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Role Playing (Games)

Review: Dragon Quest VIII 245

Most modern single-player RPGs have changed quite a bit since the early days of the NES. Real-time combat and epic story arcs have allowed the traditionally hardcore RPG market to draw in new fans who may not otherwise want to invest 100+ hours on a single title. Square Enix, the company that founded the genre, spits in the eye of progress with Dragon Quest VIII. This traditional dungeon delve has an old-school heart with a beautiful current-generation exterior. Read on for my impressions of the latest chapter in the mind-numbingly popular Dragon Quest series.
  • Title: Dragon Quest VIII
  • Developer: Level 5
  • Publisher: Square Enix
  • System:PS2
  • Score:9/10

Admittedly, your mind is only likely numb if you live in Japan. The U.S. first saw the series on the Nintendo Entertainment System as Dragon Warrior, and some of the most hardcore elements were dumbed down for our squishy American palates. Since those heady early days Dragon Quest has been largely absent from our shores. Dragon Quest VIII allows us to once again experience what can only be described as a Japanese cultural phenomenon.

Dragon Quest's focus is on entertaining and enjoyable gameplay, and so for the most part the game's plot can be forgiven for being fairly weak. The game's subtitle, "Journey of the Cursed King", is almost everything you need to know to understand what's going on. You, an unnamed heroic adventurer, are on the hunt for a power-hungry sorcerer. The spellcaster has stolen a potent magical artifact, and pair of royals present when the artifact was stolen are turned into a frog-demon thing and a horse. They hook up with you and your buddy Yangus (a burly fighter-type), in hopes of finding the spellcaster and reversing the magical effect that imprisons them. Along the way you encounter some typical RPG stereotypes (like the scantily clad mage Jessica), but for the most part that's the hook that drives the story. While this doesn't sound like much to go on, the NPC characterizations are so well-written and over-the-top that it's hard not to like them.

Really, it's surprisingly hard not to like everything about this game. Gameplay-wise, the latest installment of the Dragon Quest series is an unapologetic blast from the past. The game features menu-driven turn-based combat, endless hours of gameplay, a random encounter strewn overworld map, and plenty of slimes. You'd think this would tire a veteran RPG player, but the quality of the game's presentation and the obvious effort the designers put into the game's systems is inspiring. The overworld map, a tired warhorse in the gaming world, is a beautifully rendered naturescape. Beautiful glens, soaring caverns, and imposing ruins all lie hidden within the gameworld. The mini-map, a constant companion in most games, is blissfully absent. Without any easy-access artificial assistance, the temptation to explore is overwhelming, and can lead to some interesting hard-to-find creatures and treasures.

This sense of exploration is only broken by the occasional encounter with wandering monsters. The pace of encounters is well spaced out, to ensure that you won't have to fight through several encounters just to proceed a short way down a trail. The combat is a traditional RPG line-up, with enemies on one side and heroes on the other. Players navigate an intuitive menu to instruct their characters in who and how to fight, but attacks are far from the bland or ordinary. Both monsters and heroes have an array of visually interesting attacks and spells to take out opposing forces. Giant tongues seem to be a weapon of choice for the enemies, who have an array of quirky appearances and behaviors. Besides the title-identifying slimes, there are a bevy of beasts and monsters to face down. Some of the early beasts actually forgo their turns to calmly lick their fur. This variety of choice, animation, and behavior ensures that even the most jaded RPG fan is unlikely to get bored with combat. Trying to one-button push your way through combat, if you do start to glaze over, will teach you the error of your ways quickly. The challenge level here is high, and you can expect to wipe more than once at low levels. The tenacity exhibited by a gang of cute little kitty cats can easily end in tragedy.

That gang of cats, like everything else in the game, have distinct sensibilities conveyed by their unique visual design. The whole title has a beautiful cell-shaded look, and an anime quality that brings the personality of each beast and NPC to the fore. Dragon Ball Z designer Akira Toriyama helmed the look of this title, and the result is a naturalistic landscape and highly distinctive characters. The audio environment is stirring as well. Adventuring music takes center stage, with the occasional more thoughtful piece thrown in to highlight some of the game's quieter moments. Despite the tissue-paper plot, the voice acting is top-notch. The laughable whining and cowardice of the King and Yangus's thick brogue should set the standard for RPG cohorts in future titles. The dialogue's localization is also tremendous, with some jokes managing to be bitingly clever. It's hard not to appreciate the attention to detail spent here, as the inordinate amount of time you'll spend with these characters almost requires a sense of connection and empathy. While they may not make you cry, you'll definitely enjoy spending time with these likable non-people.

Dragon Quest VIII is not an evolution in the genre, nor is it likely to convert a dyed-in-the-wool anti-RPG nut. It's a challenging old-school game that appeals directly to traditional fans, and does so with personality, levity, and a lot of style. The hack and slash, turn-based combat system has never been so lovingly displayed as it is in this title. If you ever find yourself pining for those long-past grind sessions, gaining levels outside of Elfland by slaying ogres, this is a game you simply must play.

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Review: Dragon Quest VIII

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  • by NotoriousGOD ( 936922 ) on Friday December 16, 2005 @03:55PM (#14273886)
    How can you lose? This game proves to be a traditional RPG style game that I grew up on plus the modern graphics, control and AI that provides a better challenge and experience. And plus you get a playable demo of the next FF in the franchise. If you don't buy it, you're a nazi.
  • Hmmm (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 16, 2005 @03:57PM (#14273899)
    I must say that I've seen 2D graphics that looked better than these 3D graphics which look like 2D graphics...

    But Dragon Quest did never let me down!
  • Good! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ivan256 ( 17499 ) * on Friday December 16, 2005 @03:59PM (#14273918)
    Square Enix, the company that founded the genre, spits in the eye of progress with Dragon Quest VIII.

    You know, just because people have come up with new gameplay mechanics doesn't mean we should abandon the old ones. It's about time some tried and true turn based RPG came back on the market. The game market has grown, and there's room for the old style and the new style out there. I think it's fair to say that the old turn based style games offer different types of strategy than the newer real time games, and I was getting a little tired of every new RPG testing my reflexes and jacking up the pace. Those are good games, but sometimes you want to slow down and relax a bit, or add in the increased complexity that having turns allows.

    If somebody came up with a real-time version of a game like chess that was sufficiently fun that it became popular, I bet people would still play the old version too. Why should video games be any different. While they're at it, let's get some good old style 2D (the environments, not the graphics nescessarily) platformers back out there for non-handheld systems. Perhaps something that uses the Symphony of the Night engine. Maybe the Revolution will bring some of these types of games back.
  • by Johnny Sailor ( 936454 ) on Friday December 16, 2005 @04:01PM (#14273933)
    or if it's because it has a refreshingly simple character system. You have a couple of easily understandable stats, when you level you have 5 different abilities you can choose from 4 weapons, and one unique ability per character, and the story isn't some over the top ridiculously unable to be understood thing. There's no sphere grid system to confuse people. There aren't 20 different stats to try and understand. It's just straight forward, and yet still deep and entertaining. The characters are great, and there's only four, so you don't have to worry about missing out on plotline for a character, or keeping everyone's level equal. Really the only complaint I have about it is the fact that there is a bunch of running around and fighting in order to level, just in order to beat the next dungeon.
  • by Thunderstruck ( 210399 ) on Friday December 16, 2005 @04:04PM (#14273953)
    After the first hour or two, does anyone really notice the eye-candy graphics? If not, why not just skip that part alltogether and play a MUD for free?

    Endless zombie gore
    pales before the epic thrill
    of asterisk spam

    -A haiku for MUDs.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 16, 2005 @04:17PM (#14274058)
    How the heck does this guy get modded up? You can make a similar argument for just about any genre:

    Adventure games: Try every option until you pick the right one. Yay.
    FPS: Run around, shoot stuff. Yay.
    RTS: Let's see who can click the fastest. Yay.

  • by oGMo ( 379 ) on Friday December 16, 2005 @04:28PM (#14274128)
    If you ever find yourself pining for those long-past grind sessions, gaining levels outside of Elfland by slaying ogres, this is a game you simply must play.

    As others have noted, this more FF1 than DQ1. Additionally, you didn't fight ogres outside elfland; you go to the top of the peninsula just northeast of Pravoka. Due to the map design and the way the monster distribution is laid out in a grid across the map, in these two squares you find monsters from across the next continent. With decent buff skills, and the fact the Pravoka area is very early in the game, you can gain levels very quickly here.

    (The Dawn of Souls port for the GBA makes this even more trivial with the addition of MP instead of static spell counts. I was able to complete the game in barely 13 hours with 999999 gold, level 60+ characters, and all the items, using this method followed by harvesting the dungeons out of order for items and exp.)

    In Dragon Warrior, you could gain levels very quickly by fighting Metal Slimes, which gave tons of exp and had very little HP... but were very hard to hit.

  • by EXTomar ( 78739 ) on Friday December 16, 2005 @04:29PM (#14274130)
    ...and the best arguement why many "old school" ideas should be left at home. DQ8 is simply not challenging because they embraced many old school concepts instead of washing their hands of it or improving upon them.

    DQ8 combat engine is simplistic. I mean dirt simple to the point you can predict with "in your head math" whether you can win the fight or should flee before damage is even exchanged. This leaves a system where the only way one can challenge the player is by trying to use "Surprise! Your Dead!" rare super attacks or the equally rare chance that given 4 targets, the size of your party, they will all chose to hit just one. Neither of these senarios features much intelgence nor does it dictate any strategy or stance player should take (beyond "overwhelming forces"). In any event, you are left with no strategy to play with. No tactics to leverage. No action to minimize risks or maximize bonuses. Simply put: there are no real decisions in DQ8. You either determin in the first round if you can win or leave.

    DQ8 tries to promote mindless "grinding". This sort of aimless wandering around hoping for random encounters is an artifact any level based system which DQ8 is strongly tied into. Nominally, grinding happens when a player "lucks out" or out flanks the game to arrive a place the game didn't content on seeing at this particular time or level. The problem with DQ8 and their guerilla style strategy is that by the time you disembark a city, travel to the dungeon entrance, work your way to the bottom of a dungeon, spending resources and energy along the way to do so, it is too late to show the player "Oops, you should have been a higher level!" Grinding should be tuned and supressed as much as possible. Tasked based quest systems give much more satisfaction than vague "see you when you get there" systems DQ8 uses.

    Randomly wandering around, randonly bumping into creatures that may randomly kill you off just isn't fun. I seriously question they were fun back in the "old school" days too (I don't ever seem to remember thinking "oh joy! another random encounter" in any console RPG). We now have the knowledge and technology to actually instill some more complex logic and real challenges into games instead of relying on random acts of "fickle fate" to try to trip up players. If I wanted to play a game that featued such randomness, I would rather play poker.

    DQ8 is a great looking game. The plot is sometimes amusing even if it is cheesey RPG fare. The music is a bit repetive but otherwise is awesome. I even like the touch that the SFX are old school. It is the wet dream of a designer who lived 20+ years ago who thought this is how these games should look like. The problem is we are play this game now instead of then and are left wonder "Why is this fun?"
  • Re:Weird graphics (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ivan256 ( 17499 ) * on Friday December 16, 2005 @05:12PM (#14274684)
    When I said "if you ask me" I meant that *I* would have bought it, but since you bring it up...

    There are *tons* of profitable games that don't have top of the line graphics. They just aren't super hyped with multi-million dollar marketing budgets, because they don't need tens or thousands of copies to sell to make a profit. You need cutting edge graphic and a huge budget to justify outrageous hype fueled by a huge amount a advertising dollars, but the the need for big budgets and fancy graphics is a complete myth that only people who need to be spoon fed their content buy into.

    Profitable games *don't* need cutting edge graphics. If you disagree, I'd point you to Puzzle Pirates, Popcap, Kingdom of Loathing, or one of the dozens of others of low-profile profitable games that have some out in the last year or two. If you don't know this, you're missing out. Spend a few hours to search around and see what you're missing when you don't look at games that don't advertise on television or in pay-for-reviews gaming rags.
  • What!?!?! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Belial6 ( 794905 ) on Friday December 16, 2005 @05:39PM (#14275018)
    "Square Enix, the company that founded the genre"?!?!?!

    BS, BS and more BS. The CRPG genre was well established before Square [] or Enix [] were even founded as companies. Heck Ultima III [] (Richard Garrot's forth CRPG) had already been released before those companies came into being, Ultima IV [] was out before the first Dragon Quest [], and Ultima 5 [] was out before the first Dragon Warrior [] Game.

    Dragon Warrior was a dumbed down newbie to a mature and established CRPG genre when it was released.
  • by discoalucardx ( 840212 ) on Friday December 16, 2005 @05:41PM (#14275039)
    I agree with this 100%. DQ8 is really just a case of outdated gameplay mixed with pretty graphics. Which is the only reason it's getting the attention and reviews that it has been.

    Grandia 3 and Shadow Hearts From the New World are both due out early next year. Both are far, far better. As are any of the Shin Megami Tensei games, of which three have been localized currently for the PS2. These are the games that should be getting the attention, not boring drivel like DQ8.
  • Elfland (Score:2, Insightful)

    by silverdirk ( 853406 ) on Friday December 16, 2005 @06:17PM (#14275526)
    Aah, the giants outside Elfland! That was great stuff ;-) I seem to remember the trolls on the southeast corner of the world being better for grinding, though.

    (FF1, for those who missed out)

  • by kai.chan ( 795863 ) on Friday December 16, 2005 @11:42PM (#14277675)
    What you have said is completely untrue. The tactics and strategy in Dragon Quest is much, much deeper than that of the typical RPG. When you just choose to not see the intricate combat system and decided to brute force your way through the game through "mindless grinding", it doesn't mean that the game is simple at all.

    Sure, you can play Dragon Quest VIII by simply choosing Attack with all your characters, "grind" hours to overpower the dungeon which you should have tackled 5 levels ago, but that is only one way of playing it.

    There is a very deep combat system that requries you to constantly calculate maximum damage output while minimizing damage input. If you tackle dungeons at the designed level range, you absolutely need to think of strategy for every combination of monster group that you encounter.

    Unlike other RPGs, you can't mindlessly use the Attack command and hope to win every battle unharmed and reach the boss with adequate HP and MP. Again, you have to think of the best way to maximize damage output and minimize damage input.

    As a simple example, let say your Hero does 5 damage and Yangus does 10 damage. If there are two monsters with 7 HP each, you should not set your Hero and Yangus to attack the same enemy in Round 1. You should set the Hero to attack Monster A, while Yangus attacks Monster B. This way, after the first round, one of the monster would be at 2HP, while the other would be dead. If you had set them to attack the same monster, one of the monster will have full HP.

    Of course, the system gets more complicated depending on Agility, monster attacks, and many other factors. But it is the combination of tactics and choices every round in every battle that enables you to get to the boss with enough HP and MP to defeat it.

    Definitely, if you chose to brute force your way through the game, then all you will see is "mindless grinding", but you are completely missing the strategic aspect of the combat system.

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