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Review – Dragon Quest 8

posted on August 10th, 2006 by christian

I’m a bit of a freak when playing RPGs. On my list of priorities, you will never find “story” at the very top. Again, it isn’t a case of “gameplay is supreme!!” I just won’t slam an entertaining game for a weak narrative.

Get used to looking at this screen.

A lot of people probably think that DQ8 is a perfectly weak story. I’m not one of them. Cliché? Yeah. Simplistic? Sounds about right. But that also describes the story of Skies of Arcadia, which is one of the finest tales burned to a disc. Like Skies, DQ8 doesn’t much aim for angst and melodrama or provocative messages. It just wants to tell a simple story about a boy trying to help his king. It is honest and energetic, with a very good English script (one line in particular proved to me that the localizers knew their audience) and voice acting that isn’t stiff or awkward. It has heart, and rather than getting in the way of the adventure, it ties into it rather wonderfully. As I’ve said before, Dragon Quest has always stuck to its roots, in that it is always a series about personal experience and growth. This is your adventure, your party, and your story. It wants you to go explore, to grow and learn and keep plugging at it. At the same time, the story grows with you. It starts off confused and meandering; your party really has no clue what to do or where to go. Slowly but surely it all comes together. The wild goose chase ends, and it is time to jump in head first and face your foes. It has a fairly clever pacing and evolution, and unless your definition of good story telling demands crusades against organized religion or father figures, it’s hard not to just sit down and enjoy it.

And then the second half of the game begins, and whatever magic crystal Yuji Horii used to entrance us for this long falls to the ground and shatters. The spell is broken, and DQ8 takes a severe dive. After a major story event takes place, the game goes down an all too familiar path. The plot falls back to even greater clichés and loses its adventurous nature, preferring instead to just put the player through the motions for the sake of it. You will literally be able to enter any given town and guess exactly what will happen. It will always be incredibly stupid, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop it.

Cute but useless Slime controller.

So I ignored the story, and focused on the quest at hand. Bad idea. At this point in the game, the 20 year old combat system has run out of fuel. You’ve seen everything it can offer, battles become an exercise in repetition, and every new enemy is just a palette swap of something else. Even more crushing is the complete loss of balance. Enemies get much stronger, to the point where you’ll need to use boss level tactics to defeat them quickly (status effects also become broken). Yet the increases in gold and experience don’t ramp up proportionally. Whereas you might have been able to afford frequent weapon purchases before, you’ll be lucky to afford even one piece of gear in the second half towns. Level ups become a rare treat (and they don’t feel nearly as significant as they did in the early levels).

I grew to dread travel, because exploration meant battles that were much longer than before, and for measly rewards. At this point you have two choices; you can take the harder route and just slug through the game, getting your ass kicked by bosses (who all begin to use the same strategy) and trying and retrying until you win. I guess this is the true way to play, though without the balance or technique of the earlier sections, it is far from an enjoyable challenge.

The other option is to play it “like an RPG”. That means spending hours tinkering with the alchemy pot to make your own weapons, or saving and resetting until you earn thousands of tokens at the casino. Or worst of all, attempt the dreaded level grind. I can’t stand this type of gameplay, where sheer time and luck are more important than skill or enjoyment. Just because FF7 decided to torture its players with bullshit like Golden Chocobo breeding doesn’t mean that features like that need to be a bullet point on every RPG design document.

The entire second half of this game does not need to exist. They could have easily modified the story to end around the 45 – 50 hour mark, and we would have been left with about as perfect an experience as you could ask for from a Dragon Quest game. After seeing this and hearing the horror stories of the 100+ hour Dragon Quest 7, I’m starting to wonder if Horii knows when to quit. DQ8 seems to have been artificially lengthened, perhaps so they could show off their shiny new 3d engine, or to try and 1up the competition (which probably works, since so many gamers seem to associate length with quality).

The last time I took this hard a thrashing from a cock was Mardis Gras ’99.

Whatever the reason, it only serves to show us just how old and outdated this formula has become. It can still work, but only with razor sharp balance and pacing (as is demonstrated in the first half, and completely neglects afterward). More importantly, without a decent narrative to hold the player, the endgame is a great example of why this genre is in such bad shape. We always exclaim “story, story, story”, but when there’s nothing in the way of a good story, what is left in most RPGs? A lot of repetitive actions, number crunching and menus. jRPGs have become more work than play, and I’m not sure how long developers can mask this with plots and characters ripped from bad anime.

Was Dragon Quest 8 a disappointment? I would have to say yes, especially after all the great things that it showed me in the beginning. But on the whole it was fun more often than not, and compared to much of the competition, it is still in the top tier of PS2 RPGs. I just don’t see this one convincing an army of FF fans that there is another way. Still, Dragon Quest isn’t going anywhere and I’m hopeful for the future. There is a definite evolution in presentation here, and if they can build upon this with some more daring changes, this series could once again define this genre. Or it could flounder for a few more years and sell millions on the strength of Japanese tradition alone.

– Christian wishes he could rename Jessica to “Saucy Wench”

3 Comments

  1. Staticneuron said on August 10, 2006:

    Playing through this game now….. typical plot change ….. ohh boy…. I can feel it now.

  2. TrueTallus said on August 11, 2006:

    At what point, exactly, did it start to go sour for you?  I can’t really remember what was going on at hour 40 or 50…

  3. Christian said on August 12, 2006:

    well talus, I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone (SPOILER ALERT anyway), but it was just after the Dark Ruins. You should remember what happened there. After that, things just got carried away. It gets better with post-game extra dungeons, which I’m playing now, but that’s most likely due to the fact that the story is pretty much over, and its all exploration. That, and you then have ample oppurtunity to get good gear and levels.

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