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Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King – Review

Brandon Erickson's picture

Hero from Dragon Quest VIII 

I’ve spent almost my entire life in Oregon, a state whose populace has a reputation for being both laid back and outdoorsy. While I’ve definitely mastered the laid back part, I never quite got a handle on the outdoors thing. I love the scenery around here, but I usually prefer not to be in it. Strange, then, that I feel totally comfortable spending countless hours wandering the simulated countryside in Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, a lengthy old-school role-playing game (RPG) wrapped in modern visuals that manages to feel like more than the sum of its parts.

Dragon Quest VIII puts players in the role of Hero, a young castle guard on a quest to find Dhoulmagus, the evil magician who destroyed his castle, placed its inhabitants in suspended animation, and transformed King Trode and his daughter Princess Medea into a toad-like monster and a horse. Joined by Yangus, a dumpy ex-thief with a Cockney accent, Jessica, a sultry redhead from an aristocratic country family, and Angelo, a suave Templar with a penchant for women and gambling, Hero will engage in a long series of adventures in order to restore his kingdom.

The game possesses a distinct charm that can largely be credited to the character and monster designs of Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama. Each character comes to life with clean lines, bold colors, and expressive faces, from King Trode’s indignant glare, to Yangus’s confused gape, to Angelo’s mischievous smirk. The monsters are some of the strangest and most amusing I’ve seen in a game, ranging from a smiling blue blob that looks like a piece of candy, to bullfinches, buffalogres, and bunicorns (the names should give a clue as to what they look like).

Dragon Quest VIII Screenshot

Although the characters and monsters are rendered in 3D—a la Toy Story—they retain a distinctly 2D look—a la Mulan—an effect that seamlessly blends Toriyama’s 2D designs with the 3D game world. Unlike many games that strive to be as realistic as possible, Dragon Quest VIII’s comparatively simple visuals and consistent physical scale (i.e., characters and objects stay the same size between all the game’s environments) lend the game a satisfying artistic coherence.

The gameplay sticks to tried-and-true RPG conventions. Characters enter a town to purchase weapons and armor, with important locations conveniently marked—shield sign for the armor store, sword sign for the weapon store. The party ventures outside to fight in random monster battles and acquire experience and gold. Once strong enough, the group defeats a boss in a nearby dungeon, obtains some essential item or piece of information and moves on to new areas and towns. Simple? Indeed. Yet, even after 100 hours it never got old for me.

Aside from the standard battle commands—attack, heal, etc.—players can “psyche up” a character to raise tension, which can be stored for a more powerful attack on the next turn. Repeatedly psyching up characters will whip them into a state of “super high tension,” making them look something like a demon about to undergo nuclear fission, and unleashing one of these attacks is one of the most satisfying parts of the game. Other fun battle moves include Jessica’s ability to use “sex appeal” (an upgradeable stat) to hypnotize enemies, and Angelo’s use of “charm” to similar effect.

Even with such powerful “assets,” I still found my party getting wiped out quite a bit. Fortunately, however, instead of forcing players to start over from their last save, the game merely strips the party of half its gold and transports everyone back to the nearest church. Having experienced the profound frustration of losing several hours of progress in an RPG after dying unexpectedly in battle, this feature came as an enormous blessing. While I have since been informed that this system has been a part of the Dragon Quest series from the beginning, it still felt downright revolutionary to me.

 Dragon Quest VIII Screenshot

Where Dragon Quest VIII truly distinguishes itself from other RPGs is in the size and scope of its world. Beautiful and lush landscapes stretch for miles in every direction, and walking between towns feels like an adventure unto itself, with fields, mountains, deserts, and oceans. Everything is woven into one staggeringly expansive environment, and more than any other game (only Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, often noted for its massive world, can compare), Dragon Quest VIII conveys a sense of true-to-life scales of distance and sheer physical space. Standing outside the first town, I spotted an orange patch far off in the distance. As I headed towards it for the next 10 minutes I watched it gradually grow in size until I was standing in front of an enormous tree with autumn-colored leaves. Even the most distant mountains form part of a continuous world open for exploration.

The music, some of which was recorded by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, sounds superb. As good as synthesizers are at imitating the sound of real instruments, I must admit that nothing quite compares to the real thing. The soothing pastoral melody that bathes the overworld and the noble refrain that fills the cathedrals particularly stand out. A few additional musical tracks would have helped reduce the inevitable repetition that occurs in a long RPG such as this, but the quality mostly makes up for the lack of quantity.

I’ll readily acknowledge that Dragon Quest VIII is not the best-looking game out there, nor the most exciting, nor does it have the best story. The loading times could be faster, the music could be more varied, and leveling up could be easier and less time consuming. For some players, these issues may well constitute valid reasons to avoid the game. For my part, however, these weaknesses completely evaporated next to the game’s sheer addictiveness and heartwarming charm. If lengthy leveling up forced me to stick around longer than the content justified, then I sure as heck wasn’t complaining. In the end, Dragon Quest VIII succeeds brilliantly by taking time-tested traditional-RPG gameplay and placing it in a uniquely vast and beautiful world that is a pure joy to explore and inhabit. Exploring the world of a videogame may not count toward my Oregonian outdoors credentials, but at least it more than fills up my laid back quota for the year. Rating: 9 out of 10

Category Tags
Platform(s): PS2  
Developer(s): Level-5  
Key Creator(s): Yuji Horii   Akira Toriyama  
Publisher: Square Enix  
Series: Dragon Quest  
Genre(s): Role-Playing  
ESRB Rating: Teen (13+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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Reader Opinion

Brandon describes DQVIII's gameplay as 'tried and true' and 'time tested.' And in many respects, he's right. The Japanese-RPG has remained relatively unchanged from its SNES days, relying on conventions that seem to, somehow, attract the masses. According to Wikipedia DQVIII sold over 3 million copies in its first week in Japan. Such success is phenomenal, and while most of it can be attributed to the DQ brand-name, there's no question that the genre itself has a pretty large fan-base. Thus, a resistance to change, or shaking up the formula, is inevitably taken with trepidation. However, that can only result in increasingly paler and paler imitations which are both unprogressive and derivative.

For some DQVIII may be an affirmation to why they love JRPG's. For me, it is the straw the breaks the camel's back for my tolerance of such 'tried and true' conventions. I have played many JPG'S in my time, and have enjoyed most of them. I picked up DQVIII expecting to love it, expecting to appreciate its 'old-school' approach. However, my experience with this game proved to have the opposite effect. I became tired of the formula, of its simple story, of its repetition, of its staunch, annoying resistance to change.

I have no qualms with developers wanting to provide an old-school, nostalgic experience. But if you want to inspire nostalgia, you should only include the good-bits of the games you are paying homage to. You don't, or shouldn't, have to replicate everything to the letter. Yes, I'm talking about random battles, the game's biggest offender. This late in the PS2's life, I don't really see any excuse for the existence of this 'convention of the genre.' It's a game-killing mechanic that breaks immersion, and causes frustration. Brandon praised the large, seamless world, which is perhaps the only innovative thing about the game, however I can't see how exploring a majestic world is any kind of fun when you're being interrupted every ten steps by a silly, boring battle. To the developer's credit most battles are short, and fast, but it still doesn't take away the sting of their existence. And, while the world is big and immersive, it is nowhere in the same league as San Andreas, and not an iota as much fun to explore.

Another problem is its length. DQVIII took me 60 hours to finish, this may be great for some, but for me the game had begun to run out of steam around the 30 hour mark. I only forced myself to play to the end because it seemed ridiculous to put 30 hours into a game and not finish it. Games can be as long as they want, as long as they can sustain it. Due to its simplistic story, and repetitive gameplay, it was very hard to continue playing. And the title's many flaws were even more accentuated.

However, despite my negativity, DQVIII is not a bad game. In fact it's a very polished and very beautiful one. Its problem is that it clings to an archaic formula which should have been discarded in the days of the SNES. The game can be fun, and charming, and I'm sure most JRPG fans will devour this 50+ hour adventure with more enthusiasm than I could muster. However, I'm incredibly hesitant to recommend it on the virtue that there are many innovative and daring JRPGS out there much more worth your time.

Review

I too, think this is a worthy game. However, problems I have with it is that fact that there's lack of save points and in order to use the wing or cast zoom in order to get back to town to save or use an inn, you have to get out of the dungeon your in. These problems can be a living nightmare if you are near death and at the end of a dungeon fixing to fight a boss. Take doulmagus, who I am stuck at while i'm writing my review. He's such a big boss that they give you a magic spring to heal but no save point! So if you die, you have to go through all the trouble of losing half you cash when you die, (another unnessary annoyance.) going back to the dark ruins, and going THROUGH the dark ruins all over again! This is ridiculous! Why are there no save points in dungeons? If they had just put save points in dungeons, this game would be much easier to enjoy. It should be much easier to enjoy! It's beatiful, the voice cast wasn't thrown together at the last minute, and it's a lengthy, meaty RPG with an execllent story. It deserves better than this.
Final score: 8 out of 10

Dragonquest VIII

Wow! Come on man just because there aren't saves at ridiculous places and you cant beat the game doesn't mean you can diss this game! This game is a type of game to be valued because games as good as this are only created once in a life time! My score to
this game and aswell as the music is 10/10.

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