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Stuck on PS2: Dragon Quest VIII

posted Aug 5, 2012, 3:04 AM by Douglas Sun   [ updated Aug 5, 2012, 3:16 AM ]
Originally posted: March 9. 2009

Every now and then, something reminds me that I never finished playing Dragon Quest VIII. Sometimes, I glance over the link to the GameFAQs walkthrough in my bookmark menu; at others, the slipcover peeks up at me from out of the morass of flotsam that is my living room. It’s been... Sweet Jesus, has it really been more than year since I set it down? I meant to finish it, even more so than with most video games; it was part of a venerable series, the reviews were good, and Akira Toriyama (of Dragon Ball fame) designed the characters.


So where did it — or I — go astray? When you set something down for 15 months, it’s a good bet that you’re never going back to it.

It comes down to the combat system, I think. In a DQ VIII tactical encounter, your party and the monsters line up directly opposite each other in a staredown, and when one of your characters has the initiative, you choose an enemy to strike, like picking someone out of a police lineup. That’s it. There’s no opportunity to maneuver for position, no way for party members to act in concert or mutual support (except to use buffs and heals, of course), no tactical thinking to speak of involved. Just pick a target, strike at it, repeat until all enemies are dead. Given how frequently random encounters seem to occur in this game, tactical combat got old pretty quickly. Monster encounters in an RPG are not supposed to lower your blood pressure, but after a while, I could feel mine drop palpably whenever the game kicked into tactical mode.

Now, I realize that the DQ VIII combat system is based on a tried-and-true formula, seen in digital games for at least 20 years now. The early Final Fantasy games used it. The early Heroes of Might & Magic games used it. It’s still used today. Why should I be so disappointed? And indeed, DQ VIII offers a fairly substantial aesthetic improvement on this playground-like combat system in that the encounters at least take place in a cinematic environment with depth of field, as opposed to the perfectly flat 2D battlefield that I remember from Heroes of Might & Magic. But that’s really the point: That sort of thing was neat 20 years ago, but it will bore anyone who relishes the tactical challenges of more recent RPGs such as the Fallout series or any of the Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs. 

Which is a shame, because just about every other facet of the game is engaging. The item creation system is fun, and the storyline and setting draw you in and keep you drawn in. Details, such as the way the item creation cauldron chuffs and bubbles, exert their charm. The visual environment, with its clean lines and rich color palette, enchants and Toriyama’s character designs do not disappoint. pastedGraphic.pdf Yes, your player character avatar looks like Goku with a bandanna. But that’s pretty much what you were bound to get in a video game with characters designed by Toriyama-san, so it’s a feature, not a bug. Jessica is a properly tasty bit of eye-candy, and Yangus and Trode (the cursed king of the title) have a fairy-tale goofiness that recalls Dragon Ball at its visual best. In DQ VIII, you can ask the party members for advice by turning around and selecting one of them; until you make a selection they’ll just glower at you, and if you wait long enough Yangus will pick his nose. It’s an expenditure of 10 or so seconds that you won’t regret.

DQ VIII is also noteworthy in that it’s the only example I’ve ever come across in which a Japanese video game was localized by a British (as opposed to American) team. The voice actors are all Brits, and the dialogue is British English down to the very bottom of the colloquialisms. Given the differences in social status between the characters, it works quite well. I actually find it impossible to imagine the reformed bandit Yangus as anything other than a Cockney.

But for all these considerable virtues, I still can’t bring myself to return to the game. Too many stultifying random encounters to bog things down just when you want to move the story along. Time to move on. Just below that GameFAQ walkthrough bookmark for DQ VIII is a bookmark to the GameFAQ walkthrough for Disgaea 2, which I haven’t even tapped yet. And there’s the .hack/G.U. trilogy, still in the shrinkwrap....