Dragon Quest: Your Story feels like an hour-and-a-half-long highlight reel of an adventure spanning dozens of hours, but it’s damn fun, writes Felix Walton.
One of Netflix’s current hustles seems to be grabbing movies with little to no hope of a wide release and publishing them as “Netflix Originals.” The latest of these is Dragon Quest: Your Story, an adaptation of a series of games that, while huge in Japan, have generally struggled to find a place in the west. Dragon Quest is generally considered to be the grandfather of Japanese RPGs, its stories, characters and gameplay systems have formed the backbone of an entire genre, and the series’ signature charm has made it a cultural touchstone in its country of origin.
Despite its massive success at home, Dragon Quest has yet to find a major audience abroad. Dragon Quest XI in 2018 is the closest the series has come to finding that success, but international fans still live in fear of the next entry skipping an English release. Netflix picking up an adaptation of one of the earlier games, Dragon Quest V, which wasn’t even released in English until 17 years after its original release, is a bit of a surprise. An even bigger surprise is the amount of effort they put into the localisation.
The work that Netflix does on a “Netflix Original” can range from producing the whole thing themselves (Stranger Things) to deciding to buy it on a whim (Uncut Gems was purchased by Netflix for distribution outside of the United States). Dragon Quest: Your Story sits somewhere in the middle. The movie was produced by Toho but Netflix has forked out for a complete English dub, including talent like Yuri Lowenthal (Spider-Man) and Steve Blum (Cowboy Bebop).
The Dragon Quest series of role-playing games has always been about the journey, not the destination. The characters you meet, the adventures you have, the monsters you face. Dragon Quest: Your Story, an adaptation of the fifth game, takes that proverb to the extreme. Because the destination of Dragon Quest: Your Story is, well, extremely stupid.
That’s a line that will preface any discussion of this movie. It’s an unavoidable, undeniable truth. The ending is simply bad. So this begs the question, is a movie still worth watching if you know it ends in disaster? A journey that surprises you with a disappointing destination is one thing, but is it worth starting the journey in the first place if you know exactly where you’ll end up?
When I was a child, I would insist on having a clear destination before going outside. My destination, more often than not, was a second-hand book shop not too far from my house. I almost never finished those books. So what is an ending actually worth, really?
Dragon Quest: Your Story isn’t really a journey in itself, it’s a 102-minute adaptation of an RPG spanning thirty hours of gameplay and decades of the characters’ lives. Dragon Quest games are known for their relaxed pace and gradual escalation over dozens of hours. That’s tossed out the window here. Instead, story beats are densely stuffed into a fraction of the runtime. It’s a 90 minute highlight reel of a journey. It’s a mess.
As an adaptation of a game, Dragon Quest: Your Story fails by skimming through most of the story with furious speed, yet somehow succeeds in delivering on the spirit of the series with aplomb. The movie plays out like one long montage, it’s like being strapped to a chair and having somebody’s memories beamed into your mind. There is no such thing as pacing here, sonny.
Despite that unrelenting pace, I found myself delighting in what was happening – no matter how quickly it passed me by. It turns out that when you’re having memories beamed into your mind it’s easy to catch feelings. For a Dragon Quest fan, it’s even easier. The ubiquitous Dragon Quest music is lovingly orchestrated, of particular note since the notoriously cagey (and bigoted) composer Koichi Sugmiyama’s usual refusal to allow orchestrations of his music. The movie captures the spirit of Dragon Quest almost perfectly, scenes of hero Luca fighting monsters alongside his pet slime, Gootrude, and his pet sabrecat, Purrcy, felt like old-school RPG grinding brought to life. Dragon Quest’s tone, refined over decades into a perfect mix of humour, heart, and genuine threat, is very much intact. The only thing missing is the art style of Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball Z), which at times leaves Dragon Quest: Your Story looking like an off-brand Frozen.
An unfortunate side effect of hydraulic-pressing a thirty-hour story into the space of an hour and a half is that characters have virtually no room to breathe. Not long after the two main love interests are introduced, Luca already has to decide which one he wants to marry. Two separate time skips mean a lot of character relationships are developed off-screen, and seemingly important characters disappear just as quickly as they arrived in the first place. Dragon Quest: Your Story is a far more ambitious adaptation than its contemporaries, such as last year’s Detective Pikachu and the recently released Sonic the Hedgehog – which are both based on games that are less than a third of the length of Dragon Quest V. In the process, a lot of what made Dragon Quest V’s story great is left behind, but the vibes – Dragon Quest’s special sauce – had me thoroughly engaged regardless.
Despite never having played this particular entry, I totally bought into the bonds between characters. Luca’s childhood friend, Harry, is only present for the first fifteen minutes of the movie and yet their friendship is perhaps my biggest highlight. It’s a testament to the strength of the original game’s story that I felt so attached to these characters, I only wish my first exposure to them had been in the medium they were originally written for.
Dragon Quest: Your Story feels like sprinting at full speed through a beautiful field and right into a brick wall. Nothing can change the fact that this journey’s last ten minutes are nightmarishly stupid. The lead up to that point is jolly, wholesome, and overwhelmingly fast, but a brick wall is still a brick wall. So why not run, or walk comfortably, through a different field? One that doesn’t end in a brick wall, perhaps? I don’t have an answer to that question, but this is one wall I would happily run into again.
Dragon Quest: Your Story is now streaming on Netflix.