"Dost thou love me?... But thou must!" -- Princess Gwaelin, from Dragon Warrior 1
Dragon Quest VIII is the sort of game that will conjure memories of Saturday mornings spent hunched over a Nintendo controller, with burning, sleep-crusted eyes and a mouth rimmed with cereal crumbs. If you have no such memories, then this game will probably not appeal to you; the mechanics and plot line will seem hopelessly elementary, especially compared to newer titles like Final Fantasy X or Star Ocean 3. I suggest you go pop in GTA instead.
That's because you can only truly appreciate Dragon Quest VIII in the context of its predecessors, those frustrating, minimalist experiments like Wizardry and Final Fantasy, those games that drove you to hurl controllers, swear clumsily, and kick your little sister. If you remember those games, then you should already understand this one. Dragon Quest VIII is Dragon Warrior renovated, updated, and forced to play fair. It's like coming home, only to find home much nicer than you left it.
You, the hero, are a lowly grunt in the Royal Guard of Castle Trodain. Due to a curse from the evil jester Dhoulmagus, your hometown now lies in thorn-covered ruins, all its inhabitants comatose. Only three of you escaped: King Trode, transformed by the curse into a hobbling frog-monster; Princess Medea, also changed by the curse into a lovely white horse; and you--strangely enough, you suffered no ill effect. Together, the three of you search for Dhoulmagus, in the hopes that defeating him will end the curse and restore Trodain. Along the way, you recruit three party members: Yangus, a reformed bandit; Jessica, a sexy sorceress; and Angelo, a delightfully slimy Templar Knight. Insert adventures here.
The story isn't rocket science. It's simplistic, archetypical, and more than a little predictable. But I didn't care and neither will you, because, unlike most Japanese RPGs these days, Dragon Quest VIII is deliciously devoid of angst.
The gameplay is just as simple as the plot. You beat up monsters, you level up, rinse, and repeat. Each of your party members has five Skills, and for every level you earn, you gain Skill Points, which you may distribute as you choose. You get 350 points for 99 levels, meaning you can max out three Skills. The end. Isn't that easy? (Of course, just because the game is simple doesn't make it hack-and-slash. If your sole strategy is to hit stuff until it dies, then you won't make it past the first dungeon.)
Like the Final Fantasy games, Dragon Quest VIII requires no knowledge of the previous seven titles. It's a good thing, too, since my experience with the series consists entirely of the free but achingly tedious Dragon Warrior, a.k.a. The Worst Game Ever Made. What's intriguing is that Dragon Quest VIII pulls so heavily from Dragon Warrior, only to succeed where the earlier game failed. Characters still require power-leveling. Equipment is still prohibitively expensive. Enemies, no matter how small and cute they are, can still kill you with a critical hit. But, whereas all these elements killed the original Dragon Warrior, they've now become strengths of Dragon Quest VIII.
I think this is due to certain concessions on the developers' part, which even the playing field. For instance: you spend most of your time in the game desperately impoverished, even up to the very end. To make up for this destitution, the developers added in an Alchemy Pot. Now if you can't buy the items you need, you simply can make them from scrap parts, leftovers, and hand-me-downs. This process takes time, effort, and resources, of course, but it's much better than hunting Gold Golems for hours on end. And without the Alchemy Pot, you'd be stuck in abject poverty and no way out but controller-throwing and sister-kicking.
The game is exceptional in other areas besides gameplay. If nothing else, Dragon Quest VIII should be lauded for its artwork, music, and voice acting.
This game is one of the best looking PS2 games we will ever see; in my opinion, it even puts the accompanying FFXII demo to shame. The stunning environments and art direction combine Akira Toriyama's character design (yes, it's Dragon Ball, but it's good Dragon Ball) and Level 5's cel-shading (see Dark Cloud 2 for another example of their work). The game is painted in that bright, bold color palette currently out of fashion, the type of colors you'd see in Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. You can easily lose yourself in the sprawling hills, rolling mountains, cramped forests, rocky tundras, and babbling streams. And the enemies--oh, they're so cute.
Equally excellent is the music. Fully orchestrated, this score pulls from previous themes in the series (particularly the opening credits and the battle songs), which work together to build a stirring, heroic swell. But it's never overpowering: the music supplements the action, rather than overshadowing it.
With one or two minor exceptions, the voice acting is a delight. (As any fan of RPGs knows, this is a rare compliment.) Dragon Quest VIII's main speaking characters--Yangus, Jessica, Angelo, Trode, and Medea--have pitch perfect tones, accents, and inflections. Trode really does sound like a king who's been turned into a frog monster, and Yangus's melodic Cockney accent truly sounds like the voice of a criminal. Only the voices of a few minor characters, like Kalderasha and Marta, grated on my nerves (but then again, you don't have to listen to them for long).
Even with all of these successful ingredients, I'm not convinced that Dragon Quest VIII could addict a novice or a non-RPG gamer. It relies too heavily on a thick foundation of nostalgia. That's not to say this isn't a good game--because it is, it's brilliant, the best of its kind--but it isn't for everyone.
But if you are one of those people, those tired, poor, huddled RPG-loving masses, you better cancel your Friday dates and quit your day job, because once you pop this sucker into the Playstation, you'll be in love. (A word to the wise, however: this time, try not to throw your controller when a slime kicks your ass.)