The Basics: Dragon Quest is "the" series in Japan. Bigger than Final Fantasy, towering over every Nintendo franchise, it's been a license for Enix to print money for at least a decade, though in the US, it's never been able to catch on. This was mostly blamed on the low quality visuals of the last installment, only arriving here at the very end of the PS1's lifespan. Now Level 5, maker of the Dark Cloud series, have taken over the development duties and cast everything in their cell-shaded 3D talents, creating a vibrant and colorful world with equally expressive characters.
This is the story of an evil wizard turning a princess into a horse and a king into a... thing. Some cross between a midget and a toad with the most unflattering aspects of both. So the quest becomes traveling all over the lands in search of this evil mage to force him to reverse the spell, and return them back to their royal selves.
The demo allows you to speak to people of Farebury, poking around their town and surroundings in search of a sage, as well as a vast wilderness to frolic with random monster encounters. The first thing you're bound to notice is a mix of old and new, with a menu-driven interface that feels ripped directly from a NES era RPG with a full three dimensional cell-shaded world in the background, full of animated characters and cheerful locales.
The music still has a classic sort of feel even though it's being produced on more advanced hardware, while quite a few of the sound effects are more than a decade old. There's nothing primitive about the voice acting, however, bringing cut-scenes to life with a whole cast of oddballs, from the Cockney sidekick to the Russian-sounding fortuneteller down on his luck. It does more than create a world you can believe in. Dragon Quest VIII creates a world you want to be a part of.
Combat won't hold many surprises for anyone who has played console RPGs... pretty much ever. Walk a little way in the wilderness or in dark dungeons, only for the screen to swirl and the music increase in tempo to find enemies have appeared before you. Besides being able to attack, flee, and set the AI of your allies, there's also the option to intimidate, which might drive some of your foes away, or it could make them take a quick swipe at you. Aside from normal attacks, special attacks, defending, and item use there's also an option to get "Psyched Up" that'll boost the power of your next attack. Victory means gold, experience, the occasional item, and often several bumps and bruises to be healed away by special herbs or taking a nap at a local inn. Enough experience and you'll level up, providing skill points to spend in one of five areas, which will allow you to learn new special attacks and other abilities.
What do we think? Do you like older console RPGs? Fighting from choosing options on a menu, talking to everyone in town to find out where to head next, and rummaging around stranger's homes for items? I'm talking a time warp back to the SNES era, and maybe even the NES era, where the Dragon Quest series got it's start, because the basic gameplay hasn't changed very much since the beginning. The visuals have been given a major facelift since the previous installment, but somehow the world isn't quite as impressive or detailed as Level 5's own Dark Cloud 2. The size and scope of DQ8 is far greater, however, and the monsters are as detailed as they are animated, seemingly unable to keep still even as they wait for their turn to attack.
For people wanting a pleasantly fun experience that will last for hours on end with no frustration to spoil the flavor, Dragon Quest VIII is an easy purchase. For people wanting more complex gameplay with more realistic visuals, they'll just have to tackle a different quest, though that road could lead to Oblivion.