While the modern role-playing game (RPG) started right here in the United States with the pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons, the Japanese have left their own unique mark on the genre, particularly on game consoles. So-called Japanese RPGs (JRPGs) are characterized by their predefined stories — as opposed to Western-style RPGs, which leave much of the story in the player’s hands — and turn-based combat, often randomly initiated as your character wanders around a world map.
No series has had more of an impact on the JRPG than Dragon Quest (often known as Dragon Warrior in the United States). Released in 1986 for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Dragon Quest defined the genre as we know it, with turn-based combat, a text-based menu system, and random enemy encounters.
When Dragon Quest VIII for the PlayStation 2 was released in 2004, it was a big leap forward for the series in some ways, being the first to feature fully 3D graphics, but in terms of gameplay, it didn’t stray far from its NES roots. The game was a huge hit in Japan, and now it’s available for your iPhone or iPad (there’s also an Android version, if that’s your thing). Dragon Quest VIII costs $19.99 in the App Store, is a 1.39 GB download, and requires iOS 6.0 or later. Note that the iPhone 4 is not supported.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I can hear you saying, “Twenty bucks for a ten-year-old game?” That’s a bit more than you’re probably used to paying for App Store games, but Dragon Quest VIII offers over 100 hours of gameplay. If you’re skeptical, check out the gameplay trailer, which is 50 minutes long.
JRPGs aren’t for everyone, and Dragon Quest VIII is a JRPG in its purest form. While the interface and mechanics can be complex, the gameplay is dead simple. You wander from town to town and dungeon to dungeon, following the story, fighting hordes of monsters in turn-based combat along the way. JRPGs, at their worst, can be tedious affairs, and you might find Dragon Quest VIII frustrating at times.
There’s little hand holding, and Dragon Quest VIII suffers no fools. In the first town, you’re given a quest to go find a crystal ball under a waterfall. You are offered no clues about where this waterfall is, and to make matters worse, there are two exits to the town, and the waterfall could be outside either one. Unless you resort to a game guide, you’re reduced to a trial and error process of leaving by each entrance, then wandering around, fighting enemies every few steps, in hopes that you find your destination (but if you look closely, you can spot the waterfall in the distance).
What separates good JRPGs from bad JRPGs is charm. To play through what might be an otherwise tedious, frustrating, long quest, you have to like the characters, be invested in the story, and enjoy staring at the artwork for potentially dozens of hours.
Fortunately, Dragon Quest VIII oozes charm. The anime-inspired cell-shaded graphics are brightly colored, accompanied by a whimsical score that I find myself humming as I write this. If you’re an anime fan, you’ll probably recognize the art style of Akira Toriyama, who created the look for Dragon Ball. Even the enemies, as frustrating as they can often be, are cheerful, such as Slimes, which have long been the mascots of the series.
The story is your basic fairy tale. You play the silent Hero (his name is officially Hero, but you can name him whatever you like), who was a guard for King Trode and Princess Medea, who have been turned into a Yoda-like troll and a horse, respectively, by the evil jester Dhoulmagus. King Trode’s kingdom of Trodain has been cursed, with everyone else in the kingdom turned to stone and the entire kingdom covered in thorns. Hero is joined in his quest to restore the kingdom by his best buddy, the reformed bandit Yangus, who talks with a distinct cockney flair. They are later joined by the spunky mage Jessica and noble Lothario Angelo.
All the characters, with the exception of Hero, have their own unique strengths and personality. Hero is a balanced character who can do a bit of everything: physical damage with swords and other weapons, a few spells, and he’s immune to curses. Husky Yangus can give and take a lot of physical damage, and has the best lines in the game (“I’m the best there is when it comes to findin’ people. It’s my ‘piece of resistance,’ as they say”). Jessica specializes in damage-dealing spells, but also wields whips and knives, and can use Sex Appeal to stun enemies (OK, this game is old-fashioned in more ways than one). Angelo specializes in healing, but also has a few damage-dealing spells to accompany his weapons.
Compared to most JRPGs, Dragon Quest VIII is simple. There are few characters (by comparison, Final Fantasy VI had fourteen protagonists), the story — despite a number of tangents — is basic, and combat works about the same way as the original Dragon Quest. That simplicity extends to the mechanics of upgrading your characters.
As you fight baddies, your party accumulates experience points, and after so many, each character gains a level — which means more hit points, magic points, and a few skill points. Skill points are used to customize each character, by investing them in a handful of different abilities. For example, Hero can specialize in Swords, Spears, Boomerangs, Fisticuffs, and Courage. In total, each character can earn enough points to master only 3.5 skills, so it’s important to have a plan to invest skill points wisely. GameFAQS poster TheTrueBZ has a nice guide to give you some ideas of where to put them. (And if you don’t find that straightforward, I refer you to the Sphere Grid used in Final Fantasy X to upgrade your characters.)
If you’ve already played Dragon Quest VIII, then I’m not telling you anything new. Let’s discuss what’s different about the mobile version compared to the original.
First, there are a couple of cosmetic differences. The graphics have been upgraded to Retina resolution, and other than some blurry textures and pixelated videos, look fantastic. American fans of the game will be disappointed by the lack of voice acting. Presumably it was left out to reduce the size of the game, but the original Japanese version didn’t have voice actors either.
But what makes or breaks any iOS game are the controls. You notice something odd right away: the game is displayed in portrait mode, instead of landscape like most games. I was confused by this until I opened the app on my iPhone, and it suddenly clicked: this is a game designed to be played one-handed.
When navigating around the world, you control Hero with a virtual joystick, set at the bottom-center of the screen by default. I normally hate onscreen controls, but Dragon Quest VIII isn’t the sort of game that depends on precise movements, so I’m OK with it here. There’s a button to move the controls around the screen, so you can shift the joystick to the left or right edge of the screen, which you’ll probably want to do if you play on an iPad. At the bottom of the screen is a slider to control the camera, which is awkward at first, but I got used to it. There’s also an auto-run button to save your fingers some strain while traveling, and a button to access the game’s menu, where you can use items and spells, quickly save your gave, as well as manage your inventory and assign unused skill points. You can also consult with party members to remind you of what you should do next. This is handy if you’ve been away for a while.
One annoyance with the game is item management. Each character can only hold 12 items at a time, including equipped weapons and armor. There’s a separate bag, not held by any character, that can hold excess items, but those items cannot be equipped or used during combat. You’ll end up spending a lot of time juggling items between your bag and characters.
Another annoyance is that the game is sluggish compared to the PlayStation 2 version. It’s not unplayable, but the low frame rate is annoying while walking around and navigating menus. I’ve noticed that the game runs much worse on my iPad Air than my iPhone 5 — presumably due to the higher display resolution of the iPad’s Retina Display.
If you plan to play Dragon Quest VIII on an iPad, I would steer clear for now. Besides the sluggish performance, the game’s portrait orientation is awkward on a tablet. It’s a game very much intended to be played in one hand, which is great, but at a detriment to larger screens.
Controls for combat are as straightforward as it gets. As in most JRPGs, you merely select an action (or an item), then select who you want to perform that action on. A new addition to the iOS version is tactics, which are automated actions based on a general idea of what you want the character to do. For example, you can order a character to Fight Wisely for a mix of offensive and defensive actions or Show No Mercy to go on all-out attack.
What makes combat interesting in Dragon Quest VIII are the strategic choices you have to make. You can simply attack to damage the enemy. You can cast spells to damage enemies, heal your party, or boost your party’s attack and defense. Of course, spells depend on how many magic points you have, so they’re a limited resource. You can choose to defend, if a character is low on hit points, or you can psych up a character to unleash a devastating attack.
Psyching up characters is one of the more interesting aspects of Dragon Quest VIII. Each time you choose to psych up, that character performs no other action, and is left vulnerable to attack. But the tradeoff is that every time you do it, their next physical attack will be increasingly more powerful. So if you psych up for five turns in a row, you can be sure that your character will have charged up a devastating attack. But another thing to keep in mind is that some enemies can relax your character, wiping away all of that tension he or she has built up, and thus wasting your efforts.
As I said before, Dragon Quest VIII does not suffer fools. I still recall my initial encounter with the first boss, years ago on the PlayStation 2, that led to a total party kill. Years later, as I fought the same boss again on my iPhone, I barely survived — poor Yangus fell in battle. It’s actually sort of funny when a character dies, because he or she is represented on screen by a cartoon coffin. Dragon Quest VIII can even make death charming.
But no worries, as I was able to huff it back out of the dungeon, then use a chimera wing to warp back to town, where I visited the local church, and the bishop resurrected Yangus for a nominal charge. I slept at an inn to restore our health and magic, and then went back to the church to save the game.
While I’m out of practice at the game, I will give you this bit of beginner advice: before you visit the waterfall and confront the first boss, buy up some healing Medicinal Herbs in town, then wander around outside fighting monsters until Hero and Yangus reach level four or so. If you do not do this, you will die, and even if you do that, you may still die, but at least you’ll have a fighting chance. For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, this is known as “grinding” and it’s an essential (some say dull) part of any RPG.
I could tell you a lot more about the game, including the Pokémon-esque Monster Arena minigame, but you probably just want to know: is this game worth 20 smackers? If you enjoy JRPGs at all and plan to play on the iPhone, then yes, it is. It’s a simple game for its genre, but it’s a simple game executed well — something almost any Apple fan can appreciate.
If you’ve already played Dragon Quest VIII, the iOS version has nothing new to offer, but you may enjoy having a pocket version that you can take anywhere. In some ways, I prefer the game on the iPhone, because I can mindlessly grind while watching TV. And talk about an ideal summer road trip game! Dragon Quest VIII can keep the kids entertained for a trip around the world.
If you prefer playing on an iPad, or don’t like JRPGs, then I would give Dragon Quest VIII a pass, or maybe wait for a sale. There’s a chance publisher Square-Enix will update the game to be better optimized for the iPad, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
But I will say this: as someone who’s ambivalent about JRPGs (I’ve played many, but I can count the ones I’ve had the patience to complete on one hand), this is one of my all-time favorite games. It’s an exhausting experience, but a lovable one. I beat it at around 90 hours in, but even after that, there’s about another 30 hours of extra content that reveals a better, extended ending. I never got that far on the PlayStation 2, but now that I can carry the game with me, maybe I will. Eventually.