Listen, I am a translator by trade. I have been working in the industry for roughly 7 years now, so I understand what drives both publishers and third-party localization companies to reach decisions folks often question.
When it comes to Japanese games in general, most devs do not make our lives any easier, understandably so. Designing text boxes and their flow within the experience is challenging enough, doing so whilst considering how other languages will adapt to the source content is a whole different game.
The first game I have ever worked on goes by the title Super Mario 3D Land. Nintendo made that. Rings a bell? It is one of the highest points of my so-called career so far (PS: I do not really have a career, just a collection of stuff I do, please send me money). I distinctively remember translating the game first from Japanese and then reading my translation aloud against the English version. I hope it did not turn out too awful for any of you who played it in my native tongue. Now, even in a game so structurally simple text-wise, the challenge before me was huge – for such an iconic franchise, what should I try to translate literally and what in the game should be injected with foreign concepts and sensibility? Ultimately, we went for a melting pot of ideas and and tried to make the experience our own.
That is fine for a game that is obviously light on text like 3D Land, but it is a shot in the foot for Square-Enix‘s latest outing Dragon Quest XI on PS4.
Every. Single. Time a major entry on the Dragon Quest series hits western markets, analysts jointly shout – “Is this the one that is going to make it for Dragon Quest?”. The answer often comes in radio silence from the mass market. Enthusiasts like yours truly aside, no one really cares. Despite Dragon Quest XI‘s late 2018 launch, I am not expecting Square‘s Japanese heavyweight to rob Marvel’s Spider-Man, the upcoming Red Dead Redemption 2 or even the lukewarm Shadow of the Tomb Raider from time under the limelight. Granted, the price of admission is somewhat daunting. You are looking at a 100h+ (deliciously) old-school RPG experience that might prove a hard sale for the uninitiated in worlds governed by spiky-haired teenagers with an attitude.
Experience tells me the issue might also lie with Square‘s aggressive efforts with the game’s localization. I have had the chance to play the opening hours of both the English and original Japanese versions (the latter was released last year). The most noticeable change in the western version is the dubious addition of voice acting. I do not like it. At all. The Japanese release is meant as an interactive book infused with fairy-tale-like magic, designed to spur one’s imagination the same way the first games in the series did way back in the Famicom/NES era. The English voice cast lends the experience a local, comfy feel if you cannot do without having characters speak in a language you understand, but robs Dragon Quest XI of some authenticity. Just recently I read an opinion piece by a Japanese critic praising the game’s “authentic Japanese feel”. I honestly do not think that giving a supporting character a thick Scottish accent respects that point of view. Or that changing another character’s name from Martina (in Japan) to Jade (English version) finally solves Dragon Quest‘s lack of appeal to your average western gamer.
The whole thing comes off sounding like a corny Saturday morning cartoon, not an epic journey into fantasy land. Again, you will note how the Japanese version, which has sold 3 million copies on launch, does not even have voice acting. This is a story meant to be read, not listened to.
Localization troubles aside, this is a game you should definitely spend time with. It is probably the most incredible experience you can have this year (more on that later this year, I promise). I just hope Square-Enix finally understand that when it comes to Dragon Quest‘s uphill battle in the west, less is more.
You are a Japanese company, you know what I mean.