- Title: Dragon Quest VIII
- Developer: Level 5
- Publisher: Square Enix
Dragon Quest's focus is on entertaining and enjoyable gameplay, and so for the most part the game's plot can be forgiven for being fairly weak. The game's subtitle, "Journey of the Cursed King", is almost everything you need to know to understand what's going on. You, an unnamed heroic adventurer, are on the hunt for a power-hungry sorcerer. The spellcaster has stolen a potent magical artifact, and pair of royals present when the artifact was stolen are turned into a frog-demon thing and a horse. They hook up with you and your buddy Yangus (a burly fighter-type), in hopes of finding the spellcaster and reversing the magical effect that imprisons them. Along the way you encounter some typical RPG stereotypes (like the scantily clad mage Jessica), but for the most part that's the hook that drives the story. While this doesn't sound like much to go on, the NPC characterizations are so well-written and over-the-top that it's hard not to like them.
This sense of exploration is only broken by the occasional encounter with wandering monsters. The pace of encounters is well spaced out, to ensure that you won't have to fight through several encounters just to proceed a short way down a trail. The combat is a traditional RPG line-up, with enemies on one side and heroes on the other. Players navigate an intuitive menu to instruct their characters in who and how to fight, but attacks are far from the bland or ordinary. Both monsters and heroes have an array of visually interesting attacks and spells to take out opposing forces. Giant tongues seem to be a weapon of choice for the enemies, who have an array of quirky appearances and behaviors. Besides the title-identifying slimes, there are a bevy of beasts and monsters to face down. Some of the early beasts actually forgo their turns to calmly lick their fur. This variety of choice, animation, and behavior ensures that even the most jaded RPG fan is unlikely to get bored with combat. Trying to one-button push your way through combat, if you do start to glaze over, will teach you the error of your ways quickly. The challenge level here is high, and you can expect to wipe more than once at low levels. The tenacity exhibited by a gang of cute little kitty cats can easily end in tragedy.
Dragon Quest VIII is not an evolution in the genre, nor is it likely to convert a dyed-in-the-wool anti-RPG nut. It's a challenging old-school game that appeals directly to traditional fans, and does so with personality, levity, and a lot of style. The hack and slash, turn-based combat system has never been so lovingly displayed as it is in this title. If you ever find yourself pining for those long-past grind sessions, gaining levels outside of Elfland by slaying ogres, this is a game you simply must play.