundamentally. The main character usually winds up in the Hero class, Gladiator isn't a bad choice for Carver and Ashlynn, Milly and Nevan do well as Armamentalist, Luminary and Sage, respectively.
The Bottom Line
It's in the nature of remakes to appeal to people who knew and liked the old originals. In that respect Dragon Quest VI totally works because it looks and plays better than the SNES game. It is also the best of the three DS remakes but wins by default because it takes most elements of its forebears and combines them.
Hand of the Heavenly Bride has the better story and monster collecting going for it but Realms of Revelation is the game that should be bought to fully experience what classic Dragon Quest is about in one game, not least because the story stands completely on its own in spite of some ties to earlier instalments. For true fans this release is the first chance to play DQVI as an official Western release and also closes the (unofficially labelled) Zenithia trilogy, belonging in any good Dragon Quest collection.