Dragon Quest is one of the series I’ve always meant to get around to playing but never have except for the on rails hack and slash spin off Dragon Quest Swords. Considering the titles sells boat loads in Japan and always gets lots of praise, I figured it was about time for me to check out a title in the main series. Enter Dragon Quest VIII the (obviously) eighth entry in the numbered Dragon Quest series and the latest to be released in North America and Europe. Can Dragon Quest VIII stand out in the sea of PlayStation 2 Role Playing Games? Or is it just another RPG?
Dragon Quest VIII features a very simplistic plot that involves a evil jester and the Kingdom of Trodain. The jester infiltrates Trodain and steals a staff within the royal castle that gives him immense dark power. He then uses the staff to curse the kingdom and its inhabitants. After the jester leaves the only people left still alive are the King of Trodain, who has been changed into a monster, the princess of Trodain, who has been changed into a horse, and You, the hero that you name yourself that was mysteriously unaffected by the curse. These three survivors decide to track down the evil jester in order to restore their kingdom and themselves to normal.
While the story evolves a little bit along the way, there isn’t much that will sweep you off your feet. It’s the classic story of good vs evil and while that may sound boring the game presents itself in a very lighthearted and humorous way. The jokes are consistent and most of them are legitimately funny, but there are some that miss a bit. Most of the characters are interesting, but a few fall a bit flat. The main character, like other Dragon Quest games, does not speak at all. While I understand this is probably for appealing to fans of the series, it makes some of the conversations awkward and really takes a layer out of the story when the main character just kind of stares at everyone. Occasionally the main character shows facial expressions to get across a emotion, but facial expressions just don’t cut it in a story heavy RPG.
Just like the story for Dragon Quest VIII, the battle system is a typical old school affair with a very basic turn based system. There are no tricks to it or any special hooks. It’s your bare basic attack, spells, abilities and items. When it comes to strategy it amounts to just casting buffs, keeping your party in healthy condition with cure spells and laying waste to enemies. There is also a “Psyche” command that allows you to forfeit a turn in order to power the next attack made by that character and while it helped in some fights most of the time it remained unused. Those who are lazy during combat also have the ability to set strategies for their partners to follow, so instead of giving commands yourself on all the characters you can just control the main character. Thankfully the lighthearted approach to the game spices up the combat a bit. It’s hard not to laugh the first time you get the status effect of dancing and actually seeing your character dance around while enemies attack. When you level up you get the typical stat boost, but you also gain Skill Points. Skill Points can be used to increase a characters expertise in a weapon type and a select trait for each character. As you put Skill Points into each weapon type it will increase the damage of a character’s attacks along with adding abilities and spells to their roster of moves.
Most gamers would probably agree that grinding in RPGs isn’t exactly the highlight of the genre, but if you happen to love grinding then you will find lots to love in Dragon Quest VIII. Since the combat system is rather simplistic it is very heavily focused on stats. The stat based battle system means that whenever there is a challenge that you can’t overcome there is no real strategy, so grinding is almost always the solution. And grind you will because a good chunk of your time playing Dragon Quest VIII will be spent grinding. The game really should have been called Grinding Quest VIII: Grinding of the Cursed Grind. At later levels grinding becomes very time consuming as the EXP requirement per level seems to increase significantly. Thankfully one or two levels is enough to get past the challenge you’re currently stuck at, but those 1 to 2 levels can take anywhere from one to three hours of grinding.
The overworld is very large and wide open and really gives you a sense of scale. At times walking over the overworld can get a bit tiresome, but very early on you’ll learn a spell that allows you to teleport to locations you have already visited which significantly cuts down on travel time. When you’re on the overworld you can also synthesis items in a alchemy pot. It is a very simple item combination system and you can find recipes all over the game to help build equipment and items. Dungeons are fairly straight forward, but occasionally there will be a split path that will often lead to a treasure chest or two. Unlike on the overworld, the alchemy pot feature isn’t available within dungeons or towns which seems like a odd choice as the feature is quickly forgotten due to the lack of access to it.
Dragon Quest VIII uses cel-shading to match its anime art style, so the game is very colorful and looks pretty good considering it is on the PlayStation 2. When traversing the lands there is some slowdown when looking over cliffs or other high places and some of the battle effects cause some slow down as well, but overall the game runs at a steady frame rate. You will encounter wide variety of enemies, but you will notice some starting to repeat fairly often towards the end. The orchestral sound track in Dragon Quest VIII fits the game well and there are a few songs here and there that really stand out. JRPGs tend to have terrible voice acting, but Dragon Quest VIII gets it right and has top notch voice acting despite some intentionally cheesy.
Dragon Quest VIII is probably one of the longer RPGs you will play thanks to all of the lovely grinding required. Players who want to stretch the game out even farther though can try to collect all of the medals that are scattered about the world, hunt down specific monsters, look for for hidden recipes, conquer a bonus dungeon after you complete the game, and a few other small tasks that are available. Completists will have plenty of content to sink their teeth into.
Dragon Quest VIII is a very strange package as it is set up like a old school RPG, but has the production values of a AAA PlayStation 2 game. Unfortunately the fact that is plays like a old school RPG is probably one of its biggest flaws. There is way too much grinding and the battle system isn’t up to snuff to continue to be interesting throughout the whole game. Dragon Quest VIII is quite demanding when it comes to grinding, so if you can’t tolerate the grind then it would be best if you skipped Dragon Quest VIII. On the bright side, the writing is excellent and has lots of humor to keep it entertaining. The voice acting accommodates the writing extremely well and makes for a unique story telling experience despite having a rather stale plot. If you can withstand the grind and the less then stellar combat it’s worth a look. You can find a copy of Dragon Quest VIII fairly cheap with it only running you about $20 on Amazon.com for a new copy.