Dragon Quest VIII, the entry which arguably made the series more popular in the West back on the PlayStation 2, is last game in the series that I need to play to finally catch up on them all. Thanks to the Nintendo 3DS port published last month, I’m finally living the dream and closing out my knowledge of the main series, and yes, it’s everything I imagined it would be… except for one nagging problem that I don’t think has aged so well.
A little context first. The game is regarded as one of the higher tier entries in the franchise, both for casual and hardcore fans. Fans shower Dragon Quest VIII with admiration for its beautiful graphics, its fun storytelling, its unforgettable characters, and its swift combat. Yes, that’s all here in this latest port, but one of the primary reasons to pick up the game in 2005 is also one of the primary reasons why one might be turned off by it in 2017, and that’s its size.
Critics and fans alike praised Dragon Quest VIII for essentially taking a classic 16-bit overworld map and recreating it fully in 3D. For 2005, the game was stunning in its size, delivering on all the promises that Mass Effect would make three years later. You know, being able to travel to any point, climb every mountain, search every peninsula, and do all this with the scale of a properly sized world. Houses are all the right size, mountains look like genuine mountains, castles loom over our heroes, and the endless oceans extend far beyond the horizon.
These aren’t squat 16-bit sprites that take under a minute to travel between towns and dungeons. This is a full blown epic quest that can take up to half-an-hour to travel between villages if you want to search the surrounding areas and uncover treasure.
Which is fine for some, but that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to steer away from as of late. In an age when every video game series, even flippin’ Super Mario, has its “open world” entry, Dragon Quest VIII’s feels really sparse by comparison. The overworld map is gorgeous, but there’s not really much to do there besides fight monsters and explore clearings on the map. It’s infuriating when these don’t have a treasure waiting for you, and they feel like they don’t serve any real purpose other than to be a distraction. The whole thing just feels empty, beautiful but empty, and every time I’m running between villages, I find myself just wanting to get to the next place as fast as I can.
In a classic 16-bit JRPG, this wouldn’t be a problem since its a trot that will take a minute at most, but here, I honestly took a whole fifteen minutes trying to get to another town after finding myself on the wrong side of a mountain range and having to backtrack to the road. From there, it was still quite a hike, and all I could think was “Thank God Square Enix took out the random battles.” I would have had the patience to deal with them in 2005, but not nowadays. The ability to dodge combat is one of this port’s saving graces.
The “Zoom” spell, the game’s fast-travel option, is also a lifesaver, but you need to actually enter a town before you can use it.
Not just a problem with Dragon Quest VIII, but it is kind of its fault
But then again, Dragon Quest VIII isn’t the only title from its era that suffered from this problem. Rather, it was a problem that many PlayStation JRPG developers were finding at the time, unsure of what to do with all of the excess storage capabilities of a DVD. These games need to be enormous! Can we really do it?
Well, a developer can take one of two routes: make a gorgeous game that has a lot of detail and a deep system that requires a lot of computing to pull off or make a very simple game that emphasizes grandiose size over complexity. The PlayStation 2 started off with a bang in Final Fantasy X, the ultimate example of the former. It was, and still is, a beautiful game with smart mechanics, but it also had a linear world that emphasized the destination over the journey. Its success defined the first few years of the JRPG on the PlayStation 2, leading to games like Suikoden III and Xenosaga that focused more on drama and storytelling and less on conventional adventuring.
Final Fantasy X is also one of my all-time favorite video games, so you can see where I land on this spectrum circa 2001.
A bit deeper into the PlayStation 2’s lifespan, Dragon Quest VIII exploded in Japan and became one of the best-selling titles of all time. Its success popularized a return to simple adventures in grand mystical worlds. The problem is that not every studio has the talent behind it like Dragon Quest VIII did. Armor Project, Square Enix, and Level-5 are all top of the line figures in the industry and somehow made this emphasis on being an empty world work.
The upsurge in hollow, lifeless JRPGs on the PlayStation 2 no doubt came from smaller, less talented studios trying to copy its success. In North America, we got a lot of these games because JRPGs were still in Gold Rush mode at that point, and everyone wanted to find that breakthrough hit. I don’t have great memories of JRPGs from the middle of the PlayStation 2’s life because we localized some genuinely bad ones back then.
It was Atlus that found the breakthrough hit a few years later. Persona 3 rolled up in 2006, but it actually shifted the emphasis of JRPGs back to drama and mechanics once again, bringing the Final Fantasy X formula back to prominence. History becomes a little complicated here, but by this time, Western RPGs began to catch on with World of Warcraft and Oblivion, and the grandness that Dragon Quest VIII brought to the genre wasn’t as impressive anymore.
Nostalgic and fun, yes, but the PlayStation 2 didn’t exactly stand up well against the superior HD powers of an Xbox 360 or PC from that time. From there, the Japanese began to focus primarily on smaller, handheld JRPGs, which is where it still resides today with the Nintendo 3DS and smartphones.
Dragon Quest VIII has its place in history, and it should still be respected
Today, in an age of video gaming where long trods through the countryside in games like The Witcher 3 have become the standard, Dragon Quest VIII doesn’t impress with its exploration. The fact that such a huge, beautiful world can be rendered on the Nintendo 3DS at all is impressive, but I’m more about having fun than being wowed in 2017.
Luckily, Dragon Quest VIII is nothing but fun once you’re able to cross entire continents to find it. The storytelling is hands-down the best in the series thanks to the expressive and perfectly rendered character models, and the voice acting brings the characters to life in ways that no other entry has done. It’s no wonder why these leading heroes often rank among the most popular. Well… I take that back. It’s obvious why Jessica is so popular, but the fact that her, Angelo, Yangus, and King Trode share genuinely emotional moments with one another just goes to show that JRPGs can succeed with voice acting.
In games like Etrian Odyssey, I often play them silently since I can read in my head faster than the actors can aloud. I wouldn’t dare do that in this game. Angelo sharing his back-story… wow.
Storytelling isn’t all this game has going for it, either. Combat is fast, battle animations are both quick and feel like they pack a punch, character progression is both simple and rewarding, and yes, the 3D has plenty of advantages that a sprite-connoisseur like myself can’t ignore. Seeing all of the classic Dragon Quest tropes, from the NPCs and monsters to even the items and houses, rendered in such beautiful 3D is a real treat.
I’ll even say that the world is genuinely a sight to behold, somewhere I’d like to live maybe. When my characters stand on top of a tower or a castle and look out over the vast landscape, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe at the adventure ahead.
And then I remember, “Man, I have to run across that, don’t I?”