I am a *looooooong* time Dragon Quest fan (previous installments were all called 'Dragon Warrior' because of copyright problems), and I had high expectations for this game. I am happy to report that all of them were met, though there are one or two niggling problems I have. More on that later.
First, the good. This game looks and sounds amazing! Playing the former Dragon Quest games have always meant guiding 2d sprites around a flat world map and bumping into icons that represented towns and castles. Not anymore, though! Dragon Quest 8 feels like playing the latest 'Legend of Zelda' games, with fully animated characters walking about the landscape. Villages and castles are actual walled areas amidst the hills and trees, not just wimpy-looking map icons. Usually there are paths that lead the way between your destinations so you don't get lost, but you can step off the path at any time to explore your surroundings if you wish. This won't be much of a problem, thanks to the compass in the bottom corner that tells you which direction you're going at all times. And if, in spite of this, you still get lost, just climb a nearby hill and take a look around. You'll usually be able to find your destination. All of this combines to give the game the feeling of really living in an entire world, not just looking down at a map.
But despite that feeling, this is an old-school Dragon Warrior game through and through. The dungeon exploration, the puzzle solving, the monster battles, all still have that same feeling as the rest of the series. The switch from 2d to 3d hasn't changed that at all. For the most part, this is definitely a good thing. Even with the upgraded graphics, the monster fights are fast-paced and actually challenging. This keeps the unending battles from becoming a chore, which is unlike many other console RPG series. That's a definite plus, because constantly getting sucked into random monster fights is the one thing that drags down most console RPGs and makes them tedious.
On the other hand, this fully 3d graphical upgrade has also made load times an actual issue, which is a new and unwelcome facet to the game. No Dragon Quest game has ever had load times before, not even 8's PS1 predecessor, Dragon Warrior 7. Fortunately, 8's load times are not horrendous, but they're still noticeable.
The sound has also gotten an upgrade, and what a difference it makes! The full stereo, orchestral sound track complements the 3d graphics nicely and easily absorbs the player into the game world. The overland map theme makes wandering around the world feel like a vacation, while the battle themes set the pace well. The sound effects have also gotten a slight upgrade, no longer relying on the old-school NES sound effects that were still used even in Dragon Warrior 7. It's all so immersive, you'll never want to put down the controller.
Which leads me to the story and game play. The plot is typical RPG material, but it is very well-paced and never feels forced. The nominal villain of the story is one of those creepy 'insane clown' archetypes, but as cliche as that might be, he never feels like it. Unlike other members of the Insane Clown Posse (FF6 Kefka, anyone?), he really does come across as villainous and threatening. He's very well-done.
The main hero, on the other hand, is a weak link for me. He follows the standard Dragon Warrior archetype of the nameless, personality-free warrior, which just doesn't work for me in a game like this. Considering that all his companions have fairly well-developed personalities of their own, his lack of same feels more frustrating than anything. The idea is to let the player build his or her own idea of what the hero is like, but considering how the other characters interact with him, the player's own feelings will often contradict with the material presented by the game as the story develops. Just give him his own personality already, Mr. Game Company! I know you want to!
For the most part, the story is almost brutally linear, but it is entertaining enough that it doesn't feel that way. On the other hand, the false accusations of wrong doing start to get tedious after the fourth time. The plot depends a great deal on staple console RPG cliches, though for the most part they blend in well with the game world.
As for the game play, this is thoroughly old-school Dragon Warrior. I've already touched on the random monster battles before. Another important fact to consider is the leveling-up system. As usual, your characters all gain levels as they earn experience points from the random monster battles. The big change is in the abilities system.
The previous two games in the series had a fully customizable job system where you choose jobs, or classes, for all your characters, and they earned skills according to the classes you assigned them. In this game, however, all four of the playable characters have predetermined classes with predetermined abilities, and their special skills come from how you pass out skill points. Your characters earn a small pool of skill points each time they level up, and you assign those points to each of their five abilities as you see fit. You can pass out points evenly, or you can concentrate on one or two abilities exclusively and max them out first. It's up to you. And you need to really think about how to do this, because it is literally impossible to max out all five abilities for any of the characters.
I like this system better than the old jobs system. There is still a fair amount of customization that lets you guide the characters' development, but it is also much less open-ended. It keeps the characters from being clones of each other. Each is unique and has a definite place in the scheme of battle, which forces the player to actually think and use strategy in a fight. Whereas, the old jobs system lets you create identical characters with the exact same ultrapowerful skill set which lets you win any fight without even trying. That tended to get rather boring.
Of course, this wouldn't be a console RPG without tons of side quests, mini games, and whatnot. Longtime fans of Dragon Warrior like me will recognize most of them, from the small medals to the casinos, and the return of the long-missing monster arena. There is also the alchemy pot, with which you can take two or three items and combine them to get a new item. Finding new recipes, either by trial-and-error, reading them in books, or hearing them from other people, is a great way to get powerful new equipment when your stockpile of gold pieces is looking a bit too small to get that new sword you're eyeing.
But oddly enough, this game seems a bit short on the mini game front. As compared to Dragon Warrior 7, which literally had hundreds of hours of side quests and games, there is very little to keep you occupied away from the main story in Dragon Quest 8. It is rather strange just how much seems to be missing this time around.
Then again, the lack of distractions from the main story line is a very minor problem, considering how immersive the game world is. Make no mistake, Dragon Quest 8 is a solid console RPG. It mixes old-school style at its finest with wonderfully upgraded graphics and sound. And, as an added bonus, it comes with a demo disc of Final Fantasy 12. Given what I see on this demo, I am hopeful that the Final Fantasy series is about to break out of the painfully bad standard set by Final Fantasy 10.
If you are a fan of RPGs at all, and particularly if you are a fan of the Dragon Warrior series, you *need* Dragon Quest 8. Get it. You won't regret it.
+ Terrific graphics and sound
+ Terrific old-school game play
+ Well-paced story
+ Strategic abilities system
+ Good mini games
+ Final Fantasy 12 demo disc included
- Not enough mini games
- Personality-free main character
- Very linear story
- Load times