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SummaryA perfect continuation of the classic Dragon Quest series
The GoodDragon Quest is a classic RPG series that started long ago on the NES, even before the first Final Fantasy. Talking about it, I want to be precise that even if this game has been released by Square-Enix, this game has absolutely nothing to do with the Final Fantasy series, and wasn't developed by the same people either, the only common point is that they are both Japanese RPGs. So let's NOT compare Dragon Quest with Final Fantasy, because that's just comparing Super Mario Bros. to Mega Man under the pretext they're both platformers, because this just makes no sense.
Now let's begin the actual talk about Dragon Quest, precisely about Dragon Quest VIII, which is the first Dragon Quest released for quite a long while. When I heard the game was released in Japan and saw screenshots around the internet, I was amazed. When I saw the game was planned to be released in America and PAL territories as well, I was just jumping for joy. Why so? Because I just loved the older Dragon Quest games I just tried playing under (S)NES emulation, and I was very excited about getting a modern installment of the same series on a modern console. I bought the game the day it was released in PAL territories, that happened to be my birthday. Not only I did not regret it, but also the game was very long (about 110 hours of gameplay in a single playthrough) and I had an awesome gaming experience overall. This is the second game I make more than 100 hours on a playthrough, the first one being Final Fantasy VII.
The thing I love the most in this title is that it's simple, pure and just classic. It doesn't try to impress with hi-tech innovation or anything, it just is aesthetic and entertains. I'm not willing to start a war "modern hi-tech games" vs "oldschool games" or anything, because it sadly looks this game is just one of the elements that seems to be separating the gaming world in two sections, which I am myself against, because as a gamer I like to be entertained, no matter how. Anyway, Dragon Quest VIII doesn't fail at all at being entertaining.
Now onto the details. Dragon Quest VIII just seems, to the bone, to be the very ultimate Dragon Quest world Yuji Horii and Akira Toriyama had in their dream since the beginning, but just couldn't do it exactly as it because of technical limitations. More precisely, each single piece of the world of Dragon Quest is very "Toriyama-esque" in it's own way, especially the characters which are all (including protagonists, townspeople, animals, monsters and villains) wonderfully rendered on the screen and respectable in their own way. The world map is absolutely gorgeous and just looks real but still fantastic to every single corner of it. This game is the first I personally played that has a true world map, where each tree is separated from others, and it really adds some feel to the game. People used to games such as World of Warcraft may be less surprised by Dragon Quest VIII's world map, but I found it personally amazing. Also, this was the first game where I could just stay above a cliff over the sea watching far mountains and see "WHOA this landscape is AMAZING !!". Every screenshot of the game could look like of a hand-made painting made by Akira Toriyama himself especially for you. Which, in my own eyes, beats "film looking games", because this "anime looking game" just is a lot more artistic. Now again, I don't want to be starting a video game intellectual war, but this is just my way to say the graphics of Dragon Quest VIII are absolutely gorgeous in their own way. I have two complaints about the graphics, though. The first is that the angle of camera is typically a bit too small, letting you see not enough stuff at once on the screen. This was especially annoying when exploring new places. The second is that even the graphics themselves are incredibly gorgeous, they are not very varied, and many places looks like just the same as other places. That's nothing major, and can easily be forgiven when you see the fantasy coming out of those unique graphics themselves. Also note that this is the first Dragon Quest where you actually SEE your party in battle, which is a very good thing, because seeing only the monsters like in the older installments tends to be somewhat boring.
The story is simple, you have to chase Douhlmagus, an evil mage jester, who gained infinite evil power after stealing trodain's evil scepter. There will be many turns along the gameplay though, which beats the very simple and linear story of NES Dragon Quests, without completely reforming the series either. You can get 2 endings : After completing the game normally, there is a secret bonus dungeon (which is quite harder than other dungeons, but nothing impossible) and then you can beat the game again for an alternate ending. Hardcore gamers can go even further in the sidequest, and go beat some very strong dragons or something like that (don't ask me I have not done this), but this isn't necessary to have the good ending. Overall, the game is quite long and sometimes even tedious, and you'll be rewarded for this by great story scenes, which won't leave you without thinking. Don't expect to see CGI cutscenes each 15 minutes, because there is none : the graphics are good enough to serve the story very well.
A good thing just as the "Dragon Warrior" title is gone, censorship is gone too : No longer you'll have to hear "Thou hast done well, thou art a great warrior", and instead the game has been translated fairly from it's Japanese Dragon Quest counterpart "Hey, guv, well done, now let's relax drink beer all the night". If you're afraid by references to alcohol and sex, just don't play Dragon Quest, because it has not been censored this time. However, such references really add a totally new dimension of realism and credibility in the Dragon Quest world as compared to ours, and I think it's meaningful to the game.
You're basically a cool hero, that always wears a yellow raincoat (even if the weather is always good in the game) and that always have a cute mouse in his pocket (which is very cool, and speaking of it, there is 2 times in the game where you take control of the mouse to solve puzzles, and you can also fed him with cheese in battle to have him cast various spells). You're traveling the world with a caravan and a horse (which is actually the princess transformed), your king transformed in a small troll (which is a very fun character), Yangus, an fat old bandit which joined you after you saved his life. During the game, you finally join up with Jessica, which is the typical strong-willed rebel teenage girl, and Angelo, which is the easy-going fool of your party. This is just the best party one could get to go on a long journey : Your 3 playable companions are all 3 very fun and all 3 intelligent in their own way, and in every situation one of them could have caused trouble in your party, another member of your party will always be here to solve things peacefully. Additionally, you have the king Trode turned in a monster which also take place in the scenario here and there, even if he's not playable. Overall, all 4 of your friends (not counting the horse nor the mouse) are very good hearted companions and are very comic in any situation, you'll learn to love all 4 of them very quickly.
The hero learn basic magic (both offensive and defensive), and is very strong physically. Angelo learns mainly healing magic, but also has a few offensive spells, and is averagely strong physically (he's the most well-balanced character in your party). Jessica is weak physically (she has terrible defense and HP), but she have a load of very strong offensive magic. Yangus has almost no magic, and is decently strong physically. He has very high HP and learns awesome "weapon-specific" attacks on the other hand. Oh, I haven't talked about that yet : For each weapon a character is able to use, you can manually attribute points to the weapon (regardless of how much you used each weapon) at each level-up, and then learn weapon-specific abilities (which sometimes uses MP too) which are typically stronger than normal attacks, and have side effects (such as put a enemy asleep, poison it, attack 2 times, have higher chances to trigger a critical hit, etc...). Each character could also have their own specific skills, but most of them weren't useful at all. The exception is Jessica that can learn to be sexy enough to make monsters randomly pass a turn to admire her (as if they were having a chance, hehe), or Yangus being able to sacrifice his almost useless MP to give them to another character in your party.
The gameplay is overall very solid, a basic and efficient. Don't get me wrong, this game is not like the original on the NES where you have to pass through the menu to talk to everyone and to take stairs, but it's battle system is extensively simple. On the field you can walk and run using the analog joystick which is nice, the 'X' button is for OK and the triangle button is for cancel. L1 and R1 rotates the camera, while R2 pass in 1st perspective view, where you see exactly what the hero sees (you cannot move in this position), and since the angle of the camera is so small anyway you won't be using this too often.
You basically learn spells with levels, and learn "special weapon-exclusive" attacks with points you attribute yourself at each level up. Then there is the psych-up system : By raising the tension of a character on a round, you can trigger a stronger attack next round, and you could cumulate tension for several round, in order to release disastrous attacks. This isn't terribly useful for physical attacks, because just attack every round deals more damage (except for a few monsters which were particularly weak against charged attack), but this is very useful for magic, because you waste the same amount of MP to cast charged up spells, which can be very effective. The strategy was then to attack (and heal) with the guys to weaken the monsters while having Jessica psych-up several rounds, and then having her unslacking her terribly efficient charged up magic to finish off the enemies. This strategy is the quickest was to beat random encounters, so I started using it over and over. The only downside is that many bosses have the "wave of ice" ability, which allow them to instantly cancel all your psych-ups and stats boosts, so you'll have to find other strategies. This is a bit stupid, because this makes stats boosting spells pretty much useless, because they're not worth calling in random encounters, and the bosses can often cancel them. One thing I loved was the featured bestiary, with ironical description of all foes you beat, which was fun to look at.
Finally, the difficulty is well balanced, nor you need to spend hours doing plain levelling up. I did not find Dragon Quest VIII is a hard game at all, I didn't lost many times actually. One time at the very beginning of the game, one times against a boss, and two times against another boss. When you loose, you don't get game over, but just continues in the nearest church you visited, with all EXP intact and half of the gold you had (unless you placed it in a bank). On the other hand, even if the game is not terribly hard, you can never feel completely safe in the middle on a dungeon or on a world map section far of any civilization either. Monsters are actually quite strong overall, and you'll need healing a lot even during any random encounter. It's not rare to see any random monster doing ~1/5 of your maximum HP of damage for a regular physical attack, and it's no rare to met with ~5 monster at the same time either. Fortunately, your character have very high MP, allowing for a lot of healing without running out of MP. The game needs little strategy, and no real skills other than patience and sense of observation are needed to complete the game.
Also you'll never wander around not knowing what to do, because the game plot is simple enough and linear, without being TOO linear either. In theory, you can press start anytime to have your party give you advice of what to do. In practice, I found myself always press the start button to hear stupid jokes from Yangus and from Angelo. Jessica was the only one to say something intelligent, but then she said something too intelligent, that won't help you to advance your quest. There is always a new place in the very large world map you haven't explored to seek, so you're never being bored either, you can pass a long time to go from one place to another without getting bored a single second (at least not outside battle), and this is a very good thing. In addition, there were an item called the alchemy pot that allowed you to mix 2 or 3 items to make one better item after a while if the combination worked, and it was exciting to put items and wait what kind of new items you will be getting, making a good reason to go around and fight some monsters to kill time.
Also, I didn't mention the music. The original Dragon Quest VIII in Japan has synthesized music of questionable quality (I have the CD of it), and Square Enix decided the western audience would not find it decent, and because only classic instruments are used at all in the soundtrack, they paid a real orchestra to play the soundtrack of Dragon Quest VIII and now we get actual steamed music in the whole game. This is very nice, because this really adds a lot of feeling to the game to have actual music in it, but you won't go without noting that it's always the same instruments playing the same baroque music again and again. This is typical Koichi Sugiyama music, which can be good or bad. It's just the same Dragon Quest music style we have been hearing for years and this style is completely unchanged, regardless if you liked it or not. The town music are calm and great, while the world map music and battle music really got on my nerves. This baroque style, indistinguishable from Bach or Handel is not always very well fitted for a video game, not even Dragon Quest, and tends to be annoying at times, especially considering there aren't many different tracks. However, the great majority of the soundtrack contains great songs regardless of any other elements (you'll notice I don't even know myself if I like this music or not which is confusing to explain). You still get different songs for day and night, which is good, and gets drums here and here along with classical orchestra instruments.
This leads me to the next point : The voice acting. There also were no voice acting in the Japanese version, but they decided to add it in the western version. Jessica has an horrible voice, but the other acting were very good (sounding very cartoonish, which suits the game well), so I think it's great overall. The sound effects were just as excepted, some mimic the NES which is fun, some don't and both sound exciting. Note that I've heard Square Enix removed some of the NES sound effects when porting the game from japan to western countries during battles, fearing people would find it would sound stupid, which is a fun fact. I almost miss the sound effect of casting magic from the NES Dragon Quests, but the new animation for magic, which consist of two circles of mysterious transparent symbols surrounding the caster, looks very great. I didn't mention that, both in the world map and in a village, you hear a lot of animals : You have bird tweet on day and crickets on night, and this is *really* pleasant to listen to. It's relaxing and everything. This also made some contrast as you just get plain silent in dungeons, making you a bit anxious. This is a very nice touch on the game.
The BadUnfortunately, Dragon Quest VIII does not come without it's set of flaws. I'd like to note the fact that there are very few different spells and techniques are at your disposal during the whole game. The problem is that with so few techniques at your disposal for a so long game, there is no miracle, fighting will get boring here and there after a while. Actually the battle are quite slow paced and this can get very annoying at times. You're often doing the same attack pattern again and again, and then spend 5 minutes on an annoying battle you already know you're gonna to win, but you still cannot pass it faster. This is for when you are in a place filled with strong enemies. When you're in a place filled with weak enemies, it happened to me to almost fall asleep with the finger pressing the 'X' button because you didn't always need much strategy to beat random encounters.
This flaw is compensated by the fact that there are many weapons around, and that you'll always want to try them out on various monsters (many of them have various special effects), and by the fact that you can use your "alchemy pot" to get new items by combining old ones, if you succeeded combining two (or three) valid items, you'll have to wait for a while before they're ready, and the game becomes more exciting when you're waiting your brand new weapon of piece of armor to be ready. My main beef with the alchemy pot is that you can find "clues" to make items in books or by talking to people, which is great, but most were *way too vague* to have you actually found what items to put in the pot. The clues that were exact involved rare items that you wouldn't know where to get, and when you eventually get them, you get an outdated old weapon (or piece of armor) which is weaker than the last one you bought/found.
Randomness plays a too big role in the combat system, I think I also lost one time when an enemy cast an instant death spell and it just worked 4 consecutive times, destroying my party. There were also a spell that could resurrect an ally, but with 50% of success. This is annoying to use in battle, as it can just resurrect your ally, or just made you pass 4 turns before it actually resurrect your ally, just based on luck. The fact that some of the stronger monsters, and some bosses too, can just trigger a "desperate attack" which *systematically* scores a critical hit and cannot be avoided, is very frustrating. You also had some skills which have great chances of getting a critical hit, but they had even greater chance to miss, unlike those terrible "desperate attacks".
Another big annoyance is that, in the whole Dragon Quest VIII game, everything is WAY TOO EXPENSIVE ! (or monsters don't leave enough gold). At the end of the game, the latest weapons were worth $10.000 when a random battle leave you around $100. This effectively makes around ONE HUNDRED random encounters to get the money worth ONE new weapon or ONE new piece of armor. An alternative to this is to use the alchemy pot, but I already explained the problem above. Collect mini-medals that are placed in chests and pots around the world will allow you to get rewarded with good weapons or piece of armors each so many medals, but if you missed too much medals, you'll get "late" and lose synchronization with the game, then get obsolete pieces of equipment as rewards. At the end of the game, there is hardly any alternative other than selling old pieces of equipment (fortunately some of them are worth a lot of cash) to be able to purchase new ones, and I really hate selling old equipment. You could also sell medals gotten from special monsters around the world map which can be sold back for a lot of money, but you don't get more than one medal per monster you find.
Another alternative is to play Casino in which you can gain trophies, but I lost interest very quickly into this, because it's random and totally uninteresting.
The Bottom LineDragon Quest VIII is definitely a very classic game. By classic, I mean it just flows the definition of classic, that is a work of art that is tasty and aesthetic, and that teaches something while being entertaining, and that without attempting to be very original or anything (but don't worry, many monster designs are STILL original). Dragon Quest VIII is just what it is, and even if it doesn't shine in all technical categories a game can be classified to (I think its battle system is average at best), the game in itself is just so solid and just continues the Dragon Quest series with so much elegance and care to it that it deserves to be called a masterpiece. Even trough it looks different at first, it's by starting a new game of DQ8 that one will eventually figure out that it plays *exactly* the same as the previous Dragon Quest games, only larger with some innovations and slight changes in the battle system, that's all. Unfortunately, the Dragon Quest 1 syndrome of pathetic low EXP and Gold at the end of each battle isn't completely gone, but there is so other good things in the game that a decent gamer can definitely get pass this.
My conclusion is that while the fusion of Squaresoft and Enix, now known as Square-Enix, has not had very great results for the Final Fantasy franchise, it's the exact opposite for the Dragon Quest series so far (that is, had very great results).
I think you can learn something by playing this great classic game, and I recommend to anyone who really likes RPGs. I don't recommend Dragon Quest VIII for people who either have trouble with Dragon Quest at all (because it's just the same as its predecessor) or people that just pretend to like RPGs for their CGI cutscenes or something similar, because you won't be watching an anime, you'll be really role playing in this game. Anyway, as I think I already mentioned, each instant in the game is so intensely beautiful that it compensate the lack of cutscenes.