This review originally appeared in E158, January 2006.
Dragon Quest VIII is beautiful. It's best to start here, as this is where you will likely begin. From the moment the start-up sequence explodes its world over the screen in a blast of light, colour and promise, the camera trailing two magnificent hawks as they dip and soar over rolling hills through a heavenly Sega-blue palette, it will have you under its spell.
You'll fall in slack-jawed love when you step out of the first town, gaze into the colossal draw distance and realise that no longer is there that world-map divide which your suspension of disbelief could never quite bridge. Synapses will snap happy as they pick out a speck in the distance before perceiving it to be a castle shimmering a half hour's walk away. You'll climb a hill to get your bearings, the horizon full of wild imaginings and whispered promises, before tumbling down again to chase after your adventures. And that delight will grow when your ragtag band of companions first open their mouths and, rather than the expected hammy American, you hear vibrant, rich and diverse European voices. In perhaps the greatest videogame localisation the west has yet enjoyed, an unbroken, darting, live orchestral score generously replaces the original Japanese synthesisers; a flawless aural backdrop to this live-in-fairytale.
It's the kind of game that gives you butterflies as you flick the power switch on; the kind of game that wakes you early from sleep with a siren song calling you from your world into its; the kind of videogame that makes you happy and innocent again. But, as the hours trickle away, so too the hyperbole drains with them. Very quickly, it becomes obvious that the visual invention the game showboats at every turn is underpinned by mechanics you have played a thousand times; that the pixels cover a most straightforward piece of RPG engineering. It's evidenced everywhere from the battle system with its hammer-the-X-button simplicity, through to the linear levelling which allows virtually no customisation as you chip away at your character with exp points, slowly revealing their full, predestined potential.
What has happened is that Level 5 has turned the Dragon Quest dynamic on its head. This has always been a series of function over form, especially as the years have rolled on; but now that the form has been so drastically overhauled, it reveals a function nearly as old as videogame time itself. But to call this style over substance would be grossly inaccurate. The substance is all there ñ weighty, deep and stretching off 90 hours into the distance. But, unmistakably, it is substance from another time. This is an old RPG-by-numbers puzzle; delightfully, spectacularly presented but, underneath it all, mutton dressed as lamb. So the game's success seesaws on the player's love of the orthodox RPG mechanic and, naturally, whether this is simplicity in the sense of studied, understated elegance or just idiotic, dull-brained conservatism.
Unfortunately, it's the latter. Dragon Quest has none of the cutscene exuberance of a Xenosaga, none of the battle complexity of a recent Final Fantasy, not any of the limitless subquesting of an Atelier Iris nor the complete freedom of team customisation that Nippon Ichi's titles afford. There are just the world and a simple option for combining two items to create a new one in an alchemy pot. The gameplay decoration is basic and the flow of play one-dimensional. Just four companions comprise your battle team throughout the game. The story is simple, childlike even; the characterisation primary coloured, the plot straightforward; a TV dinner of cultural consumption.
But, despite all this, Dragon Quest VIII still relentlessly spurs you on. Crucially, everything the game does, it does overwhelmingly well, sparkling with an assurance that comes from having achieved everything it set out to do. In truth, no one has really ever tried to modernise the knights-and-castles fantasy of the Super Nintendo's RPGs so missed by genre fans. This game feels like a rediscovery of all that made the best of those games great, choosing to revitalise and celebrate them rather than follow the crowd and try to force modern elaborations into an old framework. There's innocence in creator Yuji Horii's world, which Level 5 has used its development skills to masterfully highlight and enhance, and ironically, it feels fresher than any other Japanese RPG this generation.
Whether you will agree is another matter. Of all Dragon Quest's blessings, its greatest is charm, and this is perhaps the most mblessing of all. If you are easily seduced then you will follow grinning and besotted wherever the game leads. But if you are long bored of RPGs' outdated vices and devices ñ the random battles, the clichÈd storylines and the incremental level-ups ñ you might not be so readily persuaded once the honeymoon glow dissipates and the wonder of its beauty turns to weary familiarity.
But those who truly fall in love, who recognise what is under the surface for what it really is, will keep turning the wheels, rolling the dice, drinking the charm, faithfully weaving their adventuring life tapestry together until the very end.