Dragon Quest VIII is a well done modern take on classic RPGs
After a long absence Stateside, Enix's Dragon Quest series returns in Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King. This time around, the story begins with a small group of strange travelers camped out in the woods. Leading the motley group is the Hero, a retainer from the ruined Trodain castle seeking to restore it to its former glory. He’s joined by a bandit named Yangus, who follows him around like a puppy, The Hero’s liege King Trode, and Trode’s beautiful daughter Medea. Well, she would be beautiful if it weren’t for the curse that has transformed her into the party’s pack horse and Trode into some sort of freaky-looking frog man. The group is hot on the trail of an evil jester who stole the king's prized scepter and used its power to destroy Trodain and curse everyone there. The Hero and his crew will travel far and wide him track down and reverse the curse placed on Trodain’s citizens, king, and princess. As you journey through the world, you'll find out more about the ancient scepter, meet other characters seeking the scepter for their own reasons, and get yourself wrapped up in saving the world. Hey, it's an RPG, what kind of story did you expect? While the plot reeks of the "ragtag group saves the world from an ancient evil" cliché, DQVIII does a good job with the story and does provide a few twists along the way.
The visual style of DQVIII is excellent and does a good job in assisting the story. While it doesn’t have the best graphics that the PS2 has seen, DQVIII's environments are lush and colorful, while the characters all have a lot of charm of their own. The world has a medieval fantasy feel, with lots of forests, open seas, and mountains dotted with unique and interesting towns and castles. The NPCs are bright and generally well animated, which you would expect since the creator of Dragon Ball Z designed the art style. Characters and monsters do repeat over the course of the game, but they are all very interesting. Enemies, especially, have much more personality than you would expect. In battles, they will often waste a lot of their turns frolicking, laughing at you, and tripping over their own feet instead of attacking you. A great example of this is an early imp monster that tries to cast ultra powerful spells, only to fail and fall over because it doesn't have enough MP.
The audio in DQVIII is astoundingly good and actually makes it a better game. Every piece of background music is done with a full orchestra, giving DQVIII a bit of a movie feel. Every single one of the tracks is excellent, and makes good use of a number of instruments. You'll hear the battle theme literally thousands of times and never get sick of it. Since DQVIII cycles between day and night, most tracks also have a day and night version. The daytime music sounds robust and exciting, like the day is in full swing, while nighttime is more subdued and sounds like a lullaby. This little touch adds much to the appeal of the game.
The background music isn't the only treat for your ears. The North American version added quite a bit of voiceover work to what was solely text-based dialogue in Japan. While the voiceover tracks are strangely tinny, sounding like a low quality mp3, the voice acting is superb. The voice actors are almost exclusively British, and each character has their own style. Yangus is a cockney bandit, Jessica is a vengeance seeking rich girl, Angelo is an aristocratic ladies man, and King Trode is a noble whiner. The dialogue is mostly serious, but you'll run into plenty of funny moments, especially when King Trode repeatedly sneaks up on Yangus who exclaims "COR BLIMEY!" Also, in an interesting throwback, a lot of the sound effects are seemingly lifted from the NES versions of Dragon Quest. Spells like Zoom, actions like fleeing battles, and other random sounds like finding an item after battle, are very “8-bitish.” This was a strange choice of sound effects, but they fit the game very well.
If you've ever wanted a lesson in classic RPG combat, DQVIII will straight up school you. Like most turn-based RPGs, you start off by picking one of a few options for each character, including the standard attack, magic, flee, item, and special skills actions. You can also build up character strength using “psyche up” and try to force the enemy to flee using “intimidate,” but that’s all there is. Once you enter in your party's actions, you sit back and watch your characters and enemies go through their animations. Then you get to repeat the cycle all over again. This is turn-based RPG combat at its most basic, though the difficulty will keep you on your toes. There was a few times when I caught myself biting my fingernails because I needed a healing spell to go off before the enemy attacked and killed me. Combat does get a bit easier later as you gain some key abilities, but each new dungeon is a war of attrition with your magic points and health. Your enemies stay difficult, even as you level up, and you'll run into very tough boss battles when your characters are at their weakest. It can be a bit frustrating, but it’s ultimately very satisfying when you finally topple the boss using a few desperate attacks and a timely critical hit. Sometimes, though, luck isn’t enough and the only way to get through these tough spots is by spend a bit of time leveling up, healing at town, and going back in for some more level grinding. DQVIII is designed for this, and you will have to put in a few marathon leveling sessions. They get a little boring, but it’s worth it when you're done and ready to take on the next boss. It’s a testament to how good this game is that you won’t get sick of it, even after a couple hours of fighting the same enemies over and over again.
It’s a good thing that this game is so well done, because it is really long. The main story can take up to 50 hours or so, with sidequests that will add another 20 or more. Though some of this time will be spent level grinding, the never feels like it drags at any point. The story was very well paced, and engaging throughout. Just when the game seems to wrapping up, the bad guy would sneak away, and the party had to start hunting him down yet again. This game was certainly worth $50 just by its length alone, but that wasn’t good enough for Square Enix. DQVIII also packs-in the highly anticipated demo for Final Fantasy XII. The demo can easily be beaten in under an hour, but it's a tasty morsel that's very hard to put down. No doubt, some people purchased DQVIII for the demo alone, which is fine because they’ll be pleasantly surprised when they complete it and pop DQVIII in their PS2.
Dragon Quest VIII doesn’t mess with the series’ time tested turn-based RPG formula. The simple battle system and massive amount of level grinding can be a bit of a turnoff to some players, but they hearken back to the series’ origins on the NES. Anyone who's even a passing fan of RPGs should pick this game up. Just clear your schedule first.