Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Dragon Quest VIII Review

Dragon Quest VIII (PS2) SquareEnix

A traditional turned-based RPG that doesn’t do anything ground-breaking, but everything just right

Graphics- 8.0
Sound- 8.5
Play Control- 9.0
Challenge- 7.5
Replay Value- 7.0
Game-play- 8.5
Fun Factor- 8.5
Overall- 8.1

The Dragon Quest series has a long and storied history dating back to the first game on the NES. Squaresoft (Final Fantasy series, Kingdom Hearts series) and Enix (Dragon Quest series) have long been the names in RPG’s and since merging have kept the tradition of great turned based role playing games alive and well. Before I get into the review I have to admit this is my first experience with a Dragon Quest game (I was always a Final Fantasy guy, and even then not until FFVII) so there won’t be any comparisons to previous installments. What I can say is that Dragon Quest VIII is an absolutely enthralling game filled with charm, humor, and whimsy that any RPG fan should thoroughly enjoy.

Dragon Quest VIII has a story that some would call derivative, others would call it classic. Either way, the story is well told and engaging, if somewhat predictable and stale. It starts with our Hero (he has no in-game name, just the one you type in) and his companion, a toad-looking fellow. We come to find out early on that our Hero was a young guard at a castle that a terrible curse fell upon. The curse wrapped the castle in thorns and it seems only our Hero was unaffected. Your amphibious friend is the king of the castle; turned into a monster by the curse. Hero and King Trode head out to find whoever cast this curse upon the castle. Along the way you will battle an evil jester, recruit some colorful characters, and save the world from evil, once again.

Although a lot of this sounds very familiar, there are some clever twists along the way that keep things engaging. The best way to describe the story is to relate it to a fairy tale, you may have heard it dozens of times, but it is still a classic narrative. The characters in the game are very likeable and seem to have their own motives for joining in the quest. Since there are only four playable characters in the game they all feel very tightly-knit and cohesive. They make fun of each other, get angry with one another, and act in a very believable and human manner. Dragon Quest VIII doesn’t do anything revolutionary in terms of storytelling, but does a wonderful job of telling a classic adventure saga.

DQVIII is a traditional (sometimes referred to as Japanese) turned-based RPG. What this means is that you enter in commands for your character(s), they execute them, and then your enemy does the same. This style of play is not for everyone as it can be slow, “boring”, and often boils down to stat number crunching. For those of us who do like this method, or can at least tolerate it, DQVIII does it to perfection and rather simply. There are only four basic commands for each character, attack, flee, item, and the new innovation, “psyche up”. Psyche up is akin to a charge up, in lue of other action for the turn your character raises his or her “tension level” by a certain increment. Each consecutive turn you psyche up your tension level jumps higher and higher. Tension augments attacks, certain spells, and item effectiveness and proper tension management becomes necessary as the game goes on.

The stats for your characters are pretty standard, physical attack/defense, magic attack/defense, speed, etc. Weapons, armor, hats, and the like simply increase these stats and are very easy to read (red is a decrease, green an increase) due to the clean menu screen. Leveling up in DQVIII is fairly linear but still interesting. At each level up you gain X amount of points in which to put into various categories. Each character has three weapon proficiencies (sword, spear, and boomerang for example) as well as a barehanded slot into which you can put points. Each character also has one unique stat that gains them equally unique abilities. Once a certain threshold of points is reached, a new ability is unlocked. For example when you get 15 points in sword you get “sword attack +5”. The most interesting thing about the system is that you don’t know how many points you need for the next skill. This encourages exploration of the different skills and finding what works best for each character.

There are those dreaded “random battles” in DQVIII. For the few of you still left reading they aren’t the tedious annoyance most people think they are. Fights are generally quick and when they aren’t (boss battles, very tough enemies) they can become very strategic. Staggering psyche ups, proper item usage, and figuring out what attacks work are all key in DQVIII. One thing that may scare off the faint of heart or RPG rookie is that you have to level up at certain points in the game. This means running around until an enemy attacks you, beating it, and hopefully leveling up after a few fights. There are points where if you haven’t leveled up a boss will dominate you. You will know when this happens after the third straight try you still get obliterated. Although this may sound bad it helps you in the long run. You learn the battle system, unlock more powerful skills, and get a feel for your characters strengths. The battle system is so smooth and fun that this minor annoyance is barely noticeable.

What RPG would be complete without side-quests? DQVIII offers up a lot of entertaining and challenging mini-games and side quests. These range from scouring the land for “mini medals” that you can redeem for great prizes, gambling away your hard earned gold at the casinos, and recruiting monsters for gladiator-style arena fights. But by far the best and most well designed distraction is the alchemy pot. With this item you can combine any two items to create something different and hopefully better. Alchemy recipes are hidden books, obtained by talking to non-player-characters, and blind luck. What makes the alchemy pot is a joy is the fact that the items you are trying to make are fairly logical. Want to make something sharper? Try a nail. How about a stronger herb? Throw two of the same type in there. Hunting around the map for rare items to alchemize and make even rarer items is a fun game in and of itself.

DQVIII uses cartoon-like, almost-but-not-quite cell-shaded, graphics throughout the game. There are tons of bright colors, intricate buildings, and a world that seems lived-in. No details were spared, waving grass, falling leaves, worn-out wood, waving flags, there is nothing you will say that will make you say “that looks lame”. The “cut scenes” are the same visually as the rest of the game. This method works to keep the player drawn into the game, you aren’t really sure if this is a cut scene or not. For those fans of the popular Dragon Ball series and all its iterations the look of DQVIII will seem very familiar. This is because lead character designer Akira Toriyama is also behind the characters of the Dragon Ball series. Mr. Toriyama is notorious for having odd and outrageous characters and DQVIII echoes this. You’ll find townspeople who only reach up to your knees, others who are plump and jolly, and some who have been working out way too much. Every character you will find in the game is highly detailed from facial expressions to facial hair; it’s all here and looks great.

SquareEnix games have a stellar track record when it comes to music and sounds in their games. Dragon Quest VIII keeps this practice going, especially in the voice over department. Simply put these are some of the best voices I have heard in a game. Almost every character that you talk to, NPC or otherwise, has a voice in this game. What makes the voices really amusing is the fact that the townspeople speak with accents. These range from British to Australian to Italian and serve to make each and every person you talk to that much more real. Although it is questionable how all the inhabitants of this world have different accents they are believable and enjoyable nonetheless. The music in the game is appropriate, pretty much orchestral/classical, and the battle theme is pretty catchy. The soundtrack does its job by accenting the action going on and inflecting emotion where it is needed.


DQVIII has one of the steeper learning curves of recent role-playing games. Your initial party of two will struggle if you get too ambitious or go wandering at night. The first few bosses may also take a few tries or some leveling before you can dispatch them. Once you get a firm grasp on the tension system and what direction you want your characters to go in, the game becomes easier. Items, weapons, and armor also felt very balanced as you will often have to decide how to divide your gold to make sure everyone gets something to go into battle with. This game is hard to peg as “easy” or “hard”. If you take the time to learn the battle system correctly, level up when things seems impossible, and have some good equipment, DQVIII should be fun and challenging.

There are some very tantalizing unlockables once you beat the main portion of the game. Among them include, a hidden dungeon to fight through with bosses that are exponentially harder than the boss of the game, a second and better ending, and some really mint weapons and items. In terms of play the main plot should take a solid 50 hours, and that would be rushing through. I logged in a good 80+ hours the first time through (my characters were only about level 55 and it goes to level 100!) and about 20 hours more messing around and completing extras. Like most RPG’s the more time you out into the game, the more enjoyment you’ll get out of it. There is so much to explore and do in this game that it is easy to get lost for 100 hours and upward.

Dragon Quest VIII had a sizeable amount of hype and expectations when it was announced. This is a game that managed to live up to hype and deliver a very solid gaming experience. When broken down into pieces it may seem unimpressive, but this is a game that defines the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Featuring beautiful cartoon graphics, a good story, and seemingly endless hours of game-play Dragon Quest VIII is a testament to the turned based RPG genre.

No comments: