Upon firing up Dragon Quest VII for 3DS, you're quickly greeted with a wonderful orchestrated rendition of the classic series theme, and thus the nostalgia begins before even making it to the main menu. Similarly, as soon as the actual game starts you are treated to some scenes with the main cast rendered in their new colorful and emotive 3D models. This is a preview for the graphics on the whole, with recognizable but nicely updated characters and locations being a constant theme. The one disappointment with the graphics comes when you wander out of the first town onto the world map. In a design reminiscent of Dragon Quest IX, the opening island is split up into several sections instead of one seamless map. Though it certainly looks nice in Dragon Quest VII's colorful engine, it is a bit frustrating, especially on a more powerful system than Dragon Quest IX had to work with.
The game makes this world map blunder easy to forgive, thankfully, as it is constantly providing you with wonderfully orchestrated music. It almost seems at odds with the game's sound effects that, as always for the series, don't sound far off from the effects from the original NES entries. Those who have played the Western release of Dragon Quest VIII will be more used to this, of course.
On the whole, Dragon Quest VII is a huge audio and visual upgrade from the original. Most notable of all are the character models as previously mentioned, which look great and show lots of emotion. There's even nice little touches such as Maribel having a different running animation than the others to show some of her character. It is an absolute joy just wandering around Dragon Quest VII's beautiful locations and meeting its characters, even if you have no idea what anyone is saying.
As for actual gameplay, it feels similar to recent portable entries in the series. In fact, it controls even better thanks to the circle pad, as the D-pad on the DS felt stiff when playing Dragon Quest IX. The camera is controlled with the shoulder buttons, and the viewpoint is set at a good angle as I don't recall any instances where important things were blocked out.
The opening segment of Dragon Quest VII, which was entirely puzzle and exploration focused in the original, has been nicely streamlined in this version. I was able to get through it in just over two hours with only a few instances of referring to a guide from the original game. The puzzles in this section have been removed, which greatly helped speed it up at the cost of making it a bit less interesting.
Upon completing this intro you're sent to the first area to unlock and quickly see the game's first battle. Battles in Dragon Quest VII 3DS are played out in a more traditional fashion than Dragon Quest IX, or even Dragon Quest VIII. They begin with the first-person view of a line of enemies, and then zoom out very slightly once a round of action starts so the party is viewable. Enemies and player characters jump at each other quickly from this viewpoint which keeps things speedy as opposed to the more cinematic flair of Dragon Quest VIII and IX. It's a simple approach that feels like a good compromise between the old and new styles of Dragon Quest combat. Despite this classic approach to combat, enemies are shown on-screen instead of popping up as random encounters.
As for how hard the game is for import players, the answer is not good news. Dragon Quest VII is a very text heavy game, with no friendly icons in the menus in or outside of battle. Icons are shown when browsing the item list, but that's about it. Menu layout is similar to the original, including skill selection in battle. Though this means menus are relatively easy to navigate for series fans early on, that changes as battles get more complex. Once the job system is unlocked, only the truly dedicated, likely needing the help of guides, will be able to make it all the way through. Understanding the story presents similar difficulties. On the bright side, the new graphics make classic scenes more interesting to witness and make the story easier to grasp. On the whole, it's hard to recommend the game to those without much Japanese knowledge unless they are truly dedicated Dragon Quest VII fans.
Dragon Quest VII was an interesting entry in the series when it originally came out, with an odd approach to progression and an absolutely massive quest. Despite huge popularity in Japan, it never caught on in the West, partially because of its release late in the life of the PS1 and very dated graphics. With the graphics turned into a strength instead of a weakness, Dragon Quest VII on 3DS easily looks to set itself as one of the best in the series. Sadly the few hours I've played aren't enough to get a more in-depth look at the game, since the Job system doesn't show up for twenty hours or more. Even so, it is easy to see that Dragon Quest VII is something that RPG fans in the West would absolutely love.