As characters rise in level, they earn “skill points” that can be distributed into five different skills (different for each character). These include weapon skills, ability skills, and one “general” skill. For example, the hero’s general skill, “Bravery,” affects the rate at which he learns spells; pump enough points into this skill, and you’ll learn spells several levels in advance of the normal progression rate. This skill system, while far less robust than a full-out job system, adds a degree of customization to the leveling process.
Hand-drawn maps are available to help adventurers find their way around towns and dungeons. Players can either view these maps with annotations marking the staircases and shop locations or leave them blank for a greater challenge.
Two other systems, not accessible during the first several hours of play, are the “Monster Scout” system and the “Alchemy” system. Some high-level monsters are visible on the world map — defeat them, and they may join your party! Alchemy lets you combine two items to create a new one. Hints around the world provide clues about valid recipes; also, the Alchemy system tells you in advance whether or not two items can be successfully combined, saving you from using reagents unnecessarily.
So far, Sugiyama’s score has varied from so-so to pretty darn good. The overworld, dungeon, and battle themes are of excellent quality, but the town compositions are unpleasantly grating. It’s possible that last year’s Dragon Quest V remake for PlayStation 2, widely considered to have one of the series’ finest scores, preemptively dulled the excitement of hearing well-orchestrated Dragon Quest themes. Regardless, in a game as lengthy as Dragon Quest, it’s likely many of the most memorable songs are yet to come.
Unsurprisingly, the game contains no voice acting. The sound effects are a bizarre mix of 8-bit NES FM synthesis overlaid with digital sounds; casting a fireball spell, for example, plays both the traditional “boop boop” NES jingle and the sound of a roaring flame. It works well enough, and in some ways is a perfect encapsulation of the way Dragon Quest VIII strives to embrace both the nostalgic old and modern new.
Based on our time so far, as a Dragon Quest game, Dragon Quest VIII is an unqualified success. It manages to strike an almost perfect note between series traditions and modern production values; at times, it feels like a brand-new epic SNES RPG with PlayStation 2-level visuals. Unfortunately, most Americans would prefer a PlayStation 2 RPG with PS2-level presentation. According to Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada, “We’d like to push Dragon Quest overseas. The soil is set for RPGs, with Final Fantasy being a success in Europe and North America, so we feel Dragon Quest can be a success.” But whereas Final Fantasy is a fast, fun series with twisting, addictive stories, Dragon Quest plays slowly, can be unforgivingly difficult, and features a by-the-RPG-books scenario. Japanese gamers and diehard series fans may find Dragon Quest’s VIII‘s lethargic pacing (expect to level up for hours before you can challenge the first boss), over-layered menus, four-letter character names, monospaced fonts, and mismapped face buttons nostalgic — but to U.S. gamers, they’re just awkward holdbacks from a long-dead age. If Square is serious about revitalizing the Dragon Quest brand in the U.S. beyond its core audience of old-school fans, a bit more polish for the English language version would go a long way. Dragon Quest has always been the populist RPG of choice in Japan, and with a few small tweaks and modernizations, this series might finally find an equally warm reception in the States.