Reviewed: December 11, 2005
Released: November 15, 2005
When it comes to console RPGs, there is no name in the business bigger than Dragon Quest. While Final Fantasy, Square Enix’s other flagship RPG series, has more brand recognition in the United States (old-school gamers may recognize the Dragon Quest series under its previous name, Dragon Warrior), and is certainly no slouch when it comes to sales figures in any country, Dragon Quest is a phenomenon in Japan in ways that Final Fantasy could only dream of becoming. Lore (or perhaps urban legend) has it that there is a law in Japan that games in the Dragon Quest series may only be released on Sundays, because truancy numbers rose sharply on the release dates of the first few games.
What makes Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior games so popular? Although the Final Fantasy series and the Dragon Quest series are on the same order of magnitude in terms of sales, and used to be direct competitors to each other when Square and Enix were separate companies, the two series have evolved in completely opposite directions. Whatever Final Fantasy once was, it has become known since Final Fantasy VII for its flash. Elegant character designs by Yoshitaka Amano, a brilliant graphic artist, have been replaced by a seeming need for bigger explosions, death-defying action sequences, and ever-skimpier clothing.
On the other hand, Dragon Quest has changed very little in the more than 15 years since its inception. Although all the Dragon Quest games ultimately pit you against an evil power that threatens peace, the story progresses through many chapters, each with their own interesting characters, unique problems to solve, and touches of humor or sadness. A more light-hearted mood is conveyed by the designs of Akira Toriyama, the famed creator of the world-famous Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z series.
The developers of Dragon Quest have also kept the game itself well rooted in what works. While Final Fantasy experiments wildly with playing styles to make the battles faster and more synapse-frying, Dragon Quest has maintained a core of well-balanced, turn-based fighting which is challenging without being frustrating or a chore.
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King brings this tradition back to the United States market with a title that not only displays all the qualities which have made Dragon Quest games great games to play, but also is so beautifully produced that it might satisfy gamers who have come to expect high production values.
Dragon Quest VIII opens with the hero, a brutish, dwarfish man named Yangus, and a green Yoda-esque creature named King Trode in search of a jester-turned-sorcerer named Dhoulmagus, who has cursed the King into his current form and the King’s daughter, Princess Medea, into a horse. As the story progresses, your gang follows the trail of Dhoulmagus, and does a number of good deeds along the way. In your travels, you meet two more companions, Jessica, a young daughter of a wealthy family who dabbles in magic, and Angelo, a young holy warrior whose habits of flirting and cheating at cards get him in trouble.
One significant departure from previous Dragon Quest games is that Dragon Quest VIII is more character driven. In previous games, you would meet a new character, learn a bit of their background, and then they remained mostly silent for the rest of the game. In Dragon Quest VIII, the characters have much more personality, often commenting on the events around them, getting the entire party into trouble, or arguing amongst themselves. Individual characters pasts may come back to haunt them in certain chapters, and you gradually learn more and more about the people with whom you travel. The interactions are often funny, endearing, or sad, and the player can become attached to the characters much more so than in other games in the series.
Dragon Quest VIII is about as old school as RPG’s come (and this is a good thing). Although the graphics have improved, the system has not changed much from that of the first Dragon Quest/Warrior game released at the end of the 1980s. Your party is given a chance to select actions for each turn; your characters can attack normally, cast spells, use special techniques or items, defend, or build up “Tension” (more on tension later). If you prefer not to have to give actions every time you go into battle, you can assign different AI styles, such as “Focus on Healing,” to all of your characters, except for the hero. Once you have selected your commands, your characters and their enemies carry out their actions in an order based on their relative speed. Battle pauses while you give your orders.
There are no summoned monsters to tip the balance of the battle in Dragon Quest VIII (well, you can summon monsters later on, but they are not the same mystical demi-gods that appear in Final Fantasy to do 4000 damage). Monsters have a wide variety of skills they use in fighting, and so do you. Strategy dictates which skills are best to use at which time. If you face a magic-user, a spell-blocking skill might win the day, though it is not guaranteed to work. If you are facing a large number of monsters, you may wish to use a boomerang to damage all your enemies somewhat, rather than a sword skill that will devastate a single monster. If you think that one of your stronger, slower characters can eliminate a monster in one blow, you will want to have your weaker characters focus on other monsters.
The strategy and balanced gameplay of Dragon Quest VIII mean that you must play intelligently if you want to win a dungeon crawl. Through a large dungeon, you may encounter enough tough monsters that you won’t have enough power to muster against the boss when you reach it, if you wasted magic or fought just by pressing the X button several times. Healing magic is expensive, and revival spells only work half the time. There are very few items that will restore your magic points on the field. If you die, you will be revived at the nearest church, but at the price of half your gold.
A new system of character specialization adds to the challenge and strategy. Each character has four different types of weapons that he or she can master, and one attribute which is unique to each character. When you gain an experience level, you are given a number of skill points to allocate among your characters’ skills. When one skill reaches a certain level, that character will learn a new skill or gain bonuses when using certain weapons. What specialties you choose to pursue, and in what proportion, determines a character’s fighting style; a magic user could choose to focus on a skill which improves her fighting abilities, or one that gives her even more powerful spells.
The battle system in Dragon Quest VIII strikes just the right balance of fun and challenge. Battles are not mere speed bumps on the way through an interactive movie, as they are in Final Fantasy games, nor are they arbitrarily hard and infuriating as they are in Xenosaga. Instead, you can win the battles if you are smart enough, powerful enough, and have a little bit of luck.
The little chapters which make up the majority of the storyline in Dragon Quest VIII are interesting and cleverly written, and they all seem to tie in well with the main objective of the game: defeating the evil jester Dhoulmagus and undoing the curse upon the king, his daughter, and his people. As an example, in one chapter the King is depressed because he always has to wait outside town in a wagon (to avoid the torch-and-pitchfork crowd), while you and your party get to go into town, meet interesting people, and rub elbows with royalty. One of your party members, an ex-bandit, decides to take the King to his hometown, so full of shady types and outcasts that a little green monster will scarcely be noticed, and besides, while he’s there, the ex-bandit can consult an old friend for clues about Dhoulmagus’ whereabouts. While the King is in the town pub enjoying a few pints, the party’s horse (the princess) and wagon are stolen and fenced, and getting them back will not be free…
There are also plenty of optional side-quests to make the game more interesting for the perfectionist. The party has an alchemy pot that will combine items into new items. Sometimes what you get out is junk, but alchemy can also create unique items and some of the most powerful weapons in the game. You can experiment, or rely on clues and partial recipes you encounter throughout the game. For gamblers, there are casinos at which you buy tokens and bet them in games like bingo, slots, and roulette. If you win a certain number of tokens, you can trade them in for rare and unique items. Another carry over from previous games is mini-medal collection; throughout the world you can find mini-medals hidden in places. Somewhere there is a collector of these mini-medals who will trade you valuable items if you help her with her collection.
The world in Dragon Quest VIII is so expansive that half the fun is in exploration. You can find many side-quests, treasures, and unique monsters by exploring the world. I would give some examples, but that would spoil the fun of exploring.
Dragon Quest VIII is one of the most entertaining, challenging RPG’s to come out on consoles in years. You can easily spend fifty hours playing through the main story, and countless more completing everything. If you like substantial, involved RPG’s, and not just $50 movies with lots of gee-whiz special effects, then you absolutely have to buy this game.
Dragon Quest has never before been remarkable for its beauty, but Dragon Quest VIII has aimed to change that. One of the big complaints about Dragon Warrior VII for the PlayStation (which was the first Dragon Quest/Warrior title to see American shores since the NES era) was that it looked horrible. Dragon Warrior VII was in production for years in Japan, and when production began, its graphics would have been considered quite fair for the time. By the time the game was released in Japan in 2000, and in the United States in 2001, however, Dragon Quest VII/Dragon Warrior VII looked terribly dated and pixilated. There was nothing wrong with its gameplay, but the lackluster presentation and the impending end of the PlayStation era doomed the game to poor sales in the U.S.
But o, what a difference a system can make. Dragon Quest VIII is among the most beautifully rendered RPG titles available for the PlayStation 2 or any system currently in existence. Flat character sprites and blocky landscapes have been replaced by a gorgeous cel-shaded presentation and a stunning three-dimensional world with sunsets, trees swaying in the breeze, and slowly drifting clouds.
Freeing Dragon Quest from its two-dimensional, 16-bit shackles has allowed the game to become more dramatic, in the sense that the story is told through arranged scenes, facial expressions, and body language, as well as through words. Although the use of Akira Toriyama-designed anime characters lends the game a cartoonish look and feel, the game can be as serious or as light-hearted as it wants to be.
Fully animated battles also enhance the fun of Dragon Quest VIII. Before, you could only see static or simply animated monsters in battle; your own characters were represented by a box at the top of the screen with their hit point and magic point status. Now, battles feel much more dynamic. It’s not necessary for an RPG to have great visuals, but it sure is cool when they do.
The way Dragon Quest VIII plays is great and the way it looks is magnificent, but especially remarkable is the way that the game sounds. Normally the music, composed as always by Koichi Sugiyama, sounds pretty good. There are no themes as memorable or unique as those Nobuo Uematsu used to create for the Final Fantasy series, but the battle music and various themes for places add a sense of grandness to the adventure. However, in bringing over Dragon Quest VIII to the U.S., Square Enix gave us not the hardware-based music that is usual in RPG’s, but recordings of the soundtrack performed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Instead of fake instruments, the American version of the game features real brass, real strings, and real percussion. The result sounds simply amazing; how many games have you played where the music was actually produced by acoustic instruments?
The American edition of Dragon Quest VIII also features voice acting for all of its cutscenes, something that was lacking in the original. The voice acting has a decidedly British flavour, with thieves and bandits who sound like London street thugs, and a smattering of other British accents both elegant and grating. There are also some other accents thrown in, and the accents as a whole generally work well, with a few exceptions, such as a couple of bartenders with out-rrrageous French accents and a mini-boss that does a horrible James Brown impression. On the whole, though, the voice actors read their lines convincingly, so that the emotions help draw you into the game.
If you could only buy one RPG this year, and you prefer substance to flash, Dragon Quest VIII should be it. Dragon Quest VIII will eat up your time, clocking in at a gargantuan 50-60 hours for completing the basic game; do not buy it unless you are willing to make the commitment to dig deep and play through for the long haul. If you have the time and the dedication to really delve into Dragon Quest VIII, it will reward you with one of the best role-playing game experiences you’ve had in years. Oh yeah, and there’s a demo disc of Final Fantasy XII (which I will preview in an article following up this one).
While it doesn’t have an giant trans-dimensional space beasts, bizarre pseudo-religious plot devices, or gimmicky battle “systems”, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King has something its competitors only wished they had: heart. You can’t go wrong with a game that’s got beauty, personality, and fun, and Dragon Quest VIII has all these in abundance.