For the last decade, I'll admit that I completely missed the Dragon Quest boat. This was mainly because North America only recieved one iteration of the series after the NES era. Nevertheless, I was pretty excited when I turned on DQVIII for the first time. Considering that the game comes from the developers behind the excellent Dark Cloud series, I had little doubts. Sure enough, Dragon Quest VIII is everything that it promised and more. If you've never played a DQ game prior to this, you're going to wish you had.
It hardly needs to be said that this game is beautiful. It features some of the best cel-shading that the PS2 has ever seen. It cannot be emphasized enough that screenshots don't do the game justice. You have to see it to believe it. The environments great, spanning from grasslands to vast deserts. The dungeons are also a sight to behold, especially the game's towers. There are also lots of little details like footprints in the grass, awesome lighting effects, and the actual rising and setting of the sun and moon in the sky that make the game that much more visually impressive.
The game's characters are stunning, with beautiful character art brought to us by Akira Toriyama, the man behind the Dragon Ball series. From the protagonist to the bumbling King Trode, the designs are vivid and beautiful. Not a single character looks bad, and every color is perfect.
The sound is excellent. The soundtrack is appropriate, even moving at times. If you're a fan of Koichi Sugiyama, you won't be disappointed. In fact, for all you DQ music aficionados, you may or may not be pleased to hear that much of the music in the game was taken from the DQVIII Symphonic Suite. There are some songs from the original soundtrack intact, but for the most part, the soundtrack has been completely overhauled. The newly orchestrated music has a level of emotion that the original soundtrack lacked, and I highly recommend this game just so that you can experience this music in action.
The voice acting is great, too. The cast consists of European voice actors, and a diverse array of accents and dialects are represented, from British to Italian. As a whole, the voice acting fits the game very well, and there are only a few bad apples. Considering that the Japanese version didn't have voice acting, Americans should consider themselves lucky to be blessed with such a wonderful localization.
What kept me playing Dragon Quest VIII was the gameplay. The game is huge. There is so much to explore that you may feel overwhelmed at first. For me, this was a great feeling, and the only time that the game's vastness worked against it was when I was given directions to the next town or dungeon. Sometimes, the directions the game provides can be vague and misleading, causing you to wander around endlessly until luck guides you to your destination. You may enjoy getting lost from time to time, but sometimes you'll wander into an area where the monsters are too strong (especially at sea), which can result in a game over. Other than this, the world was intriguing and fun to explore.
The battle system is incredibly simple and solid. Nothing is overly complicated; it's easy to learn and even easier to catch up after a long vacation. Don't let that fool you, though -- the game can get pretty tough. If you aren't prepared, don't expect to breeze through a dungeon. The bosses can be challenging, and may require two or more tries to defeat them. For a battle system that you're going to spend over 30 hours with, it's a comfortable one that won't annoy you for being too easy or difficult.
To add to the game's large sense of scope, there are quite a few side quests that you can partake in. The game paces itself well and slowly introduces each side quest as you progress through the game instead of dumping them all on you just before the final boss. One of the better quests is the "alchemy pot," in which you can synthesize items to make newer and stronger ones. In many games, synthesis systems tend to be overly complicated and too deep, but DQVIII's is very simple. Instead of spending countless hours trying to make that ultimate weapon, you can find recipes which are scattered across the game. All you have to do is find the ingredients listed in the recipe, throw them in the alchemy pot, wait a while, and voila! You'll then have an item that you can either use or sell. It's a win-win situation. There is also a monster fighting side quest. Once you meet a certain character, you'll be able to become a monster bounty hunter and hunt down dangerous monsters which are much stronger than the rest. If you can defeat them, you'll be able to use them in a monster coliseum where you can pit them against other creatures and earn prizes for winning. This was a really neat system, because it was fun just trying to hunt monsters down. There are many more side quests that I could go into, but by doing that, I'd be spoiling the fun.
The flaws in the gameplay are few, but those few hurt the most. First, the game continues a series tradition that requires you to go to a local church to save your game and to an inn to heal your party. It would have been nice to only have to go to one location to save and heal. It's time consuming to heal your party, and then travel halfway across town to save your game. Second, the day and night system can cause some problems, because it is cosmetic at best -- during the day, all the shops are open and you have access to every building, but at night, there are no shopkeepers, and most of the buildings are locked, forcing you to spend the night at the inn to wait until morning. This can be a hindrance during leveling up sessions, as you'll occasionally spend time fighting battles to earn money, and you'll be forced to spend it at the inn. Third, the monetary system leaves a lot to be desired. Until halfway through the game, monsters don't drop enough money. This creates a problem because weapons and armor are very expensive, and unless you like leveling up for hours, you'll be forced to choose between buying one of the two.
The controls are solid throughout, save the menus. Micromanaging your item inventory can be somewhat of a headache. When equipping items from the bag to characters, you have to manually move that item into their personal inventory. This feels cumbersome. In all fairness, the game does have an option to equip your characters with the best weapons available, but a better equipment menu system should have been there in the first place.
The charming story is well done and worthwhile, although lacking in some places. To give you a broad overview, an evil jester named Dhoulmagus turns King Trode of Trodain's castle to stone and steals an ancient scepter from his secret chamber that gives him incredible power. The king is turned into an imp and the princess a horse. Everyone in the castle is turned to stone, except one boy, which is you, the protagonist. The king, princess, and the young boy then flee the castle to hunt down Dhoulmagus and find a way to reverse the curse. On the way, they meet Yangus, a hardened criminal turned good, Jessica, a witty and gorgeous noble, and Angelo, a smooth talking temple knight. Together, they chase the dreaded Dhoulmagus across the world and try to unravel his motives.
The story gets points in originality simply for its characters. Many of the supporting characters aren't your run of the mill NPCs; there's a king in mourning, a monster farmer with an Italian accent, and a princess who talks in the third person. The monsters are great to. There's a bag of goodies, including an ogre who breathes fire by drinking from his water jug, and a gnome with a serious attitude problem. The bosses include a giant sea octopus with multiple-personality tentacles and a mole who thinks he is James Brown. Every time I played the game, I was eager to see what strange person or creature I would see next, and I was never let down.
The story lacks in its execution, however. While the characters are unique and innovative, they are used in a way that is unoriginal and too conventional. You'll spend much of your time in search of Dhoulmagus, and no matter what happens in each town you visit, it's all about finding him. Personally, I liked Dhoulmagus as a villain, but I felt that he was emphasized too much. As a result, some of the game's episodes felt unnecessary; especially those that had nothing to do with Dhoulmagus. Yet, I still loved the story, because the characters were so lovable and quirky.
Dragon Quest VIII is unlike any other RPG I've played before. I was blown away by something new every time I turned it on. The game is so much fun that the flaws don't really matter. It's a great introduction into the Dragon Quest series, and I hope future Dragon Quest games will come to our shores.