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Portraits in Pixel

Great Games: Dragon Quest VIII

The game that brought Dragon Quest to a new generation

Photo by Ian Jones. Some rights reserved. Source: Flickr

NOTE: This is a review of the PS2 version. I could not get my hands on the 3DS version due to scalpers.

SPOILER ALERT: Plot details for Dragon Quest VIII will be discussed.

Dragon Quest is one of the founding pillars of the Japanese role-playing video game (JRPG). Created by Yuji Horii in 1986, Dragon Quest is considered by many to be the first JRPG, or at least the first to establish many of the genre’s conventions. DQ’s broad influence can be felt, even now, in series such as Final Fantasy, Pokemon, and Chrono Trigger. Originally produced by Enix, the DQ games are popular because of the simplicity of their gameplay, the depth of their storytelling, the enriching music of Koichi Sugiyama, and the fantastic art by Akira Toriyama. While DQ is a cultural touchstone in Japan, it’s taken a while for its popularity to pick up in the West. For what it’s worth, the earlier games did receive good reviews from critics, but they also suffered from low sales. This began to change with the release of Dragon Quest VIII in 2004. This was the first 3D game in the series, the first to come out after Enix’s merger with Square, and the first to be released in PAL regions internationally. DQVIII helped the series to achieve staying popularity in the West, being, for many, their first introduction to these games.

On the eve of DQVIII’s release in Europe in 2006, Horii expressed his hope to Eurogamer that the series could reach Harry Potter levels of global popularity. The reasons he gave for this confidence were that the world was “getting smaller” and that “the things that people enjoy are becoming more common across countries.” In that same interview, DQVIII’s producer, Ryutaro Ichimura, singled out the influence of anime for making Europeans more open to DQ’s art style.

DQVIII joins the ranks of Final Fantasy X, Persona 4, and Kingdom Hearts, as one of the great JRPGs of the PlayStation 2. Those who are intimidated by the complexity of other games in this genre will be refreshed by the simplicity of Dragon Quest. There were long stretches of the game where I rarely needed a strategy guide to figure out where to go. This was by intention, of course, as Horii himself has said, “I’m the type of guy that doesn’t read the manual for computer games, so I made this game so you don’t have to read the manual.” The battle system is also a simple turn-based one and you fight enemies from a first-person perspective. The PS2 version allows you four playable characters, while the 3DS version has five.

Each character can use a variety of weapons. The Hero, for example, can use swords, spears, and boomerangs, while Yangus can use axes, clubs, and scythes. Although the strength of one’s equipment is important, what matters more than that is a character’s skill level with a particular weapon. Once a character levels up, you can decide how you want to allocate their skill points. Some weapons have special attacks which can only be gained with certain levels of mastery. Some favorites of mine included Yangus’ Helm Splitter, which can lower an enemy’s defense, and the Hero’s Falcon Slash, which can do two powerful strikes at once. You can also switch your equipment mid-battle, so having variety of weapons on hand is definitely a must.

In addition to physical attacks, of course, there exist a variety of spells for the characters to use. Your two best mages are Jessica and Angelo. Angelo learns a lot of powerful healing spells early on in the game, which makes him a vital white mage. Jessica also learns some equally impressive attack spells, like Kasizzle and Kaboom. What I like about their buff and de-buff spells is that you can keep using them three or four times in a row. A virtual necessity for boss fights.

As with past DQ games, you can enlist certain defeated monsters into your party. You can create teams of three to fight against other monsters, or you can bring them into Morrie’s Monster Arena to challenge others. In battle, your Monster Team will act of their own accord and only stay around for three turns, but they can deal heavy amounts of damage to bosses and briefly protect your team from some nasty status effects.

DQVIII’s battle system has also added some new features. The Hero has a pet mouse named Munchie, who can be fed certain cheeses which do considerable elemental damage. Another new feature is “tension”, which refers to the ability of any character to use their turn to build up strength. Doing so raises their subsequent attack or magic power. If you can successfully raise your tension four times in a row, your character can reach a supreme level of hypertension which visually resembles turning Super Saiyan.

Another unique addition to DQVIII is the Alchemy Pot, which can seem rather trivial early on, but becomes essential towards the endgame. Throw random ingredients into the Alchemy Pot, and you can cook up a variety of rare and powerful items. These include the Timbrel of Tension, which can raise the tension of all party members, and the Liquid Metal Sword, which is quite useful in cutting through those pesky Metal Slimes.

Being the first 3D DQ game, the transition from 2D to 3D could easily have been clunky. DQVIII could’ve easily fallen into the trap of a lot of 3D Final Fantasy games, which were either too open world (FFXII) or too linear (FFXIII). DQVIII, thankfully, manages to hit the sweet spot. While you will be spending a lot of time in the game running around, figuring out where to go isn’t too difficult. You have a compass, a map, and signposts to help guide you on your way. I should also take this moment to note that the graphics of the overworld are nothing short of gorgeous. From the wide fields of grass to the shimmering waterfalls, the graphics of the PS2 version draw your eyes in and refuse to let them go. Traveling by foot, though, can take a very long time, and when night falls, more perilous monsters show up. The quickest way to get around by land is by Sabrecat. These beasts make going long distances much less of a hassle. Later on, you also acquire a ship to explore the seas, and towards the endgame, the Godbird Soulstone allows you to fly over the continents and reach unreachable spots. The most fun for me was exploring each new town. There are hidden items (sometimes rare ones) in each closet, chest, and barrel. The dungeons are a real labyrinth, though, and the random encounters don’t help either, but going off the beaten path can reward you with some valuable treasures.

While DQVIII is a simple game, it is far from an easy one. Yes, some of the monsters you encounter may look cute and funny, but they are also merciless. Sometimes, as many as eight monsters will gang up on you, and if that wasn’t bad enough, they’ll call their friends over or revive their fallen comrades. The only places you can save your game are at are the churches, so if you die, you wake up at the church with half of your gold gone. The game can be rather stingy with its gold, so every coin counts. In fact, you may find yourself spending hours farming for gold on the Isle of Neos. The same could also be said for leveling up, as even some of the toughest monsters may give you only sparse experience points. The best way to get a boost in experience is to defeat the Metal Slimes, the problem being, however, is that their defense is exceptionally high and that they can run exceptionally fast.

DQVIII’s soundtrack is one of the best to ever grace the PS2. For that, we have to thank the late Koichi Sugiyama, who has composed the music for every DQ game since its inception. The Japanese version of the game had a MIDI arrangement, while the Western release was thankfully re-orchestrated. The game wouldn’t have quite lived up to its epic scope had this needed change not been implemented. When I first heard the opening notes of the overworld theme, “Strange World — Wandering Through The Fields”, I was moved and overcome with emotion. Another sentimental theme is “Remembrances”, which first plays in Ascantha amidst the king’s grief. I’m also fond of “Over The Sorrow”, “Mysterious Tower”, “Heavenly Fight”, “Sky, Ocean and Earth”, and the MIDI version of “A Peaceful Community Night.”

Now, I also have to mention that while Sugiyama made great music, his political views were nothing short of atrocious. Sugiyama was an ultranationalist who proudly denied the horrific crimes of mass murder and rape which Japan committed during World War II in Nanjing, China. What a pity that a man who could touch upon the depths of our humanity so movingly with his music, was so clearly lacking in that same humanity himself.

I was rather surprised by how absorbed I became by the story. The Hero is a former castle guard who joins the King of Trodain and his daughter, Princess Medea, on their journey to find the evil jester Dhoulmagus. Dhoulmagus has stolen Trodain’s ancient scepter and put a curse on the kingdom. This curse has turned the King into a toad-like creature and the Princess into a horse.

On your quest to undo this curse, you are joined by Yangus, a former bandit who the Hero once saved from falling off a bridge, Jessica, a mage who seeks to avenge the death of her brother Alistair, and Angelo, a flirtatious Templar who wants to prove himself worthy of his order. The character plots are very entertaining, from Yangus’ quasi-romantic rivalry with the sultry Red to Angelo’s conflicts with his brother Marcello. You can even speak to Medea through dream sequences or through the Mystic Spring. These conversations not only provide a background for your relationship with the Princess, but also help to develop the romance between the two of you. I also enjoyed talking with the NPCs. They always had informative and sometimes funny things to say.

The subplots are also quite involved. I was rather moved, for instance, by the plight of King Pavan of Ascantha, whose grief over the passing of his wife throws his whole kingdom into peril. To help him heal, you have to travel to the Moonshadow Realm and meet its keeper, Ishmari. The mystical Ishmari uses his harp to conjure visions for the dead queen, and it is these memories of her help the king to overcome his mourning.

A major highlight of the game, of course, is the long-awaited confrontation with Dhoulmagus. There was a certain satisfaction that came from finding him after so many hours of chasing him around the world map. Naturally, he reminds me of Final Fantasy VI’s own wicked jester, Kefka Palazzo. Though if we’re to be more accurate, Dhoulmagus is really more comparable to FFX’s Yunalesca. Both bosses represent points where the game wants to give the player an exceptionally difficult challenge. Dhoulmagus is quite cheap, splitting himself into three, removing your buffs, and spamming highly damaging attacks on your weakest characters. If you didn’t grind much before this fight, chances are that you will need to do so to defeat him. Angelo, at the very least, is going to need to learn Multiheal. Still, as frustrating as Dhoulmagus is, his uncompromising brutality as a boss is what helps to make him so memorable as a villain.

The comparisons between Dhoulmagus and Kefka end when it is revealed that the real villain is not the jester himself, but rather the cursed staff which he wields. The staff is possessed by a being known as Rapthorne, who is most interesting when he takes control of whoever wields him. This leads to a rather exciting moment when you have fight a possessed version of Jessica.

By far, one of my favorite sections of the game was meeting the bird goddess Empyrea and traveling to the World of Darkness. It reminds me quite a lot of the Dark World from A Link to the Past. This world is all in a ghostly black and white, giving the area a surreal and unsettling feeling. I also liked how the game made you do the work of chasing Empyrea’s shadow in order to find her. Your reward for saving her chick is gaining the ability to fly, an act which feels liberating after having spent so much time on your feet.

There are also various endings you can unlock depending on which version of the game you have and how much of the game you chose to complete. In the original PS2 version, the Hero can get paired up with Princess Medea, while the 3DS version offers you the option of marrying Jessica. Marriage with Jessica is pure fanservice (she’s quite sexy), but marrying Medea feels more appropriate to the story, given all of the intimate interactions she had with the Hero thus far. But to each his own.

DQVIII should also be put beside FFXII as being blessed with one of the best English language localizations of the 2000s. The voice actors are given mostly British accents, but some NPCs have flavors of Italian, Russian, and French. Given that DQVIII is a fantasy inspired by European culture, this decision was the natural choice. The English script also has a rich, literary feel to it, with equal parts humor and gravitas. The folks at AltJapan who handled this translation did a laudable job.

DQVIII is a demanding and immersive experience. Even by today’s standards, the depth and realism of its world remains remarkable. It opened the door for many into the fantastical realm of DQ and I hope that many future fans to come can enjoy it as well.

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Sansu the Cat

Sansu the Cat

I write about art, life, and humanity. M.A. Japanese Literature. B.A. Spanish & Japanese. email: sansuthecat@yahoo.com