DRAGON QUEST VIII: THE JOURNEY OF THE CURSED KING (2006) – LEVEL 5
There are very few game series that can command the respect that Dragon Quest does. A colossal franchise in its Japanese homeland, it has remained rock steady in the JRPG genre, and whereas Final Fantasy has always felt the need to adapt and change with the times with each instalment, Dragon Quest is pretty much the same now as it was when the original game was released in 1986 on the NES: turn based combat, text driven screens and lots of grinding. Even the development team has remained the same, with the creator Yuji Horii, artist Akira Toriyama and composer Koichi Sugiyama working on every single game.
The impulse to write this review was provided by an article I read recently on CVG.com that simply proclaimed ‘Why Dragon Quest 8 Is The Best Game On The PS2’. Having read the analysis featured within, I began to ponder about the statement, and the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that the statement may well have some truth to it. Because while Dragon Quest 8 did nothing new or original for the JRPG genre, it does what it does with an exceptional amount of aplomb.
The tale of Dragon Quest 8 is a very charming and solid affair. At the start of the game, we learn that a court jester from the Kingdom of Trodain, Dhoulmagus, has stolen an ancient sceptre from the castle and cast a very nasty spell indeed. The spell transforms King Trode into a small troll, the Princess Medea into a horse, and leaves the castle and its inhabitants as fossilised plants…except for one individual, an 18 year old guard, simply referred to as ‘The Hero’ (you get to name this character yourself). The story then follows The Hero and King Trode as they search the world for Dhoulmagus in a bid to break the curse placed upon them. They are joined early on in their journey by Yangus, a bandit who owes his life to the Hero after he saved him from a collapsing bridge, Jessica, a mage looking to avenge the recent death of her brother, and Angelo, a womanising gambler from the Knights Templar. These four individuals form your party, and you take them through what can only be described as a massive story, which has plenty of intrigue within it to keep you on your toes.
Admittedly it is not the most ambitious of plots, but the story is kept very much alive by the cast of characters. The Hero doesn’t speak a single word throughout the entirety of the game, and yet has more personality that most RPG protagonists could ever dream of having. The accompanying party are terrific case studies as well; Yangus is a bandit with a highly stereotypical Cockney personality and engages in much hilarious banter with King Trode, whereas Jessica provides a level headed opinion on matters and Angelo has a fascinating back-story, leading to an intense rivalry with his half brother Marcello. Other individuals are excellently portrayed as well; Dhoulmagus is a devilishly evil villain and Prince Charmles is an arrogant and snooty little kid who doesn’t realise everybody else taking the piss out of him, amongst other great characters that you will have to meet for yourself. What Dragon Quest 8 does very well indeed is manage to strike a balance between some quite serious issues, whilst also retaining a good sense of humour and wit at the same time. It makes a refreshing change from other RPG’S which all too often seem to focus to much on incoming doom.
And so onto the aspect that Dragon Quest is legendary for being stubborn with: gameplay. As mentioned previously, not much has changed in 20 years, so if you are looking for an innovative RPG, this really isn’t the game for you – but I would still recommend at least trying it, because it’s a very effective and manageable system to use. The world is split into three types of areas: towns (where you can safely talk to NPC’s, visit houses, heal and save at a church and buy stuff), dungeons (where most of the games plotline will invariably take you to – featuring monsters, boss battles and puzzles) and a world map which links all the areas together. This is the first 3D game in the series, and it really does make a difference to the world map – instead of a flat plains and sprites for mountains, it’s an absolutely colossal place to navigate where all the towns and landmarks are actually in proportion. The scope is truly ridiculous; if you sail a ship from one side of the map to the other, an entire day and night cycle will pass you by before you get to your location. Using an item later on in the game lets you see the world from a birds eye view, and it is then that you can really get into exploring every nook and cranny of the world. Just for the size alone it is one of my favourite worlds featured in a game, and the individual nature and detail of some of the locations that you will visit – from the lush greenery of the Argonian Kingdom to the narrow streets of Pickham littered with thieves, no two places feel the same, and it does give the feeling that a lot of care was invested into making the world seem believable. Top stuff.
Battling is of course at the crux of all RPG’s, so lets see how the game deals with it. Battles are random in Dragon Quest 8, meaning that you can suddenly get caught unawares in any place that isn’t a town. When you find a monster, you are taken to a first person view of the monsters you are fighting, and have several options to pick from in a menu system, including commands like ‘Attack’, ‘Defend’, ‘Run’, or use skills and items. New to this game is a system known as ‘Tension’, where you can opt to ‘Pysche Up’ your characters instead and receive a more prominent effect in the next round, e.g. attack for more damage or heal more HP. You can reach a maximum tension level of 100, which leads to your characters going Super Saiyan (in classic Toriyama ‘Dragonball’ fashion – the Hero even looks like Goku at maximum tension). There is no time limit here, so you can spend as long as you like planning your attack. Once all your party characters have selected their options, the battle sequence then takes place from a third person perspective, with a text commentary at the bottom telling you what is going on. Once the battle has finished, you will collect the spoils of your fight, including gold, items, and experience points. Its nice to have the option to actually think a battle through compared to some of the manic action that the ATB system has provided in Final Fantasy. You’ll also need the time to think because Dragon Quest 8 can be relentlessly difficult at times – it’s a series well known for forcing players to grind for experience at various points, and considering some of the very high EXP totals needed to level up, you could be at it for quite some time.
The thing that I really like about Dragon Quest 8’s battle system however is the charm that it brings along with it. The Dragon Quest series has always had a crazy cast of enemies to fight, including the ever lovable slime mascots, and it can affect the way a fight goes. For example, cats will sometime lick themselves rather than bother to attack, allowing you to get a free round of hits in. Giant bells will ring to summon allies. Demons will do a little dance to confuse your party. It’s all very funny and raises a chuckle amongst the relentless battling. It’s not just the enemy who gets access to some great skills as well, as your party can level up certain skills to become more proficient at them – so for example, the Hero can learn to make swords out of pure energy, Yangus can summon a bunch of old geezers to trample the enemy, and Jessica can befuddle the enemy with her…feminine charm. There’s also none of that serious nonsense when it come to spell names – instead of rather bland names like Fire, Lightning, Haste and so on, you can burn enemies with Kafrizzle and buff yourself with Oomph. The light hearted approach to battling just makes fighting that much more enjoyable.
There’s also an ample amount of stuff to do outside of the main quest. Roaming around the world map are special monsters that you can defeat and adopt into what are called ‘Monster Teams’. You can use any combination of three monsters, although monsters from the same family (such as Slimes or pirate robots) can join together and use much more advanced attacks. You can use this teams for a limited time in battles (like Summons from Final Fantasy), or pit them against opponents in a Monster Arena for prizes and fame. This becomes quite the compelling side quest, as it can give you an extra edge in tough battles. Another wonderfully well implemented feature is the cooking pot – throughout the game you will collect tons of items, so of which can be combined to make new items, weapons and armour. You will find recipes hidden all across the world, and you can make some of the best equipment exclusively via the cooking pot. It unlocks a few hours in and is re-usable to infinity, so will often find yourself cooking up all sorts of wonderful contraptions just to see what you can get – unfortunately, you cant make a shield out of cheese. The fun doesn’t stop there either; there are chests dotted around to be opened, books to be read, elusively hidden medals to be traded for rare items – there’s even a casino to indulge in if you so wish. The crowning glory however comes after you complete the main game, because once the credits have rolled, a mysterious door in the sky opens up to reveal the Dragovian world, a uber difficult world where the strongest enemies in the game reside. Unlike other add-on dungeons in RPG’s, it also has quite a large effect on the plot and reveals some shocking twists, meaning that its actually worthwhile playing. All in all, Dragon Quest 8 can provide you with 100 hours of gameplay easily, and if you want to max out everything you can be looking well past that already massive figure. As far as getting bang for your buck is concerned, there is little else to match it, even on the current generation of consoles.
As well as providing longevity, Dragon Quest 8 can stake a claim for being perhaps the best looking game you can get on the PS2. Having made the jump to 3D, I like to think that Akira Toriyama was told to go berserk in the styling department, and my word did he deliver. The game is completely cel shaded, and it’s just a gorgeous thing to look at; the detail in even the most mundane of areas like the inside of a house puts most other games to shame. Some of the bigger structures, like the air bridge leading of off Savella Cathedral and the island of Neos really are wonderful designs. There is a price to pay for such beauty however, and in come in the form of some quite long loading times when moving between areas, which can become a bit tiresome during long periods of play. You will notice quite a few monsters are recycled with a different colour palette as well as you progress. Still, a small price to pay overall.
Tradition is a theme that runs quite heavily through the soundtrack of Dragon Quest; many of the themes, such as the adventure continue jingle and the flying music have been used countless times by Sugiyama. Aside from the classic tracks however, this game has a highly superior soundtrack to most other games. In a strange set of events that I’ve never really understood, Japanese gamers got a synthesised version of the soundtrack, while everyone else got the (in my opinion) much better symphonic suite of songs. The orchestra they used clearly know how to play as well, as there is a wide range of excellent songs featuring all sorts of instruments from flutes to big brass band numbers. Standout tracks include Chatting, Hurry! We Are In Danger, War Cry and Great Battle In The Sky. In another strange move, Level 5 decided not to opt for tried and tested dubbers from the anime industry, and as a result the voice acting has a very British tone to it. There are phrases and expressions that a lot of people won’t understand, especially from the Cokney bandit Yangus. The move paid off though because again, the voice acting is very charming, at times very funny, and doesn’t come across as cheesy in the slightest.
I think you might be able to tell from my conclusions that I really like Dragon Quest 8; considering it was the first (and for whatever reason remains the only) game that I have played from the series, it did a very good job to hook me in and keep me playing for well after all the plot had concluded. Some people take issue with it in several ways – the old fashioned system can put more modern RPG players off, newcomers to the franchise will find it too hard and veterans will find it too easy. I think as an overall compromise however, it really can stand amongst the greats from both the RPG genre and the PS2 as a whole – you just cant argue with the sheer amount of game on offer here. Highly recommended.