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February 19, 2016

Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors (Part 3)

^ New alternate titlecard for this review!

So, following the events of Parts 1 and 2, we’re at the entrance of Xiphos’ ridiculously stereotypical overlord fortress (…or Citadel, whatever). In the past week, we’ve geared up for this final battle, preparing to fight the nastiest monsters that could be sent the heroes’ way. Now that we're finally ready, it’s time to go.

Play now to have a chance to win a trip to the
Deathbringer's Citadel! Our beds are 100% guaranteed
not-covered-in-bleeding-hands! Enjoy a nice invigorating
walk in our Land of Fire! You'll never be the same again!
The Citadel is a long level that starts off in a section surrounded by walls of volcanic rocks and fire shooting everywhere. After a while, the heroes follow the path going upwards, which is when they reach carefully carved stone stairs with torches on both sides. There are some extra paths to follow, but one is guarded by a Groβmeister wannabe and the other by a weaker version of the boss of the Fire Sea level. Soon the volcanic rocks leave way for a carefully-crafted stone staircase. The final fork in the path lets the heroes climb up either side of a giant statue of a one-eyed monster’s face; either side you pick, strong monsters get in the way. Both paths end right over the statue’s face, and the characters have to jump on the platform below. The statue’s mouth is actually the entrance to Xiphos’ throne room. This seems too simple…

I should just drill into that giant eye of yours.
We'll see how you like it!
And because the universe loves to torment me when I’m right, the single eye on the statue starts moving and shooting energy balls at the heroes. The shield must be used to defend from some of them, but others can be hit back with the sword – in fact, it’s the only way to defeat this monster. When it is defeated, a staircase rises, allowing the heroes into the Citadel’s throne room. A few more enemies await in there, then a portal leads them to the throne room (with a few more enemies on the way). When they reach the throne room, they see Aruval’s “fishy” body on the floor. The spirit of Xiphos brings it back to its human self, then possesses it, turning into Xiphos’ more humanoid form. The fight is on! If by that point you went level-grinding to get a better ally (the better spells gained by Anlace, Fleurette or Claymore are only learned around Level 30) or a stronger sword, then you can get the upper hand in this fight. I strongly suggest an ally that learns the Magnishield spell, as an enlarged shield will be much more useful to block Xiphos’s attacks. Having a hero at about Level 40 and an ally at Level 30 seems good. But if you want an easier fight, be some levels higher than that.

You can't see it where he is, but I bet this guy has just the biggest grin
on his punchable face.

Xiphos attacks with a sword, but he can also use a boomerang (Xiphos, secretly Australian?) and even throws pieces of pillars at the heroes (destroying his own lair? Now that’s just dumb). When his life bar is depleted, Xiphos doesn’t admit defeat, and instead calls forth the power of darkness to turn into his final form: A grotesque, winged, giant, four-armed, half-Xiphos half-sea creature, er… monster.

And he's pretty damn big, too.
His entire design screams "I'M THE FINAL BOSS!
It’s like the perfect example of character design going “Alright, let’s mix as many demonic traits on this monster as we can think of! Screw subtlety!” Final Xiphos is really difficult, he hits hard and he has special moves that can break your shield. He also has some nasty surprises, such as being able to steal your ally from you to inflict a lot of damage to him or her – and prevent them from using spells for the duration. Oh, and the cherry on the sundae? He has a Master Stroke, Figure Of Hate. You can lessen the damage it does by slashing at Xiphos while he’s powering it up, but when he shoots, you cannot protect yourself or your ally from it. And it HURTS. You’ll need all of your resources for this fight. Good luck!

AKA "You're screwed, so better reduce the damage the best
you can, 'cause there's no escaping this blast".
No! He took Fleurette! I was almost enjoying her presence by now!

I should note that, as was the case for the red sea, no matter which ally you chose, the two you didn’t pick are still following you from afar. And for some reason they’re not helping in this final battle. Some allies they are…

What are you waiting for?
End this, once and for all!

This hero can't speak, but I'm sure he is thinking
"I just wanna go to sleep now..."
After a long battle, Xiphos is finally defeated. To be sure that he doesn’t come back this time around, the hero takes out the Rorrim mask, which magically places itself on the darklord, turning him to stone; after what the hero deals a final death blow, destroying Xiphos’ statue and ending his menace once and for all. The throne room shakes, the place will be crashing down! Claymore picks up Aruval’s body (How did it get back?), and the group makes a run for it, although they drop and lose the Rorrim mask into the void below. On their way back, Avalonia celebrates. The hero has to speak to everyone inside the castle, after which the main four go to the balcony, with a large crowd of Avalonians waiting for their hero to say something. (Yeah, good luck with that, we’ve got a heroic mime here.) The hero just brandishes his sword and the crowd cheers. The end!

So, now that the menace has been defeated, what else is there to do? Well, you can go back to any level and fight its boss (yes, even Xiphos. You had to make that bastard deader than dead to defeat him and he’s still around! So is his fortress and the red sea…). There’s a bonus to that, you can try getting a high score on each level; the higher your score, the better your grade, which means you get better rewards. And rewards is what you’ll need! What are the other postgame achievements that you can try to attain?
-You can go back to the previous levels to find all the one-time treasure chests hidden, as those often hold special pieces of equipment (such as a whole cat-themed set of equipment, and a dog-themed one) that you cannot buy anywhere.
-Getting one of every type of sword is extremely difficult. Finding the most powerful sword you can get on the first playthrough is difficult, it requires a lot of money and crafting items. Even then, you cannot get the best swords until after your next playthrough.
-Raising all three allies to Level 33, 34 and 36, so as to gain their “buddy blows”; see, you have your Master Strokes, inherited from the swords you gain, but each ally has a “buddy” blow that can be used whenever your Master Stroke gauge is full and your ally has enough MP. The result is an attack from the two characters’ at once. It can be very impressive.

Making a monster more dangerous? Simple! Add extra heads.
Not that a freaking DRAGON wouldn't be dangerous with just one...
However, the greatest challenge is the Mirror Bosses. See, when you play a save file in which you’ve just beaten Xiphos, you are told by Claymore than strange mirrors appeared in the Reflectory, that odd cave under the castle. When you get there, you see four grey mirrors on the walls. Each one leads to a boss, each a stronger version of a a mini-boss or a boss in the game. There’s Nomeg, a powered-up Envoy of Xiphos; Clank and Knalc, two living suits of armor with quick attacks; King Latem, a King Metal Slime that spend the fight running and jumping left and right, and you need to be able to inflict 12 HP of damage to it before it escapes, despite dealing only one HP of damage at a time; and last is Salta, a powered-up version of the one-eyed ogre enemy fought in Xiphos’ throne room. When those four opponents are defeated, a fifth grey mirror appears on the wall; this one leads to Valgirt, a three-headed dragon which you can reach with your sword, no matter how far you are. …Yeah. It’s a tough boss using both a fire breath to defend yourself from and fireballs that you can knock back, taking down one head at a time; and when it’s been down a first time, it revives and you fight a second round against it.

Obviously, this one had to be red and black.
Still not enough? When Valgirt is beaten, three purple mirrors appear on a wall in the room, containing even stronger opponents: powered-up versions of Nomeg, Der Gib and Valgirt. These are insanely powerful opponents, so much so that the recommended level to fight them is 60. And if you somehow get to defeat all three, you unlock a final purple mirror, with behind it the previous three purple mirror bosses, followed by a powered-up version of Xiphos himself. This is the hardest boss in the entire game, and beating this one awards you a special mode, called Payback Mode.

In that new mode, you simply replay through the entire game’s plot, with something special… a weapon called the Deathbringer, with a power of 200! For reference, the best weapon you could get in the previous game had a power of 136. The downside is that you start off with terrible defensive equipment. If you replay through the game entirely, all the way to the grey and purple mirrors again, and beat the bosses in those mirrors once more, you can gather enough materials to upgrade this weapon to Deathbringer’s Shade, a weapon with a power of 400!!! Note: prolonged use of Deathbringer and Deathbringer’s Shade may lead to a loss of soul, humanity, common sense and table etiquette. Use with caution. Keep out of reach of children (But teenagers are fine, though, apparently). Square-Enix is not responsible if you bite off more than you can chew and go against an enemy too powerful for you with these weapons. Which might not happen, but hey, we never know…

Some enemies know how to protect themselves.
Thankfully, that can also leave their weak point unguarded.
That covers everything in the game. Final verdict? Is it really a surprise? I like it! Don’t come into this game expecting a normal RPG, it’s not what you’re going to get. The gameplay is neat (for the most part, see below), and I really like many of the ideas brought forth (although it could have been implemented better with the story, and some things could have been corrected; again, see below). Seriously, you have to try this game for its gameplay. Swinging the sword around is enjoyable, you feel more invested than you’d be in regular RPGs where you simply set each character’s actions and see that character’s turn play out. It also means you need to learn to have some timing when slicing through enemies, using items and calling for your ally to use a spell. It’s clearly heavier on the “action” than the RPG.

The side-quests can keep you busy for a while, especially if you wish to get the best weapons in the game, and the postgame bonus bosses offer enough of a challenge, enough of an incentive to level-grind. I mean, any player should at least get to try the insane destruction you can do in Payback Mode. …Which, by the way, is a cool idea, even though I haven’t gotten there yet.

And thus peace reigned again until the next
megalomaniacal supervillain with powers.
The music is excellent. The graphics? They’re not the best we can see on this console, but they’re still pretty fun to look at, colorful and clear, even in the final stretch of the story. The worlds offer great visuals, and the creatures met throughout the journey are a lot of fun to look at; and it’s also fun to see their in-battle animations. The human characters’ designs can be pretty creative too, mostly the main four, and the more important secondary characters (most of the other villagers look like copies of others, as made obvious in the crowd scene in the ending). The idea of using Mii-like faces for the random villagers was a bit wise. And last but not least, having the main and secondary characters voiced during the plot-relevant cutscenes? That’s great. The acting isn’t always top-notch, and some could speak a little faster (looking at you, Minister Misericord), or emote a little more, but in video games I’ve seen much worse.

Can you at least smile, please? Is that too much to ask?
No one can say what you just said with a straight face.
That’s not to say it’s perfect, either. I found it had quite a number of issues. The main problem, for me, is the story; it’s not terrible, but it’s really nothing fantastic. The young hero on his quest, the sudden call to heroics, the Royal family’s ties to the plot, the return of a defeated villain, the mega-fortress of evil appearing out of nowhere. The worst has to be that everything related to the Mirror World is just the words backwards; an idiot could think of that. Plus, sometimes the clichés pile up and you wind up wondering if it was all meant as a spoof of role-playing games in general, or if they were blissfully unaware that they were rattling off an alarming number of the most common tropes. Hell, the nearly-naked warrior lady just confuses things even more, as she looks too silly to try being serious, yet never really says anything humorous or referring to her being a joke (outside of being sad because the Prince said she had great muscles). Thankfully, the plot does throw a few surprises our way, so it’s not all bad. Also, this game has a short Story Mode for an RPG, with only eight levels and a little less than 10 hours of gaming required to finish it.

I wish 64 more people would heard of me and my blog.
Sure, you can then do the other side-quests; getting your weapons to their final upgrade or beating all the Reflectory bosses. Since there are only eight actual levels in the game, you quickly become so powerful that all the actual levels – yes, even the last one – become very easy. And since you can beat the Story Mode around Level 42 (I know I did for this review), this means even the monsters in the last level soon become weak and give away too little experience. After a while, the sole reason to replay through Levels is to gain the rewards for B, A and S ranks on each, since those are usually materials required for weapon tempering. It also makes level-grinding really boring past Level 45, unless you play through the grey mirror bosses repeatedly (and by this, I mean dozens and dozens of times). Both level and money grinding get pretty bad after a while, though in postgame you’ll be farming money to upgrade your weapon, and almost nothing else. It doesn’t help that, aside from the occasional fork, you can’t move away from the pre-programmed path, and all the encounters in a level are also pre-programmed, in that you’ll always meet the same enemies at the same spots, save for the occasional metal slime running about. The enemies never get harder, neither do the bosses.

My arm already preemptively hurts.
Some enemies have weak points that you can find by thrusting the Wii remote forward on a part of their body, but good luck finding those; for one, to aim by thrusting forward you need to select the point where you want to thrust, and then thrust – which is easier said than done since the movement detection will often mistake a forward thrust for a slash. It also happens rather frequently that you’ll be slashing in a way, and the game will detect the slash as taking another direction; indeed, you must remember to always have the Wii remote level to the ground, horizontal, and not vertical – which is almost silly, considering heroes are frequently seen holding their swords vertically. As a final point of criticism I have for this game, the late-game Master Strokes learned require moving the Wii remote in large shapes, like the infinity symbol; it’s powerful against the bonus bosses, but you only have a few seconds to fill the gauge to use the attack to its maximum power, so you need to be quick, and using these Master Strokes too often will lead to your arm hurting. I once played the battle against Valgirt six or seven times on the same day; my right arm hurt for two days after that. The “pointing and aiming” mechanic is also very hard to use against enemies who are going way too fast for humans to react – but thankfully, that problem is confined to postgame bosses.

But even though my points of criticism took longer to explain, that doesn’t mean I dislike the game; maybe I’m just one of those guys who see past the flaws and keep playing, out of an ardent desire to see everything there is to see. That doesn’t make me a bad critic, just one who accepts imperfections and is satisfied as long as he has fun. And isn’t that the whole point of games in the first place? I heartily recommend Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen And The Tower Of Mirrors,

Next week? Um… I have a few games in my collection that I’ll need to do someday, I think it’s time for one of those… Hm, maybe this one… Next week: WALL-E. …I have a bad feeling about this one.