And on today's installment, the adventures of Randy Homeraider!
We leave Hotto now,
and leave Mt. Huji untouched.
We'll be back someday.
So, with our gift of wisdom from Noah, famed knower of things and all-around creep, we head in a southerly direction in pursuit of what is possibly a branch of Yggdrasil, over which there is a giant hanging maybe. The Gallopolitan region is a desert we quickly find the castle-town, with a very interesting blue tent rising over the walls that makes me immediately think of a King Slime. Knowing how to play an RPG, however, I ignore it to survey the rest of the region.
Ah, here we go. I really liked discovering the gorgeous active volcano immediately after arriving in Hotto, but these perpetual sandfalls are one of the first pieces of truly fantastic scenery in the game. I don't think the game gives you a real camera option, so trying to get nice scenic shots without the frame centered on horse butt is a nuisance. Exploring the rest of the region we find a couple of extra roadblocks and some foreshadowing, more than the earlier parts of the game. At least the tent at the checkpoint has people in it, which is more than could be said for the Kingsbarrow.
Exploring the region has allowed me to get a better feel for the characters I'm traveling with; Veronica's and Erik's snark is much more bearable when it isn't aimed at me. Once we're actually in Gallopolis we open up on the current chapter, which is over-foreshadowed by about every member of the population talking about Prince Faris, the horse races, or the circus (Heliodor was decent enough to restrict its core foreshadowing to a few books and only talking up one or two of that chapter's major characters). I won't say it gave everything away, but everyone talking about how studly Prince Faris was really just ended up deflating the twist by making it obvious-in-hindsight when he eventually showed up. Because I know how to play an RPG properly, I delay the story as long as possible and interact with everything (except the shops -- I made it a point starting here not to obtain a new anything from either the shops or the roving emporium until the chapter is over, mostly because I humiliated myself last time by wasting time to recover a rare drop from robber rabbits after losing one by dying, only to get the same rare drop for free in a treasure chest).
Hmm. Gorgeous gal in a desert town offering me sexual favors for free? Seems legit. Also familiar, for some reason. Well, anything's better than Hotto, where the silly girl gave me an actual Puff-Puff right in front of Connie.
My sense of shock and appallment is overridden by the fact that my Deja Vu is intensifying.
More seriously, as fun as it was to relive the classic puff-puff gag, it really didn't do much for me. This is partly because the gag was basically obligatory in order to dodge accusations of being pervy by having only unironic puff-puffs and partly because it opened up an occasion for the party chat to let me down. The party chat all in all has been rather underwhelming this game, only updating for each major story flag rather than in response to interactions with the world around the party. The puff-puff in particular was disappointing, especially in light of VIII, the last mainline Dragon Quest release in this style, going comparatively over and above, staging a puff-puff for each character and letting the characters react to it. In XI, even when I change my party lineup, I'm stuck looking at ol' wooden-face the protagonist, who is shaping up to be my least favorite DQ character from sheer dullness. Eleven deflates every scene he's in. Gemma was too good for him.
I'd almost write this reaction of mine off as just me being a stinker, which is almost assuredly part of it, but I feel like it's worth bringing up because Dragon Quest XI is starting to develop a trend of lifting major tropes from previous installments and then using them in an inferior way. Destroyed hometown? Dragon Quest V did it better by letting you discover and explore it while XI just throws it at you and then all you can do is leave. Time travel? V also did it better by setting up a twist when you were a kid and then making good on it as an adult and made certain to explain what was going on, XI throws it at you inexplicably and then has you commit actions that should change the future, but the effects of time travel are inexplicable and unknown because you have no baseline to compare it with, and may even be over-complicated. Hell, even VII had some thought-out time travel shenanigans. Now the party chat is turning out to be inferior to VIII and the handheld remakes. (I'm ambivalent about the clumsy jump mechanic, which is more or less the same as it was in VIII).
Back to Gallopolis, I find a few things of real interest. A female mage-in-training in the shop tells me about "rare" monsters, which makes more sense after I take a quest requiring me to hunt rarified cactiballs. I do some last minute exploring and find some stand-out characters, including a hulk dressed like a bodkin archer and the most colorful man I've ever seen.
How dare you, sir. Eleven is not a fine young fellow, he's a dullard and a cipher.
Now this is a DQ3 throwback I can get enthusiastic about.
Back with the main story, where we finally get to the Gallopolitan Palace and discover that it is swarming with cats. Apparently the king took a shine to them, and it's a positive wonder the staff isn't as flea-bitten as they should be. An exploration of the king's bedchamber and his closets net me some questionable items, including a pair of fishnet stockings that may or may not have belonged to the queen, and the accumulated lore from the books and citizenry alerts me to the fact that once upon a time the king was once upon a time a hero in good standing. Before the cats.
Not anymore, clearly. Today's episode of Ugly Guy, Hot Wife is interrupted, however, by the arrival of Prince Faris, which opens up a round of amusing dramatics that makes me like both doofs, father and son.
Meet Prince Faris, the successor to Charmles of VIII as the resident unworthy prince. After his discourse with his father, he gives Eleven the eye and beckons us to his room, which instantly sets Erik on edge because of the whole Wanted Dead or Alive thing we have going on (which I can't recall whether we told Veronica and Selena about). Turns out, Prince Faris, despite his kingdom-wide reputation, is a complete sham, and bargains with us to take his place during his coming-of-age challenge. I gotta say, comparing Charmles and Faris is a bit of a mixed bag: while I think Charmles was a better-made and -implemented character, being directly relevant to the personal story and major themes of VIII, I appreciate Faris for being part of a more mature take on the situation that understands that the unworthy prince is not a self-contained problem, which almost makes up for the prince's schlocky arc.
See, Faris' problem isn't that he's this self-contained bundle of failures, but that he's built up the illusion of success that he's been able to maintain for entirely too long because no one is actually close to him. His parents and retainers neglect him, which creates the distance necessary to create the illusion; which is something that always irked me about King Clavius from VIII, who was also a neglectful parent, but the story never got around to meaningfully acknowledging it. And because his life is so falsified, Faris has never had to accomplish anything for real... until now, when he has to win the local horse race against lifelong competitors.
The hood again? It can't be that effective. (Ahem). Faris invites us to the circus to discuss his plan, which basically amounts to the horseman of the group (ol' Woodface himself) being swapped in and out before and after the race, and once we've agreed to it, because we really want the family stick, makes his escape without notice.
Ha. I lied! I will give it to the scene though, which is smart enough to throw in the circus man doing circus things while Faris exposits for a while to distract us.
So we swap ourselves in for Prince Faris and head for the race course, along the way we discover that Faiz, an otherwise tertiary character who only matters because he was the intended challenger, and who should show up in his place but Mr. Circus himself?
Now this is a narrative misstep. Between Sylvando giving Faris the eye back at the circus and the sheer coincidence of him filling in for Faiz, this should be a blatant clue that Sylvando's up to no good. He's not. Faiz actually did overdo it during practice and Sylvando just so happened to be available, which is... contrived. So one humiliating race later -- and when I say humiliating, I mean Sylvando blew us out of the water so thoroughly that I'm wondering whether I should be mad at more NPC horse hax (I'm not sure, because my computer lags extensively when playing this game, doing things like failing to load the BGM whenever I enter or leave the palace, and during the horse race drops to maybe eight frames per second, so I have no idea if Sylvando is beatable normally) -- we get off the horse to let Faris take the credit for giving a good race anyway (second place against at least perfect play AI is nothing to sneeze at), only to meet up in the aftermath and WHO SHOULD WANDER IN but Sylvando, who discovers the ruse in yet another contrivance that really should have been deliberately staged, but screw it.
Don't you look at us like that. You're not completely stupid, but this schlocky, contrived story is doing you no favors.
So with the looming threat of clownish blackmail hanging over our heads, what should happen but more complications? Back when we were still exploring the Gallopolitan region, the knights stationed at the northwest checkpoint vaguely alluded to something with the sinister nomenclature of The Slayer of the Sands, which has apparently re-emerged from dormancy, and it naturally falls to the main man, Faris himself, to put it away. Faris naturally begs us to save his skin and so that's why we all end up back in the desert, marching through the northwest checkpoint into yet more desert, which I don't actually mind as I have two sidequests to run through, including using a chance-based three-man pep power, which means I have an excuse to grind, and in an area with metal slimes!
Full disclaimer: Metal Slime not pictured. But XI does do something that I like, and conveys size and presence in a way that a lot of previous games were never really able to -- one of the main reasons I love the Heroes spinoffs so much was that you were immediately confronted by how concrete the enemies were in space and time, as opposed to the generally abstracted combat lineups from previous games, even in things like VIII. XI is able to preserve that sense of concreteness, so props.
Oh, also, you can't see him, but Sylvando has inserted himself into this adventure, ostensibly to keep the halfwit prince from killing himself. I keep reminding myself not to be so annoyed with the performer so much as with the disorganized, misleading, schlocky story we're all stuck in together. Prince Faris is a sympathetic character, and I appreciate the game making him a sympathetic character, but the story relies on contrivance and idiocy (I mean, really, did none of Faris' teachers ever notice his failures and try to help him at anything? Was there no gossip? The lifetime of logistics necessary to put Faris in his current predicament is mind-boggling). Prince Charmles, the last inadequate prince with a coming-of-age failure arc, was at least on point as a character (though behaving as if all his vices were self-contained is really rather a cheat), and his story had a clear and definite idea of where to go and how it's relevant to the story at large; Faris' story struggles because it's also doubling as a vehicle to highlight Sylvando's "intrigue", but between at least two up-to-no-good signals (though it knocks the count down to one by insisting that a suspicious coincidence really is a chance event) and his current insistence of noble intentions is proving less intriguing than just disorganized. It makes it seem like Sylvando's story was going in a more sinister direction and then dialed it back at the last minute.
So we travel all the way to the furthest tip of the desert and discover that instead of another dungeon, we jump right to the Slayer of the Sands...
a really rather kickass looking insect-monster that probably earned its reputation for killing Gallopolitan soldiers. In a rather weak demonstration of supposed badassery but really more like possible sociopathy, Sylvando tells Princey-Poo to show the man-eater bristling with claws, blades, spikes, and needles what real knights are made of. The only real excuse for Sylvando doing that is if we grant him the Omniscient Morality License, because otherwise we'd have to point out that Sylvando just goaded someone with no substantial combat experience into waging battle with a man-eating beast that has killed a lot of people who do have that experience.
It sure is lucky then, that after some rallying words from Sylvando, the slayer ignores Faris and turns to fight us, and that once we defeat it in combat that the monster doesn't vanish in a puff of smoke like other bosses, and also that Sylvando just so happens to have a huge chain necessary to tie up the corpse for Faris and his lackluster knights to drag back to town. We follow afterwards, forgoing the use of the Zoom spell that Veronica gave us as we were leaving the Hottan region (which is, as always, promised to take you anywhere you've been, but won't let us return to Heliodor or Cobblestone because the game wants to have its cake and eat it, too), and we get to see the Gallopolitan Stonehenge a second time and think of what will happen if we ever get to come back.
Once we return to Gallopolis, we get to sit through the last part of today's schlocky children's anime episode, in which Faris grandstands as much as possible (of course), only for the Slayer of the Sands to awaken (of course), to break free of its chains (of course), and to terrorize the people... who immediately prove themselves worthy of Darwin Awards by sticking around to watch Faris fight like they're spectators. Sylvando shows up dramatically (OF COURSE), and finally manages to do something actually heroic and inspiring and nudges Faris into actually confronting the problem (which would be much nicer if it weren't so painfully contrived), only to jump in at the last moment and save Faris from death by dropping the slayer with a single blow.
The schlock is killing me. It has already killed the slayer. It may kill yet again.
So once the episode ends and the credits roll and we can finally do something, Faris, who has at least always been a man of his word, arranges to procure the Reading Rainbough that we were informed of by Noah, famed knower of things and all-around creep, only to learn that it was SOLD and the proceedings spent on his birthday party this year, which is also why he didn't get any presents. Even after wading through all the schlock, I can't hate Faris, and he does have at least a strong sense of debt and obligation, and we do get some nice gifts -- letters of transit and a new crossbow minigame (new dialog with the Bodkin Fletcher cosplayer unlocked!) and the friendship of father and son.
I just can't hate them.
All in all, Gallopolis was a nice place, and there's a fair bit of appeal in the local color -- the kids running around everywhere are very cute. I'm not a huge fan of the chapter, but that's mostly because of Sylvando getting shoehorned in and the story distorting to fit him, which the game pretends away via contrivance and shilling. Sylvando's big finale is cheap and unimpressive; knowing the knight's creed is not an especially magnificent thing considering you can read it on a local billboard next to the palace and something close to half the town consists of knights who know it by heart; the creed is Gallopolitan Culture 101, week 2.
Week 3, on the other hand, is the dancer's outfit, because yowza. It's fascinating that this version of the outfit, which shows less skin than the typical outfit (which is a derivative of Maya's bikini), is actually more erotic, but that's a tangent for another conversation. (The story is over, which means I'm allowing myself to buy things now).
Anyway, time to go and, oh, wait, new character alert.
Sylvando the superfop catches us on our way out the door, makes some noise about how he's concerned with the Dark One taking away people's smiles and that's why he wants to join us, which is an obvious dodge, but we let him show up anyway. Between his immense skills and casually dropping his ability to purchase things like personal sailing ships he sounds like a rich kid who ran away from some pretty big expectations of his own, but he actually got some training in beforehand. We'll see, after the game spites me by telling me I'm only allowed to have four player characters on the field after demonstrating it's clearly capable of running five.
I am, however, looking forward to him not getting along with Erik. That particular dynamic has been pretty engaging so far.