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
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.