A great introduction to the Dragon Quest series
I'm not one of those people who was super-familiar with the ins and outs of the Dragon Quest series. I vaguely recall playing Dragon Warrior on a friend's NES back when I was a little kid, but I don't remember a single thing about it other than the name. I am, however, a big fan of Japanese RPG's of all sorts, and when it was announced that Dragon Quest VIII would see a stateside release, I was pretty intrigued. Like I say, I didn't know much about the series except that it was pretty popular in Japan (that might be the understatement of the year), but I knew I loved Square and Level-5's games respectively. I knew I had to get my hands on this one, and I was absolutely right.
Dragon Quest VIII, as with basically all the recent releases in the Dragon Quest series (remakes or otherwise) is an RPG traditionalist's dream, which puts it right up my alley. The gameplay mechanics took a refreshing back-to-basics mentality that still works well today. Battles are turn-based, with no action gauges or menu complexities. The overworld is huge, and towns have a weighty feel to them, though they're never so large as to be overwhelming. Things that I would later recognize as Dragon Quest stabples are also present, such as churches to save or heal, nefarious and disturbingly evil slimes (well, ok, not so disturbing then), a steep difficulty level, and the only negative to the whole series - a whole lotta grinding.
Power doesn't come cheaply in Dragon Quest VIII. Sure, if you know what you're doing, you'll have no real difficulty with the game besides a few rough boss fights. But when I first came into this game, I was nothing but monster mash. See, I didn't realize the game required me to grind out a couple of extra levels in just about every location I hit, an idea I stubbornly refused to do until my brains had finally been smashed five or six times. Dragon Quest is not as super-hardcore as, say, an NIS game, but it does require a certain devotion to its gameplay mechanics that may or may not be rewarding to a gamer. For me, once I got into the rhythm of it and learned the ins and outs of the game's Alchemy Pot (more on that in a second), it became pretty addictive and rewarding. For others, though, the necessity of going through dozens of difficult fights for a couple of measly levels to advance the story might be too much. It's not for the twitchy, trigger-happy crowd, that's for sure.
One thing I've always liked about this game, and the Dragon Quest series in general, is how frugal the game is with handing out money and items as rewards. You have to work your ass off to afford halfway decent equipment, and even then, you're not going to be good enough unless you take the time to explore and do some of the side quests and ancillary stuff. Throughout the game, you'll collect items that can be used in the Alchemy Pot. It's fairly easy to understand - by mixing and matching a few items, you'll wind up with a new one. The trick is in finding those rare bits and bobs, and figuring out what to do with them. You'll gain recipes along the way. Finding new items to use takes some of that edge off the level grind, as well as doing side quests and exploring the huge, diverse world.
The game, like many of Level-5's creations, has aged extremely well. The graphical design looked great then and looks good now. The music in Dragon Quest games is usually catchy and fairly breezy, and that's about the same here. The characters are a little generic, but their interactions with each other and the world around them make them much more likable than I expected. And I dare you not to love saying, "Cor blimey!" after just a single playthrough. So while the characters and the plot won't exactly thrill you, they do have an awful lot of goofy charm and lovable qualities. There's a certain feel-good attitude that pervades the entire Dragon Quest series that I adore. It's not childlike, but it's a very sweet, endearing series of games with a ton of heart.
Dragon Quest VIII really made a fan out of me, despite my initial grumpiness at that tough difficulty level and the necessary level grinding. But if you're willing to give it a real chance, I think you'll find that Dragon Quest VIII is one hell of a game that should holds up spectacularly well.