Review: Dragon Quest VIII (PS2)


Genre: Traditional Role Playing Game
Platform: Playstation 2
ESRB Rating: Teen (Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Simulated Gambling, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes)
Developer: Level 5
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 11/15/05
Official Website: http://www.dragonquest8.com/

Here in America, it’s pretty safe to say that Final Fantasy is the most popular RPG series, especially amongst the mainstream public. But in Japan, that’s not the case. In Japan, one series rules them all: Dragon Quest. Every version that is released ends up breaking all sorts of sales records and becoming very popular in the island country. But that level of popularity hasn’t caught on in America. But that may change.

Americans will probably know the Dragon Quest series better as Dragon Warrior. Released on the NES in 1989, Dragon Warrior, along with Final Fantasy (which was released the following year) helped herald the age of console RPGs. Dragon Warrior II, III and IV were all released on the NES in America, but we never got to experience V and VI (both were released on the Super Famicom system in Japan). Then the next Dragon Warrior we got was VII, which was released in the later PS1 years.

The Dragon Quest series hadn’t changed much over the years. The menu system was basically the same, and the graphics never got a major overhaul. Dragon Warrior VII seemed almost archaic when compared to other RPGs of the time. This was my personal big gripe with the series; there never seemed to be much forward movement, no evolution. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I believe in the “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” adage, but you have to have change and evolve if you want to survive.

After Dragon Warrior VII was released, something happened that nobody EVER expected to happen. The two biggest console RPG powerhouses in the world became one. Square Enix was forged. Many questions were asked, such as “Which of their main series will they focus on?” and “What are the chances of a merger in those series?” While I can’t answer either question with any certainty, they certainly realized that something had to change in the Dragon Quest series for it to thrive. So they looked outside the company for help.

Level 5 is a very young company, but they have already made a name for themselves by creating the excellent Dark Cloud, and its sequel, Dark Chronicle (Dark Cloud 2 in America). Square Enix took the series to them and worked with Level 5 to develop the next in the Dragon Quest series. One of the big upgrades is in the graphics department, which is fully 3D with Level 5’s great usage of cel shading. Other changes took place as well, and now, finally, after several years of production, we have the latest in the Dragon Quest series.

Square Enix (thankfully) decided not to change the title to Dragon Warrior; it remains Dragon Quest VIII. They also included an extra bonus with the title, which is sure to pad the sales: a (pretty short and pathetic) demo of Final Fantasy XII. While fools will probably spend $50 for just the demo, the real gem is the game itself, which sets out to reinvent the series, but all the while stay true to its roots. And that’s exactly what it does. Read on to find out how.


Story
As with all Dragon Quest games, you play a protagonist that you name and that does not speak. Our “Hero” is a guard at the castle in the Kingdom of Trodian. One day, an evil jester by the name of Dhoulmagus manages to get into the castle and steals a powerful scepter. With this scepter, he unleashes an awful curse on the kingdom. The king is turned into a green monster and the princess is turned into a horse. Everyone else is frozen in time. You are the only person who escapes this fate.

Being the loyal subject you are, you help escort the king and the princess and may your way through the country, trying to find Dhoulmagus and get him to undo what he has done. Along the way, your group meets up with the bandit Yangus, the sorceress Jessica and the knight Angelo, all who help you on your journey.

The story itself is certainly not your typical RPG fare. You aren’t out to save the princess, because the princess is with you. She’s just a horse. And you aren’t out to save the world. Though you probably WILL save the world just by stopping Dhoulmagus (you know how games are, where the guy you’re after is always the evilest one in the world). It’s you trying to help a king set things to rights in his kingdom.

I should also mention that the story is not just flat out TOLD to you like this. You pick up a lot of it in your travels, just by talking to people in towns and such. When the game starts, you know SOMETHING has happened in the castle, but the game actually begins right before you, Yangus, King Trode and Princess Medea make it to the first town. Don’t worry though, I didn’t spoil anything. It’s all in the manual. It’s just that the game tells the story in a non-linear fashion, which is a nice change of pace.

So while the story isn’t spectacular, it’s still good. It’s not overly complicated, so you won’t have to take notes. And you can end up getting more of the story if you want just by talking to people. The tone is nice as well, because while it’s serious, it’s also very light and it never feels oppressive. It’s just very good for what it is.
Rating: 7.0

Graphics
Level 5’s work never ceases to amaze me. Everytime they release a new game, their skill just gets better and better. Their skill with cel shading was excellent in Dark Cloud 2, but with Dragon Quest VIII, it’s simply wonderful.

Back when cel shading was young, I was very critical of the technique, because it seemed like every other game featured it, and most of them ended up being ugly. But Level 5 is one company that seems to be getting better and better at it.

The models overall are very well designed. They are designed to explicitly go well with the cel shading style, and all the while, they are extremely detailed. They also animate extremely well too.

Akira Toriyama has designed all the characters and monsters for the Dragon Quest series, and he’s back again with number 8. I have to admit, I absolutely hate his art style in Dragonball, but it just fits perfectly with this game. There are a few characters that bug me, but on the whole, most of the characters look great. I especially love the use of vibrant colors throughout the game. And some of the highly detailed monsters just look wonderful.

Other small details that I really like include the heat shimmer that appears above flames, the poofs if dust that come up off the dirt roads as you run down them, and the flap of the bottom of your jacket as you run. Also, it’s nice when you go looting because you actually will pull books off bookcases, open wardrobes, and even stick your hand down in sacks hanging on the walls.

This game also marks the first time in the series that they deviated from the standard combat screen. Before, combat all appeared in 2D, where you only saw the enemies, and not yourself, but now it will show different camera angles and show you running up to attack the enemies, but they also made it so the first camera angle IS the front shot of the enemies, just like in the previous games.

In case you couldn’t tell, I really like what they’ve done with the game graphically. It’s some of the best cel shading I’ve ever seen, and probably some of the best and most stylish graphics on the PS2. Level 5 has truly become a master of their craft, and their work is stunning in its beauty, and it just makes the game that much more pleasurable to play.
Rating: 9.0

Sound
While the Dragon Quest series has never been an audio powerhouse in my opinion, this game certainly delivers in spades. First off, the soundtrack is simply wonderful. Koichi Sugiyama returns as not only the composer of the music, but he also conducts it while the exquisite Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra performs. Together, they weave magic. Dragon Quest fans are sure to jump for joy at the return of many of their favorites, such as the Overture during the title sequence. Most of the music is original though, and all of it is very majestic and very powerful in whatever emotions it tries to convey.

This is also the first Dragon Quest title to feature voice acting, and while the actors are not anyone I have heard of, they all do an excellent job. The cast is exclusively from the UK and other parts of Europe, so expect quite a few different accents, which sound even better since they are authentic. One odd thing is that some of the voices are very over the top, and sound almost like they would have come from a cartoon out of the 80’s, but they fit so well with the relatively light tone of the game that I can’t help but enjoy them.
Rating: 9.0

Gameplay and Control
Chances are, if you’ve played a Dragon Quest game before, you’ll be right at home here because a lot is similar. But for the newcomers, I’ll explain it. Really, this is one of the simplest yet fulfilling combat systems around. It’s similar to how it has always been, but they tweaked in ways that it needed to be so that it just works.

Combat is all turn based. At the beginning of each turn, you select your party’s moves. Their turns are executed in order based on agility. Your moves are standard for all RPGs. You have Attack, which is a regular physical attack. You have Magic Spells, which are learned by the characters as they level up. There are also Abilities, which you get from allocating Skill Points (also gained when levelling up) to certain areas. They’re basically weapon proficiencies and improve your skill in the different weapons. You can do other standard stuff like Defending and Running if you think you’re outmatched. One unique thing is that you can Psyche Up, which allows you to build up strength. If you do that for several turns in a row, you can unleash a hugely powerful attack.

For the most part, the gameplay is tried and true Dragon Quest. You go to towns, talk to townspeople, buy weapons and armor, rest and save. Which brings me to my biggest gripe with the game. With all the things they could have improved, they didn’t fix the fact that saving is lame. You can only save at a church. And you rest at an inn. I wish they made it where you can rest and save at the same place, because sometimes the inn is on the other side of town as the church, which is just a pain. But that’s another tradition of the series, I suppose.

I guess this brings me to the crux of what I like about the game. This game is pure, undeniable, old-school. Most RPGs you play nowadays are all about getting you from point A to point B without any muss or fuss. Nobody had any important information to tell you, and you could level up relatively quickly. But being the old-school style game it is, Dragon Quest VIII is quite different. Every person you talk to (and there’s A LOT) has something different to say, and a lot of it is interesting. And you see those weapons in the shop? Get ready to fight a lot of battles to be able to afford them. It’s all good though, because you’ll be levelling up a lot also, so the money will come in as well. That type of experience has really been missing from games for a while. Many people won’t like to run around spending hours levelling up, but I miss doing that.

Another small gripe I have is the controls. For the most part, they are standard RPG controls. Except two buttons I consider to be standard are switched. As with just about every game in existence, the X button is Accept or Talk. The Square button brings up your Map if you have one for the town/dungeon you are in. And unfortunately, Triangle is not the Menu, but is actually Cancel, and the Menu button is O. And there’s no way to change it. Ugh. So it takes a little getting used to, but it’s no so bad.

So really, this game is almost perfect and should certainly be loved by RPG fans, and especially Dragon Quest fans. Level 5 didn’t do anything to soil the name of the company, so they deserve a lot of credit for not only doing everything right, but exceeding the expectations that were placed on them.
Rating: 9.0

Replayability
If you blaze through the game at warp speed, you MIGHT be able to finish the game in around 50 hours, give or take. But if you’re like me and most other RPG geeks, it will probably take you close to 100 hours to REALLY complete the game. There’s infamous monsters to track down and defeat (you can use them in a Battle Arena later), Tiny Medals to collect, and of course, CASINOS! There is simply so much to do, and it certainly doesn’t help that the world is HUGE. It may even be MMORPG huge. Seriously, every area is very, very big, with lots of great environments to explore and treasure to hunt for. There is just about always something to do. So while you may not want to replay the game once completed, there is PLENTY to do in the game to KEEP you from completing it.
Rating: 8.0

Balance
In theory, I could grade this particularly bad, but I don’t think it deserves it. Simply put, this game is as hard as you make it. It does get progressively harder the further you go into the game, but if you are a diligent player and spend some time levelling up in every new area you go to, you should be fine. That being said, there is somewhat of a learning curve, and it does take patience to level up, but it is ultimately rewarding. But still, there are some times when it could be a lot more forgiving.
Rating: 6.0

Originality
On one hand, this is the 8th Dragon Quest game. It features a very similar gameplay to the previous ones, and even features character designs and music from the previous games. But on the other hand, this is the first Dragon Quest game to be in full 3D. It is an improvement on its predecessors in every way imaginable. And there are even some unique features to the gameplay as well. So while it isn’t totally unique, there are certainly enough differences between this and other games so it’s not a ripoff either.
Rating: 5.0

Addictiveness
This is the most relative category we have on here. Personally, I really miss the old-school style of gaming and have waited for many years for a game to be not only visually stunning, but also have the gameplay that got me hooked on RPGs in the first place. DQVIII fulfills that very nicely. But there are many people who simply will not like this style of gameplay. Many people don’t want to spend hours upon hours levelling up. But there is plenty more to the game than that. The casinos in Dragon Quest games are ALWAYS a great diversion and a lot of fun to play. And the way the story is told keeps you going as well. They did a good job here overall.
Rating: 7.0

Appeal Factor
In Japan, everyone likes this game. Women throw their panties at the game. Seriously. But in America, the Dragon Quest series isn’t as popular amongst the mainstream crowd. Hardcore gamers know the series well and have fond memories of their earliest adventures in the original series. I still remember spending hours fighting slimes and stuff in the very first Dragon Warrior. If any game can bring Dragon Quest to the masses, this is the one. For the first time in a while, the series is just as good looking as the best games out on the system. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the game came with a demo for Final Fantasy XII. That will get some sales as well.
Rating: 8.0

Miscellaneous
As I keep saying, the Dragon Quest series is a popular one in the Land of the Rising Sun. Square Enix did the right thing by enlisting an outside source to make the game, because it really needed a new look at things, a fresh start. I think this was done more for America’s sake than Japan’s, because the Japanese will by Dragon Quest Doggy Poop. Seriously. But in America, the series has never really taken off. But I think that it finally can. This is the game to do it. They’ve gotten serious and have made the first Dragon Quest game to be awesome graphically, as well as in the sound and gameplay departments. Somebody give Level 5 a lot of money, because they kick a LOT of ass.
Rating: 9.0

Ratings Summary

Story: 7.0
Graphics: 9.0
Sound: 9.0
Gameplay and Control: 9.0
Replayability: 8.0
Balance: 6.0
Originality: 5.0
Addictiveness: 7.0
Appeal Factor: 8.0
Miscellaneous: 9.0

Average: 7.7
Total Score: 7.5 (Very Good)

Short Attention Span Summary
This is, without a doubt in my mind, the best in the Dragon Quest series. It is the total package in RPGs, as far as I’m concerned. The only problem is that it may be more for old-school fans, and the more mainstream crowd may not like the fact that you have to do quite a bit of extraneous levelling to succeed. But that aside, this is a must have game for any real RPG fan. And please, if you’re buying it just for the demo, DON’T. The demo is crap. The game is incredible though.