It's hard to believe that Dragon Quest, a game so huge in Japan that it's infamously illegal for one of them to be released on a school day to prevent mass skiving, is only now being released in the UK, almost twenty years after its NES debut. Nonetheless here it is, in a title that manages to be both a dinosaur of the RPG genre and also one of its paragons, coupling vintage role-playing gameplay with a gorgeous visual style and a wonderful English translation.
The one criticism that can be levelled at Dragon Quest is that the gameplay does seem like an anachronism, especially in these days when the current RPG zeitgeist favours online worlds and sweeping changes like Final Fantasy XII. At the same time, though, it's difficult to call it a criticism. The gameplay is made up of a thousand RPG components that have been played a thousand times before, but each one has been honed so finely that the feeling is of nostalgia rather than tedium. Whereas the latest Final Fantasy has attempted to completely shake up the formula, Dragon Quest is content to exist in the same bubble that it has been in for the last couple of decades, albeit with the series' stunning first step into full 3D.
Featuring characters designed by Akira Toriyama (most famous for Dragon Ball and Chrono Trigger), Dragon Quest takes place in a lush and vibrant cel-shaded world in which an evil jester, Dhoulmagus, has turned the king into a squat monster, the princess into a horse, and the citizens of their city into plants. The unnamed hero is mysteriously unaffected and takes it upon himself to lead the king and his now hay-loving daughter in a quest to restore them to their former selves, while picking up a few more allies along the way.
Almost none of the innovations pioneered by recent RPGs can be found in DQ. Battles have no ATB systems, free movement, or visible enemies on the world screen; they appear randomly and teams of characters line up against each other, chivalrously taking turns to attack, just as they've done throughout the series over the last two decades. No sphere grids or job systems are to be found, with character customisation only going as far as naming the unnamed hero and the distribution of skill points to increase proficiency in favoured weapons and unique character skills (Jessica can have her 'sex appeal' boosted to distract enemies, for example). There isn't even the option to customise which characters you take with you, since you stick with the four you're given throughout. It would be wrong to say that the game isn't without innovation, but mostly Level 5 has tried to perfect what has gone before rather than trying to aggressively drive the genre forward.
'... Level 5 has tried to perfect what has gone before rather than trying to aggressively drive the genre forward.'
It's a refreshing change of pace, since RPG players are likely to know where they are immediately, with no need to learn the intricacies of unique combat systems and mini-games. That's not to say that it's a linear game without tangents for those who venture off the beaten track - completists will be able to master alchemy (item creation), gambling, and the Monster Arena, amongst other things - but everything is optional, sidestepping the problem of irritating mini-games that seems to be becoming endemic in the genre.
Despite the apparent simplicity, Dragon Quest VIII is actually quite difficult. The average enemy is unlikely to provide much challenge to anyone but the greenest of RPG players, but the bosses and enemies that walk the fields at night can be humbling experiences for those who haven't taken the time to level up enough. Thankfully, death isn't the end in the game, with the loss of your entire party simply resulting in a return to the last church visited and the penalty of losing half the gold in your possession. It's a preferable system to losing hours of work and is often avoidable thanks to the fact that spells to heal and warp out of dungeons are early acquisitions.
While Dragon Quest VIII doesn't push the envelope when it comes to the gameplay, the two areas where absolutely sterling work has been done is visually and in the localisation. Cel-shading might have seemingly gone out of fashion as quickly as it came in a few years ago, but it's used here to stunning effect, managing to evoke both the sprite-based heritage of the series and the eminence of Akira Toriyama amongst anime aficionados. It really is a beautiful game, made up of vivid colours, detailed towns, and whimsical character designs that boast tremendous amounts of personality. On the technical side it's a slight disappointment that progressive scan isn't supported, but nonetheless it has a widescreen mode which makes the gorgeous vistas look even more epic.
The outstanding localisation is the other factor deserving special mention, and really shows how far we've come in quality game translations. The English language version boasts excellent voice acting added after the Japanese release, which lacked any speech at all. Far from being the usual utilitarian American accents, the main characters here are decidedly European, with the highlight being Yangus, the cockney bandit. The dialogue itself is generally great and the idiosyncratic voice work just adds to the aesthetic charm.
Music comes from Koichi Sugiyama, as much a part of Dragon Quest history as Nobuo Uematsu was to Final Fantasy, and comes in the form of a suitably grandiose orchestral score. The only real complaint can be that the battle music will be heard so often that the opening bars are liable to drive players insane before the end of the game. Still, there are worse ways to lose one's wits.
While Dragon Quest VIII is content to leave the furthering of the RPG to other games, it does a brilliant job of bringing the past into the modern era by coupling old-fashioned gameplay with some beautiful art design. Newcomers may find it a daunting experience, with even the quickest play through commanding 50 or more hours, but RPG fans who have yearned for this series to make it to our shores will struggle to find a better example this generation.