Dragon Quest VIII Hands-On

The highly anticipated next installment in Square Enix's classic role-playing franchise is playable at the Tokyo Game Show, and we eagerly put it through its paces.

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TOKYO--At the Tokyo Game Show, Square Enix showed off its highly anticipated PlayStation 2 role-playing game, Dragon Quest VIII--the latest in a series that's been around longer than even Square Enix's own Final Fantasy. Despite the fact that the game is coming out in only about two months, it seems that people absolutely cannot wait to play it--because, as a matter of fact, they did have to wait in line for about an hour just to get a shot at it. We were fortunately able to put the game through its paces ourselves and came away with the impression that, despite the series' new look, it's still in many ways the very same Dragon Quest we're used to.

While Square Enix's Dragon Quest series (known as Dragon Warrior in North America) has always been focused on well-written storylines and addictive role-playing gameplay, few would dispute by now the notion that the series' classic 2D-style graphics could really use an upgrade. And, now that it's been four long years since the last Dragon Quest installment, Square Enix will finally be overhauling the series' graphical presentation in the next game. The new cel-shaded 3D graphics used in Dragon Quest VIII fit perfectly with series character designer Akira Toriyama's art style. You should be familiar with Toriyama's artwork in cel-shaded 3D animated form if you've played a Dragon Ball Z: Budokai title before, and that's pretty much the same kind of look that you'll be seeing for your characters in Dragon Quest VIII. With its transition to full 3D, Dragon Quest VIII, in turn, has adjustable camera-angle features (which can be changed via the shoulder buttons on the gamepad) that let you move your view angle or let you check the field from a first-person perspective--though, unfortunately, you can't walk around while you're in the first-person view.

At any rate, longtime fans of the Dragon Quest series should rest assured that while Dragon Quest VIII's graphics look different from the 16-bit-style screens of the past, the game still plays very much like a Dragon Quest title. In one of the two demos at the show, we got to walk around a town in which we noticed all the sorts of things that we would have expected from a Dragon Quest game. For example, we found a token church in which one typically gets help in a DQ game, such as when you need to have a party member resurrected or when you have to have his or her abnormal status cured. The nun and father in the church, of course, had faces that were distinctly of a Toriyama-style, which could be said of all the other characters that were in the town. And, as is typical of console RPGs, we were able to invade people's houses to check out their closets, pots, and other objects for hidden items. This time, the closets and things actually animate when you check them, and an item actually pops out when one is to be found. Little details like this help sell the whole fully 3D experience of the game.

DQVIII also takes some advantage of its new 3D environments to present some of the old RPG clichés in new ways. For example, it's been a longtime series tradition for you to be able to take the back door in some of the town shops to loot treasure chests and to talk to the otherwise-inaccessible storeowners. In one of the stores in town, we found that its back door was strategically hidden in a position where we usually couldn't see it unless we shifted around the camera angle. Though it's something new to DQVIII, another nifty thing we noticed with the camera angles involved the fact that the aforementioned church had a ladder that led us to its rooftop bell, which allowed us to get a bird's-eye view of the town. So the fully 3D environments certainly seem richer and more expansive than the flat 2D environments the series is known for.

In terms of basic controls, we were able to talk to townspeople and could check objects in front of us by using the triangle button. However, for nostalgic fans that want to take the long way around to talk to people, the game still features the old "talk" command that you can select by popping up the menu window with the circle button. The square button is used to open the map screen, and you can actually do this in towns, which will present a layout of the town's roads and buildings. A new option featured in the menu window is the "partner" command, which allows you to consult a party member for advice--kind of like back in DQVII. We were able to talk with all four of our party members--the barbaric-looking but friendly Yangus, the noble swordsman Kukule, the weathered, green troll-like man Trode, and the young, red-haired, witch-in-training Jessica.

The second TGS demo allowed us to walk around the field, which was basically the same as walking around in town except that it was a vast area that was all grass and roads. There were a number of subtle but detailed points on the field that you might not expect to see in other console RPGs, such as butterflies flying around flowers and sheep grazing along the grass. So, rather than having bland fields that you'd just want to rush across from point A to point B, the wilderness environments in DQVIII actually seem interesting, since they not only have these ambient details, but also have topography--slopes and height differences and such--requiring you to do some exploring.

The game's battles are based on random encounters in the field, but it seems that some of the monsters are also visible on the screen. We saw a dragon that was wandering around the field, and when we bumped into it, it expectedly turned out to be a lot stronger than the other small monsters that we fought in random encounters.

The battle scene is fully animated, which means you'll get to see some of the signature Dragon Quest monsters beating on you in colorful 3D. The fighting system hasn't changed much from past installments in the series, so you shouldn't have any troubles figuring out how to play the game if you're experienced with other console RPGs. You manually control the main character, and the rest of the party members can either fight autonomously via their own artificial intelligence, or they can be controlled manually. The basic move options you have in the game are to attack normally, cast a spell, use a special ability, defend, or use an item. The spells available in the demo were of the lowest level, so the effects looked kind of weak, but the special abilities would make each of the characters perform various unique moves. For example, Yangus would smash at the monsters with his axe, while Jessica would throw a magical kiss at them.

The game has one new fighting system called "tension," which allows you to pump up your character so that he or she can deliver additional damage when hitting enemies. Also, although it wasn't shown in the demo, the promotional video at Square Enix's booth showed some monsters lashing out at another monster on the battle screen, which might mean that the game allows you to recruit monsters as party members--or at least you might get to charm them.

Judging by the demos at the show, Dragon Quest VIII seems to be a promising next installment in the beloved series. Considering that Dragon Quest VII was released in the US and that Square Enix commented last year that it hoped the anime-style graphics in DQVIII would make the game a hit with overseas audiences, it's pretty much guaranteed that Dragon Quest VIII will be making its way to North American shores in the future. Stay tuned for more information on the game. For more updates, be sure to check GameSpot's coverage of the Tokyo Game Show 2004.

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sounds nice

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