The first RPG I ever played was Enix's Dragon Warrior on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game came free with a year's subscription to Nintendo Power magazine and while I didn't know what to expect from it at the time, it is the game most responsible for changing my view on gaming. A while later, I bought Final Fantasy and from then on, I was an RPG addict. Since that time, over 15 years ago, I have played almost every RPG franchise under the sun and although my copy of Dragon Warrior (the Japanese title Dragon Quest couldn't be used in North America due to copyright) hasn't been played since the SNES came out, it still (and will always) hold a very fond place in my gamers heart. The series continued to grow, but for some reason or another, I've never kept in touch with it, dabbling more in the Final Fantasy world. But now, with the developing genius of Level-5 (Dark Cloud 2), Dragon Quest VIII returns to reclaim its crown as RPG king; a game full of nostalgia, evolution, memorable characters and timeless gameplay. The perfect RPG.
While the manual does include a Prologue detailing how an evil court jester named Dhoulmagus unleashed a foul curse upon an entire kingdom, transforming the King and the Princess, and leaving only one person unscathed (the Hero - You), the game opens quite matter-of-factly without a loud intro or engrossing CG cinema. You find the Hero (which you can name as you see fit) in a clearing with a large oafish man named Yangus who speaks with an odd cokney-ish accent and a green troll standing next to a horse and carriage. The oaf refers to you as the Guv' (governor) while the green troll addresses you with a royal tone, referring to the horse as the "Princess". This quiet scene adequately sets the tone for the 100 hours that are to come. While there is an epic bubbling under DQVIII's surface, it is mostly a game featuring intelligent character interactions, small bits of story cleverly revealed one piece at a time and mostly about enjoying the "now" as opposed to what is obviously coming up. The story, while simple, is secondary to the overall web of interaction that DQVIII casts. The characters are not only real, but everything they say and do is endearing and every NPC speaks intelligently and in a matter that will have you reading every word instead of skipping them. In a nutshell, you and your merry band will travel from town to town (a la FFVII) searching for Dhoulmagus while part of a quasi video game "road/buddy movie"; one who's characters stay with you long after the resolution (which is really secondary) has come and gone. Jessica, Angelo, Yangus, The Hero and even Trode are so real; you will remember your time with DQVIII as time spent with friends.
Dragon Quest VIII's gameplay is a finely tuned mishmash of every conceivable RPG staple that has ever worked with its own clever polish and tweak on things. The game follows the main character from a third person perspective using the shoulder buttons to control the sway of the camera. You can re-centre the camera at any time behind the Hero or use first person view to take in your surroundings. While in a town, you will find places to buy items/potions, armor and weapons as well as a bevy or residents that will further the story along. Each town also has its own church where you can (quite cleverly) go to confession (save your game), ask for divination (see how far each character is from leveling up), resurrect fallen allies (although you can use a spell for this later on as well), cure poison and remove curses. This may seem a little odd to some, but it works. The downside to having to go to church for saving your game is that you usually can't save in dungeons or before a boss fight, which may annoy a few. As always, you will also find Inns to stay in (you can rest until nightfall or overnight), casinos which will gladly rob you of your time and money and banks where you can deposit your gold coins. This is particularly useful since DQVIII's penalty for having your party completely wiped out is half the gold you are carrying.
Whether inside a town, a dungeon or exploring the world outside, DQVIII also provides you with a compass and a map. This is useful since DQ's world is quite large and you can readily explore every inch of it whenever you want. You may want to level up a bit before accessing certain areas, but if you are adventurous enough, the world (and death) is yours for the finding. You will travel on foot initially, but after a while (twenty hours almost) you will gain access to your very own ship which makes travel a lot quicker. Yes, the game offers you a whole world to explore at your leisure, but also give you very specific directions as to where you need to go to further the plot. You will never wonder where to go next or what to do and if you've shelved the game for a few days and forgotten what your goals were, talking to the members of your party will quickly refresh your memory.
For many, (myself included), a game's inventory and status screens can make or break an RPG. Luckily, DQVIII uses a tried and true method with a few changes here and there. Pressing the O button brings up a menu containing four tabs; Items, Magic, Attributes and Misc. In Items, you can see what each character is carrying (each one has his/her own limited inventory which also contains equipped items) and what is in "the bag". The bag is a global repository which has no limit. While in battle, however, each character only has access to the items in their respective inventories which make for some close calls on occasion. It is also in the Items section that you can equip armor and weapons as well as make trades between characters. Note that each character has his or her own class, and it is actually pretty rare to find weapons or armor that can be swapped between them.
In the Magic menu, you have access to all your spells and can use them readily whenever you like. The Attributes menu contains all character stats, levels and skills. While hardly the one you'll use the most, Misc. contains many items that are most interesting. It allows you to perform certain feats on your party (healing, set tactics, line-ups, equipment changes, settings and options, etc) but it also has your battle records which give you fun little records of your adventures, from collected items list to monster glossaries, etc. It is also in the Misc. menu that you will eventually gain access to the Magic Pot where you will be able to make new items out of recipes you've gathered. While a whole chapter could be written on this subject alone, it is one of the many surprises that are better left for each gamer to discover on their own.
The battles in DQVIII may seem common from the onset, but there is generally something special about each one that makes it memorable nonetheless. On each turn you are given the typical choices to Fight, Flee, Intimidate or set Tactics. While Intimidate sometimes works and fleeing is sometimes necessary (not), setting tactics assumes you've given the game control of Angelo, Jessica and Yangus (which isn't as fun, although it works well) leaving Fighting as your only valid option. Here you will be presented with the options to attack using a weapon, attack using an ability, use a spell, use an item, defend or Psyche Up. Of these, Psyching Up may seem like a novel choice, but all it allows you to do is pass a turn and build a tension meter, which allows you to perform a bigger attack on the next move. While it works well, sometimes passing up an attack is not an option. What makes each battle so much fun is the types of enemies you'll encounter. From the classic Slime to the funny enemies that each have hilarious attacks (like an enemy that will tell a joke... each character will then "get it" and begin laughing, unable to move, or "not get it" and continue fighting), the various types of enemies are truly the highlight of the battle system.
As with most traditional Japanese RPGs, the battles occur randomly while walking around in dungeons or on the world map. What may put off a few gamers out there is the amount of "grinding" or leveling that is required early on in the game. When you enter your first dungeon, you will easily defeat everything in sight, but once you reach the boss, and without saving, you'll be wiped out. The game never tells you to level up, but in a few areas, you must in order to continue. If this sounds like a chore, it's not really, since leveling up your characters allows you to also customize their abilities. Every level earned entitles you to a set amount of points that you can place in certain attributes. These are mostly weapon/unarmed attributes, but there is generally another one which offers a few surprises. In the case of Jessica, leveling up her Sex Appeal will enable her to learn a few moves they don't teach in school. The result will be boss characters unable to look away from her and other enemies staring at her with lust. As always, these are generally humorous and surprising to see.
Novels could be written about DQVIII's various gameplay nuances and mechanics, but the entire story would boil down to this: the fighting is fun, the leveling up is interesting and the enemies are hilarious. But more-so, DQVIII clearly shows that RPGs are not solely defined by their battle systems or dungeon architecture, but by strong characters, intriguing stories and surprises occurring when you least expect them. DQVIII may move a little slow for many and may threw off a few off with its downplayed sense of grandeur, but make no mistake about it, it is a game that intelligently balances intimate interactions with large spectacles and yes, there are more than a few twists and turns to satisfy.
Graphically, Dragon Quest VIII uses a blend of cell shading for its characters and full-blown 3D textures for its environments. While the game's locals never seem to tax the PS2 system, there are few load times and the world is large and detailed enough to still awe you from time to time. The true beauty of DQVIII lies again with its characters and how they are represented. From Jessica, the determined and headstrong bombshell, with her various costumes, to Yangus as he runs into Trode by accident from time to time. This game isn't about spectacle, but about something more intimate and personal.
In the audio department, DQVIII features some of the best voice work ever put to disc. The translation is intelligent and the lines are delivered perfectly with enough nuance and emotion (not to mention, with odd accents) to make each word memorable. Yangus in particular is a character that you'll smile at his every word. Musically, DQVIII stumbles slightly, but only in the fact that its score isn't bigger. What's there is so incredibly well composed and performed that you'll wish there were 100 more themes and tracks in the game. And, as a departure from other RPGs, DQVIII's score is bold and in your face. This isn't a quite little ditty that works its way into your subconscious; this is a loud-50's-big-band-in-your-face kind of score that isn't afraid to use any instrument at hand to make its point. The battle them is amazingly addictive, but after hearing it several hundred time (with its clever lead in) you'll wish for maybe a second battle theme to complement this one. All considered, a brilliant job, but suffers from not being big enough.
It's hard to say what makes Dragon Quest VIII such a solid game, but make no mistake about it, it does have that "intangible" quality that allows it to achieve perfection. After the 60 hour adventure, you will easily stay on to see what else this world allows you to do and discover. The characters are incredibly memorable (as are the enemies) and their trials and perils will stay with you long after the final credits have scrolled by. While this series has never received the attention of Final Fantasy, it's not for lack of quality or innovation. Final Fantasy will always be the cutting-edge series that looks better than good, plays fast and slick and feels like cotton candy. But Dragon Quest VIII, with its quiet fanfare, may very well be the one that you remember in your old age. A highly recommended title that is sure to please.