"Since this is a Dragon Quest game, though, simply venturing to the cave would have been folly. My hero and his burly sidekick, Yangus, likely would have been dispatched by monsters before even making it halfway down the road to that tourist-unfriendly location. No, as in this gameís predecessors, the wise choice of action was to hang out around town, kill monsters, gain a couple of levels and buy some better equipment."
ďThis canít be a Dragon Quest game,Ē I thought to myself, as I gazed at my television. Iíd just started up Dragon Quest VIII and was in shock. The gorgeous cel-shaded graphics stood out in stark contrast to the blocky sprites I remembered from the NES Dragon Warriors I loved so much in my youth, as well as the two Super Famicom entries into the series. To merely call this game a ďstep upĒ visually from the Playstationís Dragon Warrior VII would be a gross understatement. This game truly seemed to make its world feel vibrant and alive.
Thatís the kind of thing that instantly awakens the cynical side of my personality. Iíve seen more than one beloved franchise of my youth become reborn on a modern system with gorgeous new graphics ó and stripped-down, soulless gameplay. Iíve watched role-playing games give players tons of challenging sidequests, limitless character customization and countless hours of plot ó apparently to overshadow how easy and unfulfilling the main quest is.
Fortunately, Dragon Quest VIII didn't fall into any of those traps. Combining a vast overworld with a lengthy quest in which the storyline takes a backseat to good olí fashioned exploration, this game was the first RPG in quite some time that I was able to pick up and play through without feeling the need to take an extended hiatus.
Sure, some of those newfangled RPG gizmos tend to be present, but none of them are intrusive. I found a couple of sidequests and a bonus dungeon or two, but wasnít forced to play through any of those things in order to keep things moving. And while this game is definitely more story-driven than those Dragon Warriors of yesteryear, it seemed like each chunk of plot came in a small, easily-digested morsel that only caused a brief hiatus from monster-slaying and treasure-finding.
And after only a handful of hours with Dragon Quest VIII, I had no doubt those two elements were its foundation. Almost immediately after starting, I was cast into combat with a trio of easily-vanquished Slimes. After spending a bit of time inside the gameís first town, I was given a quest to retrieve a lost crystal ball from a waterfall cave. Since this is a Dragon Quest game, though, simply venturing to the cave would have been folly. My hero and his burly sidekick, Yangus, likely would have been dispatched by monsters before even making it halfway down the road to that tourist-unfriendly location. No, as in this gameís predecessors, the wise choice of action was to hang out around town, kill monsters, gain a couple of levels and buy some better equipment.
Regardless of how many battles I got involved with, both in these early stages of the game and much later, fighting never became tiresome. Due to the relatively small number of hit points possessed by both adventurers and foes, most fights only lasted a couple of rounds, which went a long way towards preventing boredom from setting in.
The smooth, seemingly seamless way in which the story was put together also kept things interesting. I canít recall spending more than a couple of moments wondering what I was supposed to do next, as Dragon Quest VIII kept things moving at a brisk pace. As soon as I'd completed a quest for a grieving monarch, I was given a new destination from one of my companions. After hearing that I needed to cross to the western continent in pursuit of a despicable villain, it didnít take long to hear news of a mystical ship that could provide transportation.
As large as this world is, it was definitely a positive to always have a set destination in mind. I remember getting frustrated with Dragon Warrior II on the NES when I first got my ship and had no idea of where to go. I had to venture from one strange land to the next until I finally found a place where the local monsters didnít instantly tear my party to shreds. Well, the world of Dragon Quest VIII is infinitely more vast than the eight-bit planets of its predecessors.
Early in my quest, shortly after completing that aforementioned waterfall cave, I chanced upon a cabin at the top of a mountain. The old man living there asked me to fetch his tool bag under a red-leaved tree in the distance. Figuring it would only take a couple of moments, I hastily set off, descended the mountain, lost my sense of direction and immediately went the wrong way. After 15 or 20 minutes of scouring the countryside, I finally reached the tree and got the tool bag.....and then took another eternity retracing my steps to get back to the codgerís isolated dwelling. Until I obtained a map of the world to help in my navigation, I was amazed at how easy it was to get turned around and confused while traveling off the beaten path ó something I don't recall happening often (if ever) in other RPGs.
Regardless, I quickly decided to take the roads less traveled in Dragon Quest VIII just to get the full experience of this gameís sidequests, as it seemed that necessary items were more likely to be found on an out-of-the-way plateau than next to a kingdomís main road. Medals can be found and bartered for exquisite goods in an isolated castle. Visible monsters can be beaten up and recruited to participate in an arena to win even more fabulous prizes. Instead of selling all my leftover and obsolete items and equipment, I used an alchemy pot to create new goods at the cost of two or three old things I no longer needed.
And when I got tired of these diversions, it was back to the main quest. Initially, all I knew was that I was a guard of King Trode of Trodain. An evil jester had stolen a powerful artifact, turned Trode into a monster, his daughter into a horse and caused the castle to be overrun by a powerful, ominous force. My hero was the only person at Trodain left unaffected by these happenings, so he, along with a reformed bandit named Yangus, joined Trode in an attempt to hunt down the jester Dhoulmagus and reverse the curse. After a short while, the other two members of the party (the well-endowed AND scantily-clad Jessica, along with Angelo, a rogue cleric) join up and the hunt takes them (as should be expected) all over the world.
All four in-battle characters (Hero, Yangus, Jessica and Angelo) gain proficiency in three types of weapons, as well as bare-hand fighting and a person-specific attribute as time goes on, giving the player a certain amount of leeway in customizing them. Dumping points into Jessicaís Sex Appeal, for example, may charm monsters into wasting a turn staring at her (come to think of it, I wasted a lot of time doing that, as well....), or could give her special status-affecting attacks. Ignore the Sex Appeal and put all her skill points into her Whip proficiency and, instead, sheíll gain attack bonuses for using them, as well as a few special weapon-specific attacks.
It didnít take long for Dragon Quest VIIIís mix of new-age graphics and old-school gameplay to grow on me and make this game one of my favorite role-playing games of all-time. It has its share of minor flaws (such as some annoying load times, particularly when getting on or off some form of transportation), but I found nothing truly aggravating. As a player sick of this generationís plentiful RPGs that seem to place drama and ďstunningĒ plot twists on a pedestal far above enjoyable gameplay, Dragon Quest VIII was a breath of fresh air for me. Not only does it look superb, but the emphasis is placed on exploring a vast world and slowly (but steadily) evolving a band of novice fighters into a quartet of demon-slaying juggernauts. Dragon Quest VIII took the retro RPG formula I loved so much growing up and not only stayed faithful to it, but actually improved upon it.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (December 17, 2005)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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