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Dragon Quest VIII
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A far superior effort to Namco's Tales of Symphonia, Dragon Quest VIII is a sumptuously designed RPG that shines on many levels.  The cel shading and animation is better.  The music soars and lifts your spirit.  The game world is enormous and stretches away from your character for miles.  This combined with the very subtle and ingenious day and night system really does give you a sense of being on a grand journey filled with adventures.
Even the story is better.  Yes, the game still has the stock conventions of most RPGs, but the execution is better than what was seen in Tales of Symphonia.  The characters are easier to like and identify with, and they act better too.  The villain is both the typical laughing maniac in black and a character that's profoundly weird and different from the norm.  But even if he looks like a jester, he quickly gets under your skin with his brand of evilness.  In fact, Dragon Quest VIII completely ditches the convoluted messes of plots and cinema sequences that many RPGs like the Final Fantasy games too often employ.  Instead, Dragon Quest VIII goes back to the old school roots of monster hunting for increasingly more expensive and more powerful gear.  The plot is straightforward, lighthearted, and sometimes cutesy with nice and funny touches of whimsy scattered here and there.  However that's not to say that the game isn't afraid to get serious and dramatic with nice and well-rounded messages and character interactions.
In contrast to Tales of Symphonia's action based battle system, Dragon Quest VIII has a very traditional "press the button and wait" battle system, and thankfully, there's not a Final Fantasy type time bar in sight.  But even so, Dragon Quest VIII has its own level of depth.  Some weapons hit groups of enemies or every enemy on screen but are statistically weaker than single hit weapons.  The game also has a system of skill points.  Each hero can use four different weapon types instead of the traditional one.  Every level up, you must choose to allocate points to the four weapon types and one special that's unique to only that hero.  You can spread out the points or choose to specialize in one or two weapons.  The more points you put into an area, the stronger that hero's ability to wield that weapon becomes and the more skills you can unlock.  So hanging onto that old sword while you're eyeballing that stronger spear might not be such a bad idea.  In addition to story, a good sense of choice is the hallmark of a great RPG.  Dragon Quest VIII also has one final element in the battle system that separates it from most other RPGs.  Just like in Dragon Ball Z, each hero has the ability to "power up" to higher levels of strength.  You can forgo an attack for one turn to psyche yourself up and do more damage or cast stronger spells the next turn.  Or you can keep going to up to four levels of tension, with each level exponentially stronger than the last.  It's just a nice little element that adds a twist to the otherwise boring "press button and wait" scheme.
There are a few minor problems I've noticed while playing that may turn some people off.  First of all, it seems that the game gives diminishing returns the more you go into the game.  In other words, the amount of effort you put into each fight goes up while the amount of respectable experience points and gold tapers off.  By the middle of the game you'll literally be fighting dozens of battles just to go up a single level.  And going up that single level often proves to be not enough for the current boss.  Many RPGs turn up the heat as you get better and better, but at least it feels like you're always getting somewhere.  RPG fans LOVE to reach levels 70, 80, and 90 by the time they reach the last boss.  In Dragon Quest VIII it's not uncommon to see the game clock at 50 hours and still be stuck in the middle at levels around 30 or so.  That much playing isn't due to a long story.  It's due to running around so much and getting experience points.  By the time you get your first crack at the main villain, the game is so difficult that leveling up may not seem enough and you're running around the planet trying to find those weapons and armor pieces that might give you an edge.
Another thing that might piss off some RPG fans is that Dragon Quest is almost TOO traditional.  There is no flash or flair.  You won't ever find anything fancy like drawn out summon spells or 2,000 damage hits ala Final Fantasy VII.  Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is up to the player.
However these flaws don't stop it from being a great game.  In Japan, Dragon Quest had as much popularity as the Final Fantasy games, but here in America, Dragon Quest didn't catch on as well as its more popular brother.  Hopefully, Dragon Quest VIII will rectify that situation, as it's truly a lavish and beautiful labor of love and the first Dragon Quest to take advantage of the PS2's processing power.

Grade: Excellent

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