It's time to dust off those slime-smacking weapons, because Dynasty Warriors developer Omega Force is back for another stab at Square Enix's beloved Dragon Quest franchise. Once again, the Japanese studio offers up a colourful action role-playing game stuffed with charm and content. And as is usually the case with an Omega Force sequel, Dragon Quest Heroes II feels more refined and better realised than its predecessor.

To start with, the story's way more cohesive. Where the first title had you bounce from battle to battle with only the most basic of explanations, this sequel follows a more traditional narrative path. Alongside your ragtag party of heroes, a large cast of secondary characters add some flavour and intrigue to proceedings as you journey across the land at the behest of its royal ruler. The plot still relies on cliched fantasy tropes like ancient prophecies, but it's told with the kind of storybook charm that you'd expect from a Dragon Quest game. All in all, it serves as a fun, if somewhat predictable backbone for the hack and slash gameplay.

It's the game's structure that really helps string the narrative along, though. Instead of exploring the world via a simple point-and-click map, you're now free to journey across it on foot. It's not truly open world since individual areas are separated from one another, but they're big enough to allow for a nice sense of adventure. Trekking across vast deserts and through spooky forests to the beat of classic Dragon Quest music is something that existing fans are bound to get a kick out of.

In a way, the game is almost like a celebration of all things Dragon Quest. From the character cameos to the broad range of orchestral music brought over from the series' main instalments, the title's bound to get a few smiles from seasoned Questers - there are even some not-so-subtle references and jokes to pick up on throughout the story. That's not to say that newcomers shouldn't give this one a look, however. The plot is detached from the first title so there's no need to worry about missing out on important details, and despite the addition of several new gameplay systems, things generally feel streamlined and very accessible.

Speaking of accessibility, the combat remains easy to pick up and play around with, but new special moves and abilities add a bit more depth. Alongside basic combos that consist of light and heavy attacks, each character can access up to four different techniques. Some heroes, like the axe-wielding Desdemona, bring an arsenal of high-damage strikes to the fight, while others, like the bumbling Torneko, offer a variety of strange support spells. As such, there's plenty of room for experimentation when it comes to putting your party together.

The new class system only adds to this. Larazel and Teresa - the title's two main characters – are able to switch their fighting styles between battles. You can have them swing a giant axe around like the aforementioned Desdemona, for example, or you can slap magical staves into their hands and make them mages. The only drawback is that each class starts out at level 1 regardless of your progress with other disciplines, which means that a fair amount of grinding can become a factor if you're not happy with your current style.

Grinding through hordes upon hordes of monsters for experience points can put a dampener on things, but the open environments full of respawning baddies do mean that you're not just replaying the same missions over and over again in order to get stronger. Chuck in a healthy amount of side quests to keep you occupied between stints of story and there's enough reason to get out there and explore the varied landscape.

It's safe to say that Dragon Quest Heroes II benefits a lot from its move to a more open structure, but it's the big, story-based battles that still steal the show. Throughout the campaign, you'll be thrown into massive conflicts between whole armies of monsters. These clashes are more in line with what we've come to expect from Omega Force's Warriors titles; huge battlefields absolutely bursting with brawls are a sight to behold, and tearing across them feels great. Thankfully, the frame rate very rarely drops below its 60 frames per second target, even when the amount of on-screen action reaches ridiculous levels.

Boss battles are often a highlight, too. Against these much tougher enemies, you'll be forced to make use of your defensive capabilities – namely the all-important dodge roll. Beefier foes can hit like a truck, so success hinges on your ability to read your opponent's movements and react accordingly. As such, the game certainly isn't the brainless hack and slasher that it may be mistaken for – some of these scenarios are devilishly tricky, and the optional bosses scattered throughout the land aren't exactly pushovers, either. The need to balance offence and defence creates an engaging ebb and flow when you're pitted against a challenging opponent.

Combat is kept reasonably fresh thanks to a varied roster of playable characters, but proceedings do start to drag a little towards the end of the game. Boss monsters are few and far between for most of the adventure, but as the story approaches its climax, the title banks too heavily on hurling hordes of bigger beasts in your direction. By this point you'll likely be powerful enough to take them on without too much trouble, but increasingly large health bars can quickly turn things into a slog. When you're already 40 hours into the title and you're more than prepared to make your last stand against the main villain, you may find your patience pushed to its limits.

With such an emphasis being placed on the property's many colourful monsters, it's no surprise that the first game's monster medal system returns, albeit with a welcome alteration. You're still able to summon friendly creatures that'll either fight alongside you or provide temporary support in the form of a magical spell, but the highlight here is the new ability to actually transform into a monster for a limited time. In beast form, you'll have access to a new set of high damage attacks, allowing you to rain some real pain on your foes before the transformation ends. Shape shifting may be brief, but it adds another enjoyable layer of variation to combat.

Speaking of variation, if you fancy switching things up you can also hop online and tackle monster-infested dungeons with friends or strangers. These combat-heavy stages see you and up to three other players battle it out against beasties together – and even if you don't have anyone to team up with, you can head in solo with the computer by your side. Unsurprisingly, entering the fray with friends is good fun, and the option of helping out other players with combat-based story missions is also a nice touch. The multiplayer isn't game-changing, but it's a welcome feature that definitely adds value to the package.

Conclusion

Despite some pacing issues near the end of the game, Dragon Quest Heroes II takes what its predecessor did right and builds upon it in positive ways. Its open world design is definitely a step in the right direction, as is its more prominent narrative and larger cast of colourful characters. Meanwhile, combat remains fun and satisfying, and a sprinkling of new systems add some welcome depth. Dragon Quest Heroes II is exactly what a sequel should be.