It’s hard to talk about Dragon Quest VIII without mentioning the history of the series in Japan and its popularity there, the resistance it has faced in the U.S., and that other RPG series. If you’re in one camp, you think the series has been greatly underrated and overlooked; if you’re in another, you think it’s primitive and boring. Dragon Quest VIII won’t answer the question of who is right, but if you can put all of that away for a few hours it will give you the year’s best RPG gaming.
To sum it up in a sentence, Dragon Quest VIII is a Dragon Warrior game with a Final Fantasy level of polish. The influences of both Enix and Square are solidly felt even from the game’s opening, where a score performed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra accompanies Akira Toriyama’s unmistakable character art and a story involving a squat, green monster that calls his horse a “princess.”
No, the story is not breathtaking or particularly original, but after a few hours in that’s okay. We find out that the monster and horse our nameless hero accompanies are in fact a king — his king — and a princess, who have been transformed by the evil Dhoulmagus. Their fate doesn’t compare to that of the rest of the kingdom, as the castle has been covered in thorny vines and the subjects transformed into plants. The only one mysteriously unaffected is the hero, who now leads his liege on a quest to defeat Dhoulmagus and lift the curse.
They manage to always be one step behind in their pursuit of the villain, and recruit a few other characters along the way, most of whom are on similar missions of revenge. No, this is not a Dostoyevsky novel, but something amazing starts to happen after ten or fifteen hours: the realization sets in that this game is actually about the game, and the story is there just enough to move the game forward instead of the other way around. There are some attachments to characters, some emotional moments, and a few plot twists, but this is mostly hit or miss. The lead female, for example, seems to be around simply to provide juvenile “adult” humor and give the player an opportunity to play dress-up (try putting together the bunny outfit). Yet overall, this is about playing the game, not playing the story.
This is an RPG that focuses on the battle, and if you’ve played any of the previous games in the series you know how it works. Dragon Quest VIII uses a traditional turn-based combat system, but this is easily the best example of the style in the last few years. It’s more than just press the button and watch; combat is truly deep, and it’s because of the design of the system and the monsters, not because of some gimmick like pseudo-real-time-button-mashing, four thousand playable characters, or some customization system that requires a PhD in fluid dynamics to understand. There’s as much depth in the boss battles as in any tactical RPG, due to the fact that turns have to be planned far ahead of time and an unexpected attack or ability from the enemy can change your strategy in an instant. Many people automatically call turn-based fighting boring, but if you find this boring you should probably take some Ritalin.
Some simple yet effective game mechanics spice things up, most importantly the skill and alchemy systems. Instead of the class/job system that’s become popular in the series, every character has a set of six skills that can be improved as they level. You can’t max everything out, so you’ll have to choose path for each character, kind of like the cast of American Pie. Tara Reid got breast implants and became a vapid twit, while Sean William Scott got typecast and did Dude, Where’s My Car? These are the kinds of decisions you’ll have to make. This not only allows for some character customization (raising the hero’s sword skill makes him decidedly different than raising fisticuffs) but gives fans of the series a reason to play through the game a few times — daunting, considering it takes more than fifty hours to finish, and that’s if you know what you’re doing. Alchemy is perhaps the most important aspect of the game, allowing you to combine items to create new ones, with some of the most powerful equipment only available this way. It’s even possible to take a few of the weakest healing items in the game and transform them into one of the strongest, giving purpose to all of those “useless” items found by pillaging every house you enter, rummaging through closets and breaking barrels.
While Dragon Quest VIII isn’t short, it is streamlined, especially compared to the last release. Endless level grinding is a thing of the past, and it’s no longer mandatory to talk to everyone in every town twice to move the plot forward. This isn’t to say it’s a game that holds your hand the entire way; exploring is encouraged and very profitable, with treasure scattered across each area of the map. Yet it’s still possible to wander into an area your team isn’t ready for, especially after getting the ship when the entire world opens up. Think about it: when was the last time you actually died in an RPG for some reason other than bad luck?
If nothing else, the graphics are stunning. While the world’s 3D is a bit simple, with some textures not quite as detailed as we expect and some anti-aliasing badly needed, the characters are absolutely perfect. It’s as if the series’ designers were finally given all the tools they needed to fully realize their concepts. The cel-shaded people and monsters give you the feeling of actually playing in a cartoon, and the animations and facial expressions bring everything to life. At one point, you visit a kingdom that’s been in mourning for their queen for two years, and a little girl lying in bed actually looks sad, so much so that you’ll feel sympathy. It’s an interesting commentary on the industry when cel-shading can give characters more emotion than the most current “realistic” visuals. The music for each area is notable too, though some scores are reused a bit too much, and the voice acting is commendable. While half of the characters sound like rejects from the next Harry Potter movie, the voices add that touch of feeling to the world.
No, Dragon Quest VIII is not perfect. The save system can be annoying, and the freedom you’re given includes the freedom to get lost. This is not going to make converts out of people who already hate the series. Well, who are we kidding, let’s just come out and say it: if you’re a Final Fantasy fanboy, don’t play this game. You’ll try your hardest not to like it, and you’ll succeed. But those willing to give it a chance will find the best role playing game — emphasis on the game part — they’ve played in a long time. It might just be enough to make a fan out of you.