This cartoon escapade breezed onto PS2 like a life-saving breath of fresh air to JRPGs. As the genre attempted to bury itself under its own stuffiness, Level-5 rose above it and delivered a fun-packed masterpiece. Make no mistake, the stat-heavy grinds are certainly still present, but they’re hidden behind a veneer of cel-shaded brilliance. And the classic tropes are so well disguised even the biggest RPG naysayer will be sucked in. And this is what makes it so good.
The gloss is immediately applied by the talented hand of character designer, Akira Toriyama. Each area of this cartoon world looks excellent, making it a treat to stomp around with Hero and his band of merry men and women. You know how enemies are supposed to look intimidating in games, right? Well in Dragon Quest VIII they’re adorable. From smiling piles of slime to skewered bell peppers hopping about, each random encounter throws up a new favourite foe. We’ve even got a grinning King Slime plushie sat on our desk staring at us as we type.
The attraction to the game world and all who live in it is bolstered by the voice cast. Instead of dramatic American or Japanese dialogue being pumped into your ears, Dragon Quest VIII’s British voices immediately draw you in. Yangus, one of your party, speaks with such a heavy Cockney accent that it’d be right at home if it was being barked across the Queen Vic at Grant Mitchell. In fact, Yangus’ voice actor, Ricky Grover, was actually in Eastenders.
Whoever made the decision to corral the UK’s D-list celebrities in for voice-over duties deserves a giant gold medal - they fit perfectly into this fantastical universe and Dragon Quest VIII is all the better for it.
In terms of scale, only GTA: San Andreas comes close to Dragon Quest VIII on PS2. The mean streets of Los Santos may be a million miles away from the action, but Level-5’s ambition and ability to cram as much good stuff in here as possible is rivalled only by Rockstar Games. Right up until the finale, we found new and exciting stuff to do away from the main story. Did you know there’s an excellent Pokémon-style fight arena run by a colourful Italian man named Morrie? You do now.
We spent hours trying to capture rare monsters to form a team worthy enough of competing in Morrie’s Monster Arena and it’s not even integral to the plot. It’s the zen-balanced turn-based battle system that makes it moreish. Oh, and the surprise of being able to combine three monsters to create one big, all-conquering beast useful for arena battles and taking on enemies in the story.
There’s a fully functioning casino in Baccarat - Dragon Quest’s small scale Las Vegas. The amount of virtual currency we pumped into roulette, bingo and more to get Jessica’s legendary whip doesn’t bear thinking about (read: loads), but the setup is so charming and fun, you’ll stay here for ages. Hey, even GTA V doesn’t have a working casino yet.
The time we’ve invested in Dragon Quest VIII’s extra curricular activities is testament to Level-5’s smooth delivery. It constantly feeds you with new stuff to feast on such as alchemy pot recipes to unlock and create better weapons, towns to discover, secret slime mountains to find and so much more we’d need another 15 pages to explain it all to you. Even the ending isn’t the end of it, as a new, equally excellent story strand opens after the credits roll. Dragon Quest VIII may have breezed through PS2 as the console was fading out, but its positive effect on JRPGs will be felt forever.