Review by helpmeplease
"Proof that innovation is not necessary to create a masterpiece."
Let me start by saying that I've never played a Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior game in the past. I've only recently developed any interest in RPGs, and I've always felt something like an innate distaste for Squaresoft, and, more recently, Square Enix. I am the one person out of all my friends who does not see what's so great about Final Fantasy. As a general rule, in the past, I've only enjoyed RPGs which have had some kind of innovation or at least deviation from standard, old-school turn-based battling such as Super Mario RPG (in which the attacks required timing) and Secret of Mana (in which the battling was all done in real-time). It's not that I decided long ago that I didn't like RPGs. In fact, SMRPG and Secret of Mana would both place in my top ten favourite games of all time. But I could never sit down and enjoy Final Fantasy, because it was just numbers. Just... a lot of numbers. Something about the way the games were presented just didn't appeal to me, and I've never played a Final Fantasy I liked enough to finish.
So what is it that makes Dragon Quest VIII different? To be honest, I'm not sure. All I know for sure about this game is that it is probably the least innovative RPG I've ever played, and that it is completely beautiful and I love it.
I'll spare you a summary of the story, since I'm sure one of the dozens of FAQs and reviews will have a better one available for you. Suffice to say that the story of this game is not exactly fantastic or clever by any means, but more like a fairy tale - ridiculously simple, yet still capable of making you feel joy, laugh, get angry, or be surprised. When you complete a quest, you feel like you've accomplished something. When a character you like is killed, you get mad. You genuinely want to avenge them. In that respect, DQVIII's story is excellent. The lack of complexity and originality forces me to take a few points off here, but I don't think it really detracts much from the overall quality of the game.
Generally speaking, this game looks very, very nice. The entire game is presented consistently in vibrantly coloured pseudo-cel-shaded graphics which are extremely pleasant and are consistent with the simple, lighthearted nature of the game. My opinions about Dragon Ball Z aside, Akira Toriyama did a fantastic job designing the characters in Dragon Quest VIII. The most amazing thing about the character designs in this game is the detail. Every character you meet, no matter how important, has an equal attention to detail as everyone else, even the members of your party. Sure, many duplicate characters are used, but am I going to complain when I get to see the cute bunny girl in every tavern I enter? Toriyama's designs reflect the personalities of the characters. Yangus, the axe/club-wielding tank of the party, looks goofy and enormous. Jessica, cute redheaded hardass bent on revenge, looks, for the most part, angry. Angelo, rebellious man of the cloth exiled for repeated sinning, looks classy and cool. Like absolutely every other aspect of Dragon Quest VIII, the graphics are simple, direct and wonderful. My only minor complaint is that sometimes I will notice, say, a fire effect on a torch that has some issues with pixellation. But hey, this is a huge game. Not everything can be completely perfect, though this game comes damn close.
Yes! This game's music is absolutely fantastic. Every track is an amazing orchestrated tune that fits its situation perfectly. The battle music is intense, the exploration music is mild, the dungeon music is unsettling, the title music is epic. Need I say more? Each tune is unique, yet it seems they all share some kind of common bond with each other. Like in a movie, the transition between the music is seamless. The tone of the music is so appropriate that you start to lose track of the concept that it is separate from the rest of the game. It simply becomes another part of the experience. Once again, the theme here is keeping everything simple, clean and virtually flawless. A couple of slightly unimpressive sound effects here and there result in a one-point-less-than-perfect score here, but once again this does not really effect my overall perception of the game.
This game is as old-school as games today get, at least in terms of RPGs. A traditional (or Japanese) RPG, all battles are in the form of simple menus in which you give your characters commands, they perform them, and the enemies perform their commands as well. Dragon Quest VIII takes the simplicity to the maximum in its battle system. Your battle commands include regular attacks, magic spells, special character-specific abilities, building "tension" (more on that in a moment), items, and of course, the option to run. Your allies are programmable to adhere to basic strategies, but I prefer to command them each turn unless I'm doing some very straightforward low-risk grinding. From what I gather, the tension system is a new addition to the series. Basically how it works is you can choose to "psyche yourself up" once per turn. This uses your turn and builds tension by a certain increment. The higher your tension, the more damage you will do. We're talking about enormous differences in damage here. Not a 5 or 10% bonus. Build tension to the maximum (takes four turns) and you will actually transform into an enraged killing machine, Dragon Ball Z style. In fact, the Hero actually looks remarkably like a Super Saiya-jin in this form. Proper understanding and use of the tension system is extremely helpful, if not necessary, to your success in the game. So as you can see, DQVIII's gameplay is remarkably simple and effective, like all its other aspects, but with just enough innovation to create variety and keep the game interesting and challenging at all times. Of course, this game still suffers from a few of the follies of the RPG genre. There is the rare occasion where an annoying group of enemies will keep putting you to sleep or doing whatever else that frustrates you to no end, and occasionally you will find yourself having to lag behind a bit to level up your characters to even things out a bit with the boss. One thing I'd like to mention about this game though is that it does an excellent job of solving what I call the "random encounter problem". In most RPGs I've played, and I'm sure I'm not alone here, I dreaded the random battles with enemies because they would take too long and were mundane and un-fulfilling. Random encounters are present in DQVIII, in fact, they're frequent, but I actually look forward to them. Why? It's simple, really. They're just done so well! The vibrant enemy designs are tons of fun to watch, the battle music is incredibly catchy, just everything about these battles is, in a word, FUN. Major points for solving this problem.
What can I say? I love this game so much. I typically don't like traditional Japanese RPGs but this game just appeals to me on so many levels. I think this game will forever have a place in my heart for showing me the beauty of a well-done simple RPG. I love everything about this game, the graphics, the music, and especially the gameplay. Even the corny story is fine by me, as it goes hand in hand with the other lighthearted aspects of the game.
Dragon Quest VIII, to me, is a phenomenal achievement. It is a shining example of what attention to detail and fine-tuning of a simple concept can accomplish. I think we can all learn something from this game, and that is the value of simplicity. In recent times we've all been expecting there to be some kind of innovation in every game that comes out, or we immediately disregard it. DQVIII changes this perspective and shows that it's alright to simply perfect an art form that has already been established, taking what is proven to work as a foundation and building on that. This is never done anymore! It's almost as if the developers decided that their innovation would be the lack of innovation itself, if that makes any sense. This game is amazing. I would recommend to everyone, even those like myself who don't typically enjoy RPGs.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/08/06
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