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SummaryCor blimey! That there bloke 'as been around for a while, like!
The GoodI've never been a big fan of Dragon Quest series - I just couldn't quite relate to most of the series' offerings. I was unable to sustain enough interest for the first six games, and when I saw they were repeating a lot of the old stuff over and over in the seventh one, I thought my relationship with the franchise was over. I was more than skeptical about Dragon Quest VIII, surprised by the glowing reviews.
Now you probably expect me to write something like "But oh! How wrong I was! How very, very wrong!!". Well, not really. Dragon Quest VIII turned out to be exactly what I was afraid of: a typical, traditional, old-school installment in a monotonous series clad in new shiny clothes. But those clothes are very nice indeed.
Dragon Quest games have always lacked visual flair, style and tone. In this case, the visual design added more immersion to the gameplay. For example, they replaced the usual disproportional world maps with a nearly seamless world. When you go out of town, you know you aren't just a dot on a map: the world lies at your feet, ready to be explored. There is full camera rotation and optional first-person view. You want to raise your head and watch how the sun rises behind the horizon, close-up on a particularly interesting person, zoom in on a suspicious drawer.
The graphics don't obfuscate the gameplay: on the contrary, they help bring out the best in it. The cel-shaded world is gorgeous, its warm atmosphere spread through the lush green meadows, picturesque towns, fairy tale-like hamlets and ominous dungeons. Interactivity has become more pleasing with the advent of the new engine - you are physically breaking those barrels now, you can run to the top of the hill to bask in the sunlight and gaze at the glittering sea below. And what can be compared to the tranquil sailing on your trusty ship, knowing that all the continents of the world have finally opened up to you?..
The level of warmth and detail in the graphics is probably the highest I've seen in a Japanese RPG since the PlayStation era Final Fantasies. Environments are busy: people walk around and sit together, little animals roam the streets. There are characters to meet and things to find in the smallest rooms of the poorest houses, in the most remote corners of the overworld. Beautiful, somewhat self-aware and charmingly cheesy medieval European world can be explored to the sounds of appropriate pseudo-classical music.
The game behind this appealing facade is a very old-fashioned, vanilla Japanese RPG - nothing more, nothing less. Well, I'd still choose this kind of gameplay over modern five-minute corridor runs with tacky half-hour long cutscenes. At least you are given an illusion of non-linearity with vast, generously design areas. The neat skill system gives you much-needed choice in character development, though I must admit this is not the game's strongest suit at all.
Dragon Quest VIII doesn't take itself too seriously - which is a good thing, because Japanese RPG is not a very serious genre to begin with. It presents its story and characters with a grain of salt instead of glorifying them with fake Freudian topics and badly understood religious concepts. The characters are stereotypical: sturdy barbarian with a tender soul, super-sexy magic-casting girl with an attitude, etc. - only now the game acknowledges the cliches, and for that reason emphasizes their comical sides. The writing is much better than you'd expect, too.
Non-Japanese players got a decidedly better version of the game this time - with an orchestral soundtrack and voice-overs, which turned out to be surprisingly good.
The BadIt's a Japanese RPG - which means that you'll have to put up with stone-age, simplified mechanics as far remote from true role-playing as Kenny G is from real jazz. Dragon Quest VIII knows it limits, but still limits itself beyond necessity.
I realize that not much could have been done to the core game mechanics without breaking the established canons of the genre. I don't expect Japanese designers to introduce conversation choices or free-form questing to their RPGs - when they actually do that, it feels terribly forced and the results are uneven at best. But perhaps things like optional party members, a more in-depth skill system (like the jobs in the previous game), or anything else enhancing replay value could have done the trick.
I'm glad that the creators of Dragon Quest VIII didn't follow the contemporary trend of aggravating linearity and endless cutscenes. But they went too far in their strict adherence to old standards, turning the game into a very mild, non-threatening representative of the genre. Dragon Quest VIII is a deliberate throwback to the past, displaying stubborn conservatism that, paradoxically, becomes a rebellion against the new fashion; and simultaneously, it's also a game that doesn't want to hear of anything outside its very narrow sphere of specialization.
That's why we still have random enemy encounters in the twenty-first century; that's why our party is pre-made for us, and we still haven't learned how to say "no" to a quest-giver, because if it's a quest it means it must be part of the story. And that's why I have more respect to Final Fantasy series than to most other Japanese RPGs - when those games fail, they do it spectacularly; but when they work, they do it by trying to break out of the cocoon. Case in point - this installment actually attempts to overhaul and reform certain outdated aspects of the genre (not always successfully, but that's not the point). Not so Dragon Quest VIII, which is a lovely game, but a dead end in design.
The Bottom LineThe tragedy of modern Japanese RPGs is their persistent desire to compensate for their gameplay deficiencies with pretentiously handled non-interactive elements. Dragon Quest VIII avoids that trap, bringing the uncomplicated joys of the genre's first steps back. But even its charming self-aware humor and visual beauty cannot make us forget that we've been just treated to a prehistorically simplified Ultima variant with lots of make-up.
You know wot I'm talkin' about, eh, guv?