ron, Jun-09-2007

Paths to JRPG brilliance

Oh sweet Dragon Quest 8. It has now consumed just as much of our time as Star Ocean 3 did before we decided to bail out, but in complete contrast to that we still want to be going on with it, and have not once doubted that we should. It is now clear to us that we may be dealing with the best console RPG of the generation. Nothing else in the genre has adressed and fixed so many of the niggles you often see in JRPGs. It might be well worth pointing a few of them out.

Freedom to discover it yourself

Strictly linear story progression triggers in a wide-open world can easily lead to awkward situations where discoveries can somehow only be made after certain motions have been gone through in other places first. No, Dragon Quest VIII is not free-form either, but in at least two instances the game has allowed us to just discover the solution to a story obstacle on our own. We were supposed to go to a specific place to gather information on how to proceed, but we (accidentally) stumbled upon the actual solutions while exploring, without knowing beforehand that they were there, and the story just skipped forward to that place's events as it should.

Built to last

Your characters join you early into the game and stay with you for the long haul. There are exactly as many as you have slots in your battle roster, so there's no need to juggle people in and out, to keep their levels even or whatever.
Your skill build-up choices are yours to keep, and for once they matter, as it seems an unreasonably high goal to max out more than two, maybe three skills. Specializing in just one or two weapon skills per character is what yields the greatest rewards. Each have their unique set of support abilities, and learn different techniques even if they pick the same weapons – though there is actually little overlap in available weapon skills between characters; anyone can fight bare-handed, but it's getting quite thin beyond that.

Fast travel

Airships shmairships. In Dragon Quest VIII you can teleport to any place of importance you have once visited. The teleportation is integrated as a spell that is free to cast. That one's further augmented by another spell that teleports you to the exit of a dungeon or town. Backtracking doesn't get much more convenient than this.
And you'll eventually have fast mounts, too.

What's the hold-up

An RPG combat system should be fast and efficient. You're going to use it thousands of times.
Turn-based systems aren't very common anymore, but they can work very well, as Dragon Quest VIII demonstrates. As a contrast, the ever-ticking time in the old-fashioned Final Fantasy ATB systems is, if anything, an incentive to spam basic attacks and nothing else. To go more in-depth with the combat system, the split-seconds it takes to navigate the menus just shouldn't be able to overrule any potential adantages of a proper strategy. ATB-FFs usually just cop-out of the issue by making the ATB tick speed configurable, but the problem remains that the system asks players for a trade-off between optimal battle commands and optimal command input times.

We're looking at FF IV Advance in particular, because it's our freshest offending impression. The plain default config makes it seem almost stupid to do anything but spam regular attacks, even with your white mage or whatnot, until party members start dying at least, and either way you adjust it you'll be piling some incremental annoyance onto your gaming experience. Yawn more, or further discourage yourself from using your characters.
The yawning aspect is the ultimate irony of the semi-real-time systems: even though it's always kind of hectic, waiting for those bars to fill up makes combat actually slower than a turn-based system would be, as long as you know what you're doing. And you will know exactly what you're doing when you fight a group of four bats for the seventieth time. So that's not an impediment to efficiency.

Dragon Quest VIII has that almost nailed. It loads stuff from disc during battle, and we are (plausibly) told these loads are for the attack animations, which can't all be held in memory because the game stretches the system so far to begin with. But then any combat action in FF IV is animated as well and takes at least two seconds to execute, so it amounts to a big nothing at worst, but we prefer to believe that you will still wait less in Dragon Quest VIII. Plus you can actually select the command that makes the most sense in every single situation, without having to weigh that against the loss of time while using that menu.

Actually we prefer Final Fantasy X's system where each character's turns can have different lengths, according to their stats, buffs or debuffs, core animations are always resident in memory, and combat actions are fully pipelined (i.e. you can enter commands for the next character while an animation for a previous action is still playing out). A big yay to that. What Dragon Quest VIII gives us in terms of speed isn't as good, but it's in the same athmospheric layer. ATB is stuck in some tar pit.

Stay awake

One-hit-KOing stuff left and right would be par for the genre, but it stops being exciting very quickly.
Dragon Quest VIII though makes you strategize slightly on almost every encounter. It depends on your weapon load-out, but in the most likely scenario you'll have one char who can hit all of the enemies in one group (of which there can be multiple per encounter, just like old western RPGs), another who can hit every single enemy, and two more who can both hit just one enemy. One hit is not enough to fell any one enemy (or you're just operating well below any challenge), more like two or three, usually. For the multi-hit attacks, the damage dealt drops off literally from left to right, so if you're targetting the first enemy every time, the left-most enemies will fall early and the ones on the right will last longer. What you will want to do is reorganize your damage output to make them all go down at the same time, as quickly as possible.

We're not trying to claim it's complicated, but as encounter compositions are pretty unpredictable, you will have frequent reasons to think for half a second and then actually select non-default targets. It's a nice touch, to say the least.
Magic is clearly the most effective form of ending random encounters, but at the cost of limited mana points, exactly as it should be.

Convenient recovery

In JRPGs you win most battles, but you'll seldom emerge unscathed. The usual post-battle routine in a classic FF is to go to the menu, select the magic menu of a character with curative abilities and cast healing spells either on the whole party or on single characters repeatedly until satisfied. In the older, more difficult FFs we find ourselves doing that after every single battle throughout large portions of the game, and it does get a little tedious.
In Dragon Quest VIII you pull up the menu, press left once, and find your cursor over the "Heal all" entry. That not only finds the most efficient combination of spells to cure your party up with minimal mana points, but also spreads around the load between multiple characters with equivalent healing spells.

Give me a break

Random encounters themselves are the curse of console RPGs, and even though players often seek them out on purpose to farm items or experience points, they can be a chore at other times. Dragon Quest VIII attacks the issue from two sides at the same time. Your basic encounter rate is relatively low. It would be hard to grind random encounters like that if it weren't for Yangus and his free "Whistle" ability, which immediately starts a random battle. So if you seek a fight, you just use that. No more running in circles to grind.
On the other hand you can reduce to outright deactivate random encounters for a while through other character abilities or by using (cheap and abundant) items. The player has a great deal of control over the amount of random battles in any area of the game.

Know your clichés

They are all over Japanese console RPGs. So many common story themes are copied, rehashed and commoditized, we don't really expect to be surprised by anything anymore. There are only so many 60h epics you can invent from the ground up after all, so we just came to accept that we will be seeing the same ingredients, and try to appreciate the different mixtures, dosages and sequences.
Dragon Quest VIII does not avoid these common conventions, but … it dances with them. It builds up to a known class of story twist, makes you go "ah, I see where this is heading", and then just doesn't follow through with it. This way major story turns do end up surprising. At other times the clichés are followed as expected, so it isn't even something consistent you can adapt to. Having our preconceptions about how RPG stories usually progress so thoroughly messed with has felt pretty crafty and certainly refreshing.

Bring your own

Money is very hard to come by in Dragon Quest VIII. Weapon upgrades are available for purchase long before you can afford them. If you see an amazing lot of new equipment you may be able to buy a piece of armor for one character, and you'll actually have to decide whose needs are the most urgent.
So you want to make your own stuff. The game features an alchemy system where things can be thrown into a pot and cooked for a while to hopefully combine into something better. There are full recipes and hints scattered around the world, but experimentation leads to results, too. This route is way cheaper than buying all your gear, so you'll really want to dive into it. There's no way to completely lose items here, the game will inform you if items don't fit together and give them back to you unspoiled. If a recipe is leading somewhere though, it takes a little while to complete, so again you must prioritize what to make first. This delay also makes it unpleasant to exploit alchemy for money, and motivates you to keep going with the game (always keep in mind that running in circles for half an hour is stupid, please).

Get the information out there

Boss battles just happen. You walk around a corner, a cut-scene plays and bam, you're going against something big and dangerous. Right? Not so in Dragon Quest VIII. Every single boss battle, even if built towards with a cut-scene, is visible to you very clearly. You're in control, in the usual exploration perspective, the boss just stands there, and you are free to heal or just walk away to some other place. The actual fight will not start until you explicitly engage the boss.

Amnesia medication

Ever started a big game, put it down after five hours and felt completely lost when you picked it back up three weeks later? Dragon Quest VIII adresses the problem nicely. At most locations in the world, you can push Start to converse with your party. They'll tell you what you are or should be up to next. They can figure it out three weeks later.

Negatives?

Oh wow, yes, it has a couple. The deal with saving your game only at a church is pretty restrictive, the in-and-out-of-battle load times are a bit on the high side, which will start to get on your nerves after 50 hours, rest assured. We can't think of any other PS2 RPG that has so few flaws though. It's the ultimate expression of the genre for now, as far as we are concerned.

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