Dragon Quest VIII takes several old and new concepts, blending them into a game that's not without its flaws. The crisp cel-shaded graphics by developing studio Level-5 paint the illusion of a perfectly modernized RPG.
Cor blimey. But it was early into my first play of the game that the illusion faded. As I idly tapped the confirm button during a randomly encountered battle, I wondered why there was no previous warning of DQ8's shortcomings. I realized that it takes days of playing to both realize the annoyances and expect more. More importantly, it takes a player who isn't deeply into the classic RPG genre – who doesn't pride in a masochistic enjoyment for tedium – to say something about it.
The game doesn't have a constant pace from which to generalize. The course of my play was like a Big Mac where the bread is good. The beginning has a lot of great developments, then there's tedium, some interesting parts happen in the middle, then there's more tedium, and then finally the ending has the good stuff with sesame seeds. Food comparisons aside, playing through any Dragon Quest game is no simple task. Newcomers to the series will learn that quickly enough. Completionists will easily find themselves spending over 100 hours on their first play of DQ8, not counting the hours lost from resetting the game. Anyone in a hurry can finish it in 50 hours, skipping the trial and error, and just barely making it through some boss battles. No matter how long you spend in DQ8, the game is definitely meatier than most console RPGs on the market.
The bulk of those DQ8 hours are spent doing classic RPG chores. Expect to be grinding for experience and money through slow turn-based battles. Without the proper levels, skill sets, and equipment, several boss battles will become impassable. Since battle rewards and character strengths increase in a linear fashion rather than an exponential one, your party will not become exceedingly strong against enemies over time.
You will also be battling against the newly designed, custom menu windows. Although pretty, they're unnecessarily difficult to navigate with a controller. Managing items between characters at each pit stop can become a nightmare due to the item sharing system. Worse yet is the necessity of having to visit a church to save your game in most cases. The NPC dialogues for saving are several lines long, and it takes a few confirmation dialogues to simply get on with your game.
Despite the required grinds and pauses, DQ8 is far more forgiving than it's predecessors. The new streamlined skill system allows players to customize their characters by allocating points into specific attributes. There's little worry of ‘messing up' character builds with this system. Another worry-free system is the alchemy option. Alchemy in DQ8 is easily accessible and almost addictive in its simplicity, since the pot only mixes items that work.
With the excellent new graphics, familiar sounds, and trusted gameplay, DQ8 was finally ready to get noticed by North American players. Nevertheless, the localization staff took the game up another notch by boldly adding character voices to the text. Finding the balance between what is true to story and what sounds proper has always been a challenge for dialogue driven RPGs. The staff somehow found that balance through British voice actors capable of varied accents. It's surprising at first because the designs are seemingly cartoonish. The voice tracks are not required listening, either. Players can conveniently press a button to read dialogue windows, skipping each line whenever needed.
The characters were sufficiently fleshed out in the Japanese game but the English voices give them an extra dimension. Yangus, the overweight crook with a sort of cockney accent, manages to be extremely likable. The slob is a far cry from the antiheroes of this generation, most of which resort to winning fans over through the use of dashing good looks, shallow angst, and fabulous outfits. Jessica, the fiery redhead with a rebellious streak, has an alto voice that puts the voom in her ‘va-va-va-voom'. It's worth knowing that most videogames cast the lead heroine as a high-pitched bimbo and this noble lady is nothing of the sort. Angelo, the smooth talking Templar who is anything but religious, has a snooty voice that's nigh impossible to take seriously. It makes his lady-killer scenes passable for players like myself, who find videogame attempts at romance less tolerable than Blossom reruns. Travelling with your main party is King Trode, who was transformed into a green troll by an evil magician. Trode's indescribable voice can be summed up as 'if Prince Charles and Yoda from Star Wars mated'. Expect Trode to steal the scene on several occasions.
The game is limited to showing one character at a time outside of battle but you can view and speak to your current party by pressing a button at any time. Every now and then someone has a snippy remark or useful hint. It's far more effective than entering towns with differing character formations in order to get the same effect. However, the main hero never has anything to say.
DQ8 is one of many RPGs where the main character can be renamed. It's tradition for the main character to be an avatar representing the player in DQ games. I'm not a fan of this type of storytelling but Yuji Horii is an expert in making it far less noticeable than it could have been. Discovering the main character's true identity is also part of the game. Having no voice and very little personality, he's supposedly a clean slate through which players can feel connected to the game. If the game allowed me to make choices and do things in my own way, I would probably feel more like the main character. Instead, the plot left little room for option. I controlled a voiceless hero who was strung along with little control over what happens. This is why I still wonder whether renaming him for self-insertion's sake was necessary.
The world map is one of DQ8's best features. The vast expanse has a little bit of everything and it's always possible to go off the beaten path. Along with gaining extra experience, there are useful treasures waiting to be found because the game fosters your subliminal need to check every corner. Straying from the recommended course of travel often leads to encountering tough monsters and a game over but risk is part of the adventure. Besides, the various modes of transport are fun and easy to control.
No two people will ever play a DQ game in the exact same way. Some players will be content to pick at the game for months, questing for Jessica's skimpy outfits, reset manipulating the casinos, and collecting monsters for the Arena. Others will want to rush towards the finish line, only grinding at optimal locations. This is partially due to the sporadic story development I mentioned earlier. There are several pockets of playing time where the pace seems to purposefully slow to a crawl. It's within those pockets that the sheer repetitive nature of DQ8 can become grating. The monster designs are Akira Toriyama's best work but expect to be seeing the same monsters with different names and colors. The location maps are full of things to do but several textures and objects will be reused. Koichi Sugiyama's orchestrated music is beautiful but with so few tracks, a handful of them are used everywhere while others are rarely even heard.
The only remedy for DQ8's monotony is to play at your own pace. Try playing the game without the help from experts at your fingertips, as though the internet and pretenses didn't exist. Progressing will take longer but every little revelation and secret you discover will be an experience that's your own. When I refused to read anything except for very specific information needed as I played, it felt like the 16-bit era all over again. The only difference was that I was able to stay up late and finish lengthy portions of the game without getting yelled at.
DQ8 is a humble RPG that manages to be distinctive without controversy. The straight-forward dialogue will remind you of a time before RPGs tried to mimic reality. DQ8's development team knew exactly what they were making: a game. Games are not tools for pushing buttons and questioning people's stances on religion, politics, or technology. Thanks to a constant deployment of silly puns and off-the-wall humor, DQ8's atmosphere stays a light and enjoyable one without ever taking itself too seriously.
The most difficult part of DQ8 is ending your first play of the game. Although I truly wanted to put the game to rest, the prospect of having to set aside a considerable amount of time – several hours of non stop playing, since I refuse to take a break and lose momentum – the game deterred me for many days. I found myself contemplating excuses for procrastination. Reasons for not finishing the game would range from washing hair, to buying summer shoes in the dead of winter. It's true, mind you. I have eyewitnesses and a lovely pair of espadrilles for proof. Most of all, I expected that the story's excruciatingly slow buildup would be over in a puff of smoke. Recent RPG stories have left their endings to dry, with no semblance of closure in the hopes of having something to build on for a sequel.
Oh how I was wrong.
There's a satisfying resolution to those long hard hours spent grinding your life away. The ending's aftermath then opens up tangible reasons to continue playing further, including the chance at a better ending. This game will be every penny's worth, a bold thing to say considering how stingy us RPG players can be in real life. I hate myself for wanting the true ending and I love DQ8 even more.
Title: Dragon Quest VIII
Platform: Playstation 2
Dragon Quest VIII