DRAGON QUEST VIII / Square Enix / PlayStation 2
Dragon Quest laid out the base template for JRPGs when it came out back in the late '80s. While other series would build on this template and innovate, Dragon Quest was content to just chug along only making the most minor and grudging of changes in each new installment. But hey, why mess with success - though the series struggled to attract a cult following in the rest of the world, it was monstrously popular in Japan for whatever reason.
It would take eight entries in the series and the jump to the PlayStation 2 before the series would grudgingly adopt modern appealing graphics, making at least some attempt to compete with contemporaries in terms of visuals. One of the oddest things about the series is that Akira Toriyama (of Dragon Ball fame) had been its featured artist from the very beginning, yet for about 15 years the games relied on squishy basic-as-hell graphics that didn't put him on display in any way with the exception of some battle sprites.
This eighth entry makes a huge jump graphically from where the series was at with the previous entry on the PlayStation. It moves to a 3D world that one can roam about in a la the Elder Scrolls games, and gets Toriyama more involved with in-game character sprites that are very well-animated. I actually thought the enemies had more of a Don Bluth look to them in some cases, but Toriyama is credited for pretty much all of the game's characters. Characters are all done in a cel-shaded style as well, which means it has actually aged pretty well visually.
That's just how the game looks, though. Get some hours in, and you'll realize that this is just the same old Dragon Quest mechanics and progression with a very nice new coat of paint.
The game actually isn't tremendously grindy - there is some need to do it (particularly for money), but long grind sessions are back-loaded to the later reaches of the game. The new 3D world and visuals have added a new element, however - the game is just plain slow. It refuses to do anything in a second that it can somehow stretch out to a minute. Later re-releases would fix this, but here in the original PS2 version you're still dealing with a tedious amount of unseen random battle ambushes as you move about the game world. And it leans on the same old lazy JRPG staple for battle challenge - just make all the enemies ridiculously fast so that they usually get turns before you, then have them spam shit tons of status effects.
That's not to say it's a hard game. It's actually easier than any previous entry in the series, and definitely will be more welcoming to newcomers in that regard. But it's an unabashedly time-wasting one. You'll be forced in to all sorts of battles where the enemies have no hope of winning, but the designers seemed to consider it a personal victory if they can chip off just another minute or two of your precious irreplaceable life.
An opaque character upgrade path contributes to the sense of frustration. You get four characters in fairly short order, and each has their own collection of six skills you can assign points to at each level-up. Problem is, you have no idea what abilities and perks you're getting from each upgrade branch. And there are not nearly enough points in the game to max out each branch. There are two random NPCs in random towns you can return to to find out how many points you are from the next skill in each category, but not what it's going to be. It's a bafflingly player-hostile decision.
Oh, and speaking of player-hostile decisions, there's also the hanging onto the Dragon Quest tradition of only allowing you to save at a church. There are at least a few scenarios where you could be playing for an hour or so, ready to wrap up for the night, then suddenly get vacuumed into another area that could take 30-60 minutes to get out of or through.
The game does manage a 3/5 from me though, and that's mostly down to giving you such a charming world to explore. You're encouraged to roam off the beaten path by the presence of hidden treasures out in the wilderness (and later special monsters you can recruit to fight for you in the Monster Arena). In addition to being pleasing to the eye, the game world is populated with amusing characters and it's nice to finally see a full-size version of the directorial vision instead of squishy sprites after all these years. At least in terms of world design and visuals, DQVIII does quite well in adapting to its new and modern set of circumstances. And it's all bolstered by what might be the best of Koichi Sugiyama's soundtracks yet, making use of digital audio to deliver an orchestrated score in the style of the Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite albums.
Insistence on the ancient, traditional mechanics is what holds it back from greatness. Roaming about and exploring the map is interrupted too often by pointless battles. Pointless battles are too drawn-out and overpopulated. Advancing the plot sometimes requires you to blunder about a confusing area looking for one particular obscure NPC or a random trigger to pop off.
About 10 years later the game would receive re-releases for 3DS and mobile platforms that made a bunch of tweaks, most importantly making enemies visible on the map and allowing you to steer around them as the more recent Dragon Quest games do. There's a lot to like about DQVIII's colorful world, and maybe those more recent versions make it less of a pain to explore.
* Gameplay Video