Dragon Quest was the first JRPG to find real success, and the series has purposefully kept to simple mechanics ever since. Due to this lack of evolution, most of the Dragon Quest games are acceptable favorites. VIII simply hits a specific niche which resonates with me. Where earlier entries are as aesthetically simple as the mechanics, VIII pairs the classic gameplay with an ever-expansive world.
When I first played this back in 2005, I had never encountered a game which felt so big. Most JRPGs tended toward overworlds which essentially truncate the locations for easier navigation. Dragon Quest VIII keeps everything to scale. Combined with the gorgeous cel-shading, this is easily one of the most aesthetically pleasing games of its era. There were so many moments where I would stop playing to stare in awe at the land. More games have moved to this presentation style, but few match the sense of wonder found here.
Matching the visual scale is the game’s massive length. The overarching narrative is incredibly simple, but most of the game consists of self-contained missions with a ton of charm. Each new location has its own story. Games of such size usually have a ton of empty space, but every inch of Dragon Quest VIII has purpose.
The gameplay is simple, but that does not mean it’s shallow. Each character comes with their own sets of skills which the player can control, giving variance to different playthroughs. Boss battles tend to be strategic affairs. The only real problem is the series’ overreliance on metal slimes; there are a few points where it feels like you have to grind to keep up, and that largely devolves into hunting the same rare monsters over and over.
The series in general is charming, but that’s really brought to life here. The creatures have tons of distinct designs and their own silly mechanics. Some early monsters will simply devolve into laughter for their turn, while another will waste its turn casting a late-game spell for which it lacks the MP. The world captures everything from rural country sides to sprawling kingdoms to frozen grottos. The central cast all have their own quirks. The highlight is Yangus, a bumbling bandit with a thick Cockney accent.
The minor quests each offer their own distinct atmosphere. Some can be somber, such as a kingdom in mourning. The one which sticks out most happens in the kingdom of Argonia, where the party must assist the spoiled Prince Charmles (Get it? Charmless? This series loves its puns) in hunting giant lizards. Charmles joins the party, but completely fumbles everything he does and ends up running away. These diverse quests help sustain this massive journey.
Dragon Quest VIII is an exceptional JRPG not because it pushes the genre forward, but because it offers the basics in stellar form. It might seem wrong to praise a game purely for offering a stylistic improvement over its predecessors, but there’s no need to fix what’s not broken. VIII takes the familiar and makes it bigger than life.