To say that Level 5, creators of the amazing Dark Cloud RPGs, developed Dragon Quest VIII is a bit of an overstatement. While they did create the game's cel-shading engine and did a lot of core work with the title, there was also immense input from the initial creators of Dragon Quest. One of them, Yuji Horii, worked on the story and game design just as he did the original game. Akira Toriyama and his Bird Studios group of designers, famous for their work with manga classics like Dragon Ball and Dr. Slump, also returned to give the game its distinctive and superior sense of design. This makes Dragon Quest VIII a title that represents an amazing confluence of creative talent. It could be fairly said that Dragon Quest VIII is the result of the best game design minds in Japan coming together for a single project.
Dragon Quest VIII was gigantically, monstrously successful in Japan. Virtually all Dragon Quest games are; as the Square-Enix rep mentioned to us, the games are so popular that it is required by law that they only be released on Saturdays and holidays lest they hurt national productivity. However, Dragon Quest VIII has that certain something it takes to become a global hit, and seems poised to return the lustre the franchise name once had in the minds of American gamers. It's not just the graphics, which are amazing, or the soundtrack, which is superb – it's something about the the sweep of the story, the immersion, and the beautiful simplicity of the turn-based combat. Even a brief period of playing Dragon Quest VIII draws you in, and we were reluctant to put our controllers down every time we got a few minutes with it.
The Western releases of the game are being further enhanced for the benefit of players who may be picking up Dragon Quest for the first time, or the first time in many years. Voiceovers are being added, although we hope there will be an option to turn them off if you want to play the game as it was originally presented. The press release promised enhanced attack animations, although neither of us really noticed any major graphical differences between the E3 version and the original import. Like the original, the E3 version was a beautiful game with a fully detailed 3D world. Towns and cities flowed seamlessly into dungeons and the overworld, which enhanced the feeling of adventure and exploration.
The E3 demo version didn't give a good picture of the overall gameflow, but did show off the combat system. In all prior Dragon Quest games the faux first-person perspective of the original NES game had been retained. A consequence of this is that you could never see how the enemies moved, or how your own characters behaved in combat. However, this also allowed the games to retain a larger party size and give combat a bit more depth in terms of tactics. Dragon Quest VIII presents the best of both worlds, with a four-person party that possess a wide range of abilities, and fully 3D combat environments that let the player see complex and entertaining combat animations. The old combat line descriptions still play over the battle in the bottom portion of the screen, which makes keeping up with the rather fast-paced action of the fights much simpler. Similar to the old Final Fantasy, you assign each character an action at the beginning of the turn, and then all characters will proceed to take their actions over the course of the next few rounds. However, the range of abilities available to your characters has grown immensely, so combat rarely boils down to just tapping “attack” four times and then going on autopilot.
What little we saw of the cutscenes were stylishly directed, perfectly mimicking the style of the animations based off of Akira Toriyama's manga works. Characters were able to seamlessly transition from humorous scenes to dramatic ones, and much of the personality of the characters was keenly brought out by Bird Studios' immense cartooning skill. Humorous characters simply looked funny, while the imposing archer character exuded cool confidence in a way few similar RPG characters have managed so easily. We look forward to playing the game as intended so we can get a better overall picture of how the cutscenes and the gameplay sequences flow together, as well as how the length of the cutscenes stacks up with the length of the gameplay segments.
The story for the game is simple in concept, but this is often true of great RPGs. An evil jester tentatively called Dhoulmagus has come into the possession of a cursed scepter, and used it to trap his entire kingdom with evil magic. Everyone in the land has been turned into thorns, and the King and Princess into horrible monsters. The only citizen to escape the curse is a young guardsman known only as the Hero. This character, like Crono before him, never speaks. He is absolutely a cipher, the way the audience experiences the emotions of the story. The way the Hero feels about his situation and his companions will ultimately be what you feel.
This sort of direct immersion was once the hallmark of the single-player RPG genre, but has in recent years been replaced by a more heavily narrative, cutscene-focused approach. While this has allowed RPG stories to increase their scope and attain a certain cinematic quality, it has also slowly begun to grow into a wall that can separate the player from a feeling of direct involvement in the gameplay experience. The genre was long past due for a return to its roots, and Dragon Quest VIII shows every sign of being that game.
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