The comments raised more than a few eyebrows, and for good reason. Making a game dark or gritty just for the sake of it backfires as often as not, turning it into meme fuel at best or a forgettable failure at worst.
Dragon Quest is no stranger to darkness anyway. The hero in Dragon Quest V gets enslaved and witnesses death and destruction on both a personal and wider scale. A possessed jester goes on a killing spree in Dragon Quest VIII, and there’s no shortage of loss and sorrow in Dragon Quest XI.
The difference is how the series handles it. Unlike some RPGs that want you to feel the weight of tragedy — Xenogears, for example, or potentially even Final Fantasy XVI — Dragon Quest is happy to focus on the future.
It doesn’t shy away from sadness. But at its foundation, the series is about optimism, a conviction that things will actually turn out okay in the end, even if they need a helping kick from some ragtag merchants and lowly peasant folk along the way.
Whatever Square Enix’s plans are for the series, it should never lose that spark of hope. It doesn’t have to, either.
A “darker” Dragon Quest just needs to pay more attention to what’s already there, or more to the point, who is already there. Echoes of an Elusive Age started moving in this direction already. Dragon Quest party members make a big entrance connected to the plot in some way, then often fade into the background. Party chat brings them to life, but that’s the extent of their importance to the story with a few exceptions.
Dragon Quest XI wove party members’ stories properly into the narrative for the first time — the mystery of Sylvando, Erik’s sister, and the story surrounding Veronica and Serena. It’s as simple as just letting things, often bad things, happen to important characters, even if there aren’t lasting, dramatic consequences.
Although there should be serious ripple effects, sometimes. One thing Dragon Quest, and other JRPGs, often gloss over is how your actions and the deeds of ne’er-do-wells affect the people outside your party.
Square Enix adopting a BioWare-style web of cause and effect seems unlikely, at least initially. It doesn’t have to be complex, though — just something that makes you think about your choices and then deal with the fallout, if there is any.
Aside from potentially giving Dragon Quest a darker tone, it’s a way to make the world feel lived in, and even dangerous, a feat earlier Dragon Quests haven’t always been the best at.
Letting you struggle through this kind of darkness, then emerge from it with Dragon Quest’s usual optimism still intact, if a little battered and sadder, is the kind of mature experience Square Enix needs to aim for.