Malik (12/21/05)

Dragon Quest 8 (PS2)

From Square Enix

When Dragon Quest 7 hit the US, it was met with very little enthusiasm. The game just didn't have a new enough look. The visuals were straight out of the 16-bit era (which is sad on a PSX game), the sounds were all classic (read: midi), and there was absolutely nothing that made it standout as a new RPG for the masses. 

Perhaps that is the true appeal of Dragon Quest games; they don't care about what the masses want, but rather about what the fans want. While this may be hazardous in the less than friendly towards RPG countries (like the US), it has made the DQ series a smash hit in Japan. 

So, with the first DQ of the current generation (which is about to be the old generation), Square Enix gave the game a bit of a facelift to make it more visually appealing (while also giving Akira Toriyama a chance to work his magic that we all know so well from DBZ, Chrono Trigger, etc). It now looks like a whole new series. However, the ultimate question is; does DQ8 still have the classic RPG feel that made so many fans of the series, and does it offer anything new to keep the more jaded DQ fans happy? 


Many will tell you that this is a game about chasing a jester across the world. These people are also the ones who will probably have to say "no" if you asked them if they actually finished the game. What I'm simply saying is this; don't be deceived by the un-hype. 

The plot of the game is pretty deep and full of plenty of plot twists, despite it's rather average beginning. You play a guard (which is nameless and resembles Gohan from DBZ...the characters are designed by Mr. Toriyama, afterall) who is on a quest with a gruff bandit, a creepy looking goblin like man, and a horse pulling a cart. Before long, the game starts to explain why this random group would be together. The goblin-like man is actually the king of Trodain, the country in which you were a guard, while the horse is actually the king's daughter. As for the bandit...he was just suckered into the quest due to his own ineptness as a bandit and your kindness in saving his pathetic ass. 

The kingdom of Trodain was once a peaceful country, much like the average DQ kingdom. It was bright, full of life, and full of happy citizens. Then, one day, an unusual Jester came to the castle, seeking a special treasure that was rumored to grant infinite magical ability. He managed to break into the treasure room and got a hold of the item, a scepter. It was then that he used the scepter's magic to turn the king and his daughter into the abominations that now make up half of your party. It was after this that the Jester unleashed a massive curse on the rest of the castle...leaving on man, you, somehow immune to the evil magics. 

So, your quest begins. You are out to find a cure for the king and the princess while also trying to prevent further damage to the world by the power hungry Jester. Along the way, a grander scheme of evil begins to unfold. As you follow the Jester, who happens to constantly be traveling towards the next potential cure for the royal family, he starts to slowly and methodically eliminate certain people from the world. Because of these acts, you soon get two more members to your group; Jessica, a rather (let's not sugar-coat the truth) slutty young woman who is seeking revenge after her brother becomes a victim to the Jester, and Angelo, a young (let's apply the same rules to him) slutty priest who is out for revenge after his church's leader is killed by the Jester. 

However, the game does go deeper than just being a simple quest of "follow the leader" (or jester). However, it will take some time for the plot to truly progress. In fact, with this game that weighs in around 80 hours, you can consider the first 30 hours as mainly an introduction to the world of Dragon Quest 8. If you think this may get dull, you are probably wrong (unless you find RPGs which case, this is not a game for you anyway). The world contains a greatly detailed history, unique traditions and rules, and some interesting side information. Plus, as you play, you will stumble across some questions (Why is the main character immune to curse attacks? What's the deal with Munchie, the heroes pet mouse?) you may develop on your own that will take the full game to truly begin to understand. 

So, while this may be a long game, it will fulfill your need for a plot. The only part that will be left behind in details are those of the four main characters. You will suffer from a bit of underdeveloped characters. While Yangus (the bandit) gets a fair share of the spotlight, Angelo (the priest) and Jessica will get almost no development. As for the hero...well, unless you strive for the bonus "good" ending, you will find out almost nothing about him. However, the world and the other characters will supply you with plenty of plot to keep you entertained. 

Game Play 

In a nut-shell, this is old school RPG nostalgia. You will have random battles (if you have a problem, then just go and f#%^ yourself...did I type that? Sorry...or not), text based dialogue (see previous note), and large open areas between locations of interest (you know the deal). You also have turn based combat with standard issue menu commands, like "fight", "defend", "spell", "ability", and "item" to name a few. This is simply RPG Nirvana for those of us who know what a quality RPG is and where they came from. 

The bulk of the game comes down to either exploring or fighting. The exploration involves towns, castles, dungeons, and the world map screen. In these areas, you will typically have a map (or you will find one with time) to help you keep track of where you are and where you are going. This is very important since the areas of the game are quite large and daunting without this type of assistance. Also, if you're in a town or castle, you will have plenty of your standard shops and people to interact with. Each one will offer something unique that may or may not be of help in your quest. You should know the deal; in towns you talk to people, buy equipment, and figure out your next step in your quest (and maybe take part in some local fun, like the casinos). 

Once you leave town, you will have a large world to check out, including dungeons...which are where most of the action takes place in. This action comes down, mainly, to fighting random battles and boss monsters. However, you'll also have plenty of opportunities for finding loot and all of the usual side quests. 

Also, while not fighting, you will eventually get access to the "Alchemy Pot". This is a special addition to Dragon Quest 8. Using alchemy, you can try to combine two or (later on) three items to make new equipment. For example, if you combine a cypress stick (basic sword type weapon) with a certain knife, you will make a spear. These transformations usually make some sense (use "saint's ashes" on a cursed item to make it safe for general use, and a demon's tail to reverse said effect) and help to unlock the most powerful items in the game. Also, considering the nature of how infrequently one obtains gold in Dragon Quest games, this will help you to turn your obsolete items into useful equipment without breaking the bank. 

However, to use alchemy, you have to either have a recipe and some ingredients, or a lot of patience as you try new combinations. Luckily, a failed mix does not deplete your time or items, but you may get tired of King Trode telling you that you failed. Also, when the mix is good, you still will have to walk a bit (literally...alchemy is finished depending on how many steps you take, not how long you sit idle) before your new item is ready. Also, the game is nice enough to give you many recipes, assuming you take the time to talk to NPCs and to read books left on bookshelves in towns. Overall, this feature adds a little something extra to the game, but it only helps (it's not required), so if you don't care for it, it won't ruin the game. 

However, the most evident part of the game, as you play, are the battles. To start with, as I said, they are random encounters. You will encounter a fair share of fights. It's nothing as bad as Beyond the Beyond, but there are more than a few battles as you travel from location to location. 

Also, unlike most other RPGs, these are not "mash the X button" battles. Even a normal low level fight can turn into a slaughter if you throw away strategy in favor of button mashing. At any time, an enemy may pull out a rarely used attack, or work in conjunction with another enemy in the same battle, and put the hurt on you in a major way. It's not like the game is unreasonable in difficulty, but it will make you work for your victories. 

As I said, the battles consists of standard issued commands, with only a few exceptions. The most important exception is when you build your tension. There are five levels of tension for each character (starting at no tension) and they help to make your next action more potent. If you use a healing spell with no tension, it will give you so many HP back. Use it with some tension, and it will cost the same MP (magic points), but it will be more powerful. The same applies to buffs (like boosting defense, agility, etc), and offensive moves. However, once you act in a way beyond boosting your tension, the tension will be expired. So, if you use three rounds to boost your tension (which means you've boosted three times since each one requires a whole turn) and then attack, you will be back at zero tension (and the enemy should be hurting badly). While this may seem pointless ("why boost three times and attack on the fourth turn when I could attack for four turns?"), the increase in ability will become obvious when you start unleashing tension based attacks and healing spells. 

However, the enemies will not be afraid to use tension based offenses as well. In fact, beyond that, some bosses will have abilities to drop all of your buffs (including any built tension). So, that's where strategy comes in. You will have to determine when it's right to build for full tension and when it's right to just go gung-ho. Also, to reach the highest level of tension is a gamble. You may reach it after boosting four times, or the game may be determined that you just can't build enough tension and it could take far longer. Think of this fact like a critical may get it when you need it most, or you may just keep failing. There's no rhyme or reason to getting to perfect tension, so it's also a simple question of "can I afford to attack at the second highest tension, or can I afford to keep boosting to full?" 

Also, the other big change to this game is in how you level up. Each character will start to get skill points when they level up after your first half dozen levels. These points, which can be between 3 and 8 per level, are applied to one (or more) of five skills that are mostly unique to each character. Each character has three weapon skills (sword, spear, and boomerang are the heroes), fisticuffs (barehanded fighting), and a unique personality based skill (hero gets "courage", Jessica gets "sex appeal", etc). The weapon based skills (including fisticuffs) are usually (with spells learned from the staff skill being an exception) only useful when equipped with said weapon, while the personality skills are always usable. Each skill set contains ten different levels (obtained at unique point levels depending on the skill) that grant the character some unique abilities or spells. Each skill can be raised to 100 (being the maximum), but there are caps depending on your current character level (you cannot max a skill until level 38). 

This feature will further add to the strategy of the game since certain weapons are more useful at different times than others. For example, the heroes' boomerang can hit many enemies, so these skill may prove useful during random battles, but the sword and spear are more useful in major battles. So, do you waste skill points on the random battle weapon or one of the more potent weapons? Also, certain abilities are just more powerful then others, so do you keep using that weaker weapon with a good ability, or do you use the stronger weapon that you have not learned as much with? It's all up to the player, and it will all make a difference in the game. 

Along with the skills, you still have the other more common aspects of characters leveling up. In other words, you have a few stats (four main stats, not counting MP and HP) that increase with each level. These stats all raise according to what character it is (Yangus and the hero tend to go for strength, while Angelo and Jessica get more intellectual and agility based properties). Last of all, in case you're scared that you didn't level up your skills correctly, you still get some spells from leveling up. The hero gets a few healing and offensive spells, Angelo gets some healing and buff spells, and Jessica gets some buffs and offensive spells...while Yangus is just a tank for the party who gets nothing for his MP, unless you go for the right skills. 

The only other really new aspect is monster battling. It's like a way. As you progress the plot, the owner of an arena will ask you to find some special monsters (who actually show up on the map and are more powerful versions of random monsters). Once you beat then, these guys will join you. You will then be able to use them in this arena to mindlessly (you don't control them) battle through three rounds of battles to increase in rank. There are around 10 ranks to progress, and each one will get you some new items and/or abilities. These include being able to use your monster team in a real battle. It doesn't add too much to the game, and it's definitely not required to beat the game, but it can give completionists a little more time to enjoy DQ8. 

In the end, there's not much really new to the game play, and you'll see mostly familiar and friendly game themes. This is definitely similar to the original DQ as much as it is to DQ7. There are big dungeons, lots of story, a large time commitment, random battles, big dungeons (did I mention that...because they are freakin' huge), monster area teams, alchemy, and a severe lack of gold (which is a staple of DQ). In other words, if you've ever played a real DQ game and enjoyed it, you will be in heaven with this one's game play mechanics. Also, you'll be right at home. 


Two words for you; "Akira" and "Toriyama". This is the first game to break away from the standard sprite based visuals, and it shows with each cell shaded Toriyama creation that graces the screen. If ever a game looked like an anime, this is the game that would best fit that title. 

Ultimately, this is one of the most impressive looking RPGs ever seen, assuming you are not a fan of ultra-realistic or polygonal visuals (in other words, if you enjoy FFX or Morrowind for visuals...well, you're out of luck on this one). The characters are greatly detailed, but only to a certain limit, to make them look about as anime as possible. This applies to everything from the characters, the NPCs (of which, many look nicely unique), the monsters, the terrain, vehicles, animals, water, and just about everything else present. 

If you ever felt like cell shaded visuals were not the way to go in a game, then either this game is not for you, or this game will show you the errors of the other game's (that use cell-shaded visuals) way. Either way, this game stands to impress anyone who thought that Sly Cooper was the limit of how cell shaded visuals could look on the current generation. 

Along with the great still images, the characters models are just as impressive (if not more so) when in action. The level of animation and the frames per animation are nicely done. On top of that, visual effects (like spells) are all sharp and fluid, while packing a nice punch of visual flair. 

When you combine the wonderful images, the fluid animation, and an obvious lack of visual issues (like frame rate drops, etc), it is easy for me to say that DQ8 is possibly one of the best looking RPGs ever to grace a console. 


While DQ8 will begin by impressing you with it's audio, it will let you down after 80 hours. There is no other way to say it. When you deal with making a game as long as DQ8, Square Enix, you need to understand that the music and voices will become an obvious problem as they wear on the gamer. 

The music sounds orchestral and nicely unique. The music also applies nicely to the situations at hand. However, there is only a few tracks that stand out, and these tracks, like the over world background music, will be played to death. I still can't get that damned tune out of my head. It will probably always sit in there, driving me insane, due to how I heard it for about 45 hours of the game. Throw in about 15 hours worth of the standard battle music, and 20 hours of the same damned town music, and you probably can see my problem. 

However, it doesn't end with repetitive music. There's also the classic problem of an RPG; voice acting. The voice actors in DQ8 can range from mediocre to flat out horrible. Every time you hear the king speak, you will want to slam your hand down on the mute button. When you hear Yangus shouting in a bad English accent, you will writhe in pain. The only truly good voice acting in the game comes from the main character (and that's only because he's mute). I wish I could say that there were some standout performances to make it all better, but there simply aren't. The voice acting is bad, plain and simple. 

While the sound effects do balance out the bad music and voice acting, especially if you like the classic DQ sound effects, they just can't save DQ8 from bad audio. On the plus side, with DQ8 being a turn based RPG, sounds are not important in the game (with one possible exception near the end of the game), so you could always just turn off the audio and pop in a music CD or 80 to fill the void. 


In the end, despite having a bad set of audio stimuli, DQ8 is one of the best examples of why turn-based classical RPGs should not be pushed aside as antiquated. The visuals are nothing short of amazing, the plot is truly captivating, and the game play is rock solid (assuming you are not a damned "innovation" freak, or a turn-based random battle hater). Even if classic RPG game play is not your thing, DQ8 definitely merits a rent. When you throw in the fact that technically this game shines (the load times aren't obtrusive, the visuals never lag or suffer, and the game never crashed once in over 80 hours for me), and it's safe to say that Square Enix still can do RPGs right. Therefore, I have no choice but to give Dragon Quest 8 a most deserving 9.75 out of 10 (despite my hatred of Square Enix and their recent exploits). This is it...true RPG addiction at it's best. 


 Nothing says Akira Toriyama like Gohan in a bandana!

Classic Dragon Quest battles...

...but with a little extra visual flair... the attacks.

The new skill system, as seen in a level up.

Along with the classical leveling with stat increases

Nothing like gambling you almost impossible to earn gold away at a game of roulette.

Transportation options include animal friends of both the sky (above) and the land (below)

Note about these images:  My video capture card is about to die on me.  So, while these visuals are definitely sub par in quality, they should definitely give you a nice impression of what a quality turn-based game with visuals by Akira Toriyama can look like.

Also, the visual settings of the game allow wide screen, much like my TV does, so these images are displayed with the DQ8 widescreen option on.