Classic DQ gameplay + orchestrated music = perfect DQ game.
NOTE: This review was written by me years ago, but it's never been posted on GB, so enjoy!
Square Enix’s long-running RPG series Dragon Quest is about the only series that can stand toe-to-toe with that other famous series, Final Fantasy, in terms of popularity and sales. It’s well known, however, that Dragon Quest’s success isn’t as decorated in North America as it is in Japan. That didn’t stop Square Enix from trying, though, because they know that there’s a fairly large RPG audience in North America—Final Fantasy has proven that. Could Dragon Quest VIII reach sales numbers in the millions? Sure—it’s got the looks, it sounds great, and it plays very well, just like a Final Fantasy game. But will DQ8 achieve those numbers? That still remains to be seen. From a gamer’s point of view, we just want to know if DQ8 is a good game, and it definitely is. In fact, if you weren’t too fond of DQ7, you should pick up DQ8 right away, so get off that fence.
In DQ8, you play as, well, you. You’re a guardsman of Trodain Castle, and you’re on a quest to undo the curse placed on your king, his daughter, and the entire castle. The entire quest will take you a minimum of 80 hours to complete, and that’s if you don’t mess around with any of the sidequests. One of the great things about DQ8 is that despite its great length, the quest never seems to drag on; the only thing that could probably be removed is the fetch quest right before the final boss battle, but the task only takes a few minutes to complete. The story is strictly by the book, so you won’t find anything shocking or something to debate, and that’s fine. The three main playable characters (excluding the hero) are likable, and they have to be since they’re all you get throughout the entire quest. One interesting thing to note is that the world mainly consists of people who speak as if they hail from the United Kingdom. The voice acting itself is well done, though King Trode will take some getting used to.
DQ8’s gameplay is highly refined from the last game. Combat now consists of a combination of first- and third-person viewpoints, which makes battles more exciting to watch (for a turn-based system, anyway). Now you can actually watch your characters fall asleep, dance, and even die. The new addition to the combat system is the tension system, which allows both friend and foe to power up their attacks. Raising tension also powers up magic attacks, so magic users can benefit too. Several of the battles later in the game will have you struggling to keep your tension up, because bosses will be equipped with that infamous attack that nullifies your buffs, now upgraded to remove all tension as well.
For better or for worse, there’s no Dharma Temple to speak of, which means you no longer have different classes to work with, but on the other hand, you won’t see skills that are just a variation of another skill. Replacing the class system is the skill system, which allows you to determine which abilities your characters learn by allocating points to any of the five skills each character has. The skills you can use in battle depend on your equipped weapon, which also include your bare hands. The skill system is favoured over the class system because your advancement no longer depends on the number of battles you fight; anyone who tried to strengthen the advanced classes in DQ7 knows how flawed the class system is. With the skill system, raising your level or consuming a certain item will award you points that you can distribute anyway you want. However, you have no idea when a skill will increase a level until you distribute your points. There is a specific person who can give you such information, but she only appears in two areas, and not in every town, which would have been more convenient.
Other refinements to gameplay include an overworld that’s actually to scale. The result is a massive overworld with tremendous draw distance. DQ8 would be the best reason to keep world maps in console RPGs; it’s just a shame that the game has random encounters. If you know me, you know how I feel about random combat, but fortunately, the encounter rate is consistently low. In other RPGs, the encounter rate can sometimes be downright ridiculous. The annoying thing about the encounters is that there are nonrandom encounters throughout the overworld that serve a specific purpose, so why couldn’t Square Enix use nonrandom encounters for standard combat? These are questions that can only really be answered by RPG developers themselves, but they’re questions deserving of answers. Another thing to note is that the difficulty level is above average, meaning you will die a few times. The first few boss battles will be tough and require some preparation, but the remaining battles will be easier (but not easy—don’t get the two confused!).
One of the complaints people had about past DQ games is that you had to have the best equipment to proceed, but it took hours of combat to gather all the cash required to buy them. DQ8 now offers a single solution to both problems: the alchemy pot! The alchemy pot lets you combine raw ingredients to make all kinds of items. You can try to make your own stuff, or you can get recipes to make new items, normally by searching bookshelves. If you need money, most items you create are worth a good chunk of cash. The alchemy pot is a great addition, because you won’t necessarily find the latest and greatest at the shops. Naturally, the best items in the game can’t be found in the stores, but are instead created out of some hard-to-find parts.
Level 5 has already distinguished itself as a developer known for great cel-shaded graphics (just look at the upcoming Rogue Galaxy), and DQ8 just tells us what we already know. The great thing is that Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama was finally able to design his characters in the way they were meant to be portrayed in-game, instead of the squat characters from previous games. Another person who got to realize his vision is Koichi Sugiyama, whose soundtrack is fully orchestrated in the game as opposed to the Japanese version, which had only synthesized music. Sugiyama’s music was meant to be orchestrated, so I applaud Square Enix for letting the series composer finally get his way. Isn’t it great when people get to make the games they envision with few limitations?
Perhaps the best thing that could be said about Dragon Quest VIII is that it will appeal to both the purists and those gamers just looking for a new RPG to play. The longtime fans still have the classic-yet-refined DQ gameplay, and casual RPG gamers don’t have to worry about DQ8 playing or looking like an old SNES game. Both groups will appreciate the lengthy quest (since there’s some sort of “dollar to hour” rate in effect now—who makes up this stuff?), and there’s plenty of sidequests to do after the main quest is over, increasing the gameplay time well over the 100-hour mark. The neat thing about the obligatory postgame sidequest is that it’s relevant to the plot. It will also answer some questions you’re sure to have, but to say anymore would be a spoiler. DQ8 is one of the top RPGs of 2005; don’t ignore it. If you ever wanted to know what makes DQ games what they are, now is your chance to find out.