Dragon Quest VIII and The Triumph of Tradition

January 13, 2009 at 5:39 pm (Game Reviews) (, , , , , , , )

I know I promised that I would write about the new Prince of Persia, but I just finished my first Japanese RPG – no, my first single player RPG – in something like 7 years. That is enough, in and of itself, to get me writing. Do not worry, though. I already updated my Facebook status to read, “Mike just finished his first single player RPG in 7 years!” You, dear reader, are going to receive a little more, because Dragon Quest VIII was a sublime, heart-warming experience. It was also a boring, mind-numbing one.

As my old friend would say, “You think I’m joking. But I’m not.” Dragon Quest VIII is a mix of extremes. It can be a truly frustrating experience, but it can also be a magical one. Let us start with the frustration.

Dragon Quest VIII has a battle system ripped straight out of 1989 and plays like a checklist of RPG old-school mainstays. There are random battles (a system I am convinced gamers have hated since their first appearance). There is scrolling battle text (“Slime took 67 damage!”). There are towns, separated by fields and punctuated by mini-mazes known as dungeons. There is something like 70+ hours of gameplay to get through. There is a speechless hero and a skanky female party member, all clad in implausible fashions. Everything you think of when you think about Japanese RPGs is present and accounted for.

This also means that the gameplay is nothing short of yawn-inducing. It asks little of the player and gives little back; battles require minimal strategy and experience awards minimal character customization. If the combat/level grind was all there was to the game, I would never have been able to sit through the entire thing.

You have to understand though. As much as Dragon Quest VIII follows the rules of an RPG, it also breaks with tradition in significant ways. Sure, the game only progresses when you find that one NPC in town to talk to, but when you do find him or her, you are treated to nothing less than superb character writing. Few games bother to infuse their NPCs with as much depth as Dragon Quest VIII does, and as I am fond of saying, good characters mean good writing. Thus, for a good portion of the middle half of the game, I was driven solely by the desire to experience the story. That says a lot; very few bad games can survive with good characterization. Dragon Quest VIII does.

This is a personal reaction. After all, the game’s narrative was almost drowned out on more than one occasion by its horrifically staid gameplay. It was probably lucky to have me at the controls; I play games for their stories as much as anything else. Final Fantasy, with its melodramas and larger-than-life characters, can eat its heart out though. As interesting as giant meteors and summons gone wrong (FFX) are, the down-to-earth characters in Dragon Quest VIII take the cake.

So let us talk about the ending. Yeah, that means spoilers. It is worth discussing, though, because it managed to satisfactorily reward my 70+ hours of effort, a feat few RPGs claim credit for.

You see, most RPGs end like this: you enter the final dungeon, a grueling experience most of the time, and do your best against the final boss. Usually, you do this about two or three times. After all, what final boss in his right mind has only one form? Then you get a sappy cut-scene, maybe a few glimpses of the world you saved, and it is on to the credits.

Dragon Quest VIII does not end like that, though. In fact, when the final boss goes down, it does not end at all! Once you get past the obligatory, celebratory feast scene, the game keeps going. You still have more characters to interact with and a few more towns to explore. This was a revelation for me. For all I know, every past Dragon Quest game ended this way, but I come from a tradition of hardcore, Squaresoft RPGs (read: Final Fantasy). In those games, once the boss is down, you are done.

But Dragon Quest VIII seems to understand itself better than most RPGs, because it does not end with a fight. It is perfectly fitting for an RPG that gets by on character and story more than anything. It is the reason why I walked away from my 70+ hours feeling accomplished and satisfied. Just because I saved the world did not mean I had to leave it right away. That in itself is a delight. What actually happens in those closing scenes, however, is nothing short of magical.

So that is how I find myself describing my time with Dragon Quest VIII: magic. It was a long and epic journey, and if the post-credits are to be believed, it is not yet over. I can not wait to go back.


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