Everyone and their mother knows about Final Fantasy. It's been the standard for role playing games for years now, especially in Japan. However, Square-Enix has had another hit RPG going for years as well, though it's not nearly as well known outside Japan as Final Fantasy. However, just as Final Fantasy VII made the series a hit abroad, Square-Enix's Dragon Quest VIII seems to be the developer's next international breakout hit. Combining an old-school feel with modern themes and gameplay, Dragon Quest VIII is a solid entry in Square-Enix's already impressive stable of RPGs.
Dragon Quest VIII tells the tale of a magical scepter, one that was sealed away for several years until it was found by a twisted jester known as Dhoulmagus, who broke the seal and used the scepter to cast a curse upon the land, a curse that froze time, changed the king and his daughter into weird forms and enveloped the land in vines. It is up to The Hero to save the king and his daughter, as well as the whole world. Not a terribly original plot, to be sure, but like most RPGs the general plot of Dragon Quest VIII is not really the meat of the story, but rather a jumping off point.
The Hero starts off his quest with a brutish thug named Yangus and the king Trode, as well as his daughter, Medea. Trode and Medea have both been transformed by the curse of the scepter, and so obviously the king is in a burning hurry to track down Dhoulmagus. That's where you come in. You'll start off on foot and head to the town of Farebury, where of course you'll encounter several interesting people, some of whom need your help. Obviously.
So, off you go on your epic journey to save the world, and what a pretty world it is, too. Dragon Quest VIII uses a very artistic visual dynamic, combining cel-shaded graphics with anime themes to create a world that is far different from your average role playing game. The visuals are bright and cheery, perhaps a bit too cheery for some, but overall the visual theme works well with the rest of the game.
However, it's not graphics that make a good role playing game, it's story and gameplay, and the gameplay is likely to be the factor that makes or breaks Dragon Quest VIII for most players. Those expecting traditional Final Fantasy gameplay from Square-Enix are going to be disappointed mightily, as Dragon Quest VIII seems particularly bound to its own roots and nothing else. Upon entering into any random battle, four "main" battle commands are immediately available, including Fight, Flee, Intimidate and Tactics. The Fight command allows you to select different attacks, defense and support commands, and Flee allows you to run away (though if overused it can backfire, allowing enemies to flank you and attack unimpeded for awhile). Intimidate allows you to (sometimes) scare off smaller enemies without even having to fight them. They'll often drop treasure while running away, however, so Intimidate can be a great way to avoid the nuisance of random battles while still bulking up your schwag bag. The final command, Tactics, allows you to give a specific set of prescribed commands to your allies, causing them to fight the way you want them to. You can order them to 'show no mercy' and destroy the enemy as quickly as possible regardless of MP consumption or damage taken, to 'fight wisely' and use both offense and defense, etc.
The vast majority of the time, however, you'll use the Fight command, and this command has six sub-commands you can execute in battle. Upon choosing Fight, you can choose to physically attack the enemy, use spells, abilities, skills, items, or 'psyche up,' which is a new feature in the Dragon Quest series. Psyching up entails saving several turns in a row to build up tension, until your character is, to put it mildly, pretty pissed of, at which point he can unleash attacks that are far more lethal than usual. Of course, there's a downside to this tactic, as you won't be doing any damage to your foes in the process. Dragon Quest VIII also employs a new Skill System which allows each character to increase their skill with certain weapons and abilities as they level up, adding a twist to the more traditional style of leveling. In addition to gaining more strength and magic as level increases, character can now have directed development of their innate abilities, giving a more customized feel to the whole process.
Each character is also different enough that this sort of development doesn't feel gimmicky, though the characters in Dragon Quest VIII aren't terribly different from what you can find in most RPGs. There's your average, everyday melee guys Hero and Yangus, the mage known as Jessica, and the Templar Knight Angelo, who is a nice balance between melee and magic. Rest assured you'll need them all, as combat in Dragon Quest VIII is a few degrees tougher than what the average player may be used to, especially in the beginning when your characters' abilities are extremely limited. It may take a bit of grinding through random battles before you're comfortable taking on even the early bosses in the game, as they can be fairly tough. This can be frustrating, especially since you can only save at churches in towns, and can only revive fallen characters in church as well. It adds a sense of realism to the gameplay, having to carry fallen characters back to town to be revived, but it also tends to add a sense of frustration as well. Oh, and every time your party is wiped out, you lose half your gold. Nifty, huh?
Combat, however, isn't all there is to the gameplay in Dragon Quest VIII, as there are lots of mini games and exploration players can enjoy as well. Whether it's gambling in casinos or just wandering around on foot looking for treasure, there's plenty of stuff to do in Dragon Quest VIII, and there's a lot of freedom to explore almost right from the beginning, as the game world is not nearly as linear as some of Square-Enix's more recent RPGs.
One area in which Dragon Quest VIII is very much like other Square-Enix games is the music, which offers high production and rather epic scores throughout the game. Comparatively speaking, the music in the game is more lighthearted than other RPGs, though the themes work well with the overall visual and storytelling dynamic in the game and is of the same quality players have come to expect from a company renowned for its classic soundtracks.
The one real problem with Dragon Quest VIII would be the somewhat clunky interface and verbose dialogue. The battle system takes getting used to, as it's more complex than it needs to be, which can make early battles harder than they should be. Characters can only use items that they are personally carrying, meaning if Yangus needs to use a healing item, and doesn't have one on his person, he can't heal himself even if other characters have tons of healing items at their disposal. This means spending a lot of time making sure that every character has everything they may need for every random battle they may encounter. You also have a Bag where you can store unlimited items, though you can only access it in the field, not in combat. Additionally, the game is too chatty for its own good, even by RPG standards. Every time you defeat an enemy, open a chest, talk to a merchant, whatever, expect to wait around longer than you'd like while the game tells you tons of things you don't really care about, such as the fact that you placed the item you found in your bag (meaning if you want to use it any time soon, you need to head into the menu and assign it to someone).
Overall, though, the few drawbacks in Dragon Quest VIII aren't nearly glaring enough to pass up recommending the game. While not terribly original in terms of storytelling, Dragon Quest VIII offers enough variety in presentation and gameplay to make it worth playing, especially if you're fanatic about your Japanese RPGs. So long as players don't go into the game expecting another Final Fantasy, it's hard to imagine being disappointed in what is one of the better RPGs to hit the PlayStation 2 in recent memory.