Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King PS2 Review
Dragon Quest Lives
Known as Dragon Warrior in North America before the Square Enix merger, Dragon Quest has been thought of as one of the world’s premiere RPG series since its initial incarnation on the Famicom in 1986. The love for this series in Japan is rampant; gobs and gobs of eager RPGamers mob video game stores every time a new Dragon Quest is released, and word through the grapevine states that there’s actually a law in Japan that forbids the release of a Dragon Quest game on any other day than Sunday to curb truancy, though it’s cloudy whether or not that last bit is true. In North America the series is not quite as renowned, but it is still near and dear to the hearts of many even though it has always been somewhat overshadowed. So what about the newest title to hit our shores? Will the North American gaming community covet the series more after playing Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King? Read on.
Dragon Quest VIII circles around King Trode and Princess Medea, who have had their castle destroyed and cursed by a powerful, evil jester named Dhoulmagus. Subsequently, Trode was turned into a small, frog-like creature and Medea into a horse, while the hero of Dragon Quest VIII, who is a silent protagonist named by the player, was the only person in the castle not affected. The hero and the friends he meets along the way are charged with hunting down Dhoulmagus, restoring Trode and Medea into their original forms, and dealing with the death and mayhem Dhoulmagus leaves in his wake. The story is typical fantasy fare, and it lacks in complexity compared to many other current-day RPGs, but it doesn’t matter a ton; it is well told, charming, and very enjoyable nevertheless. Even though the game’s main characters do not have chapters and chapters of backstory, it is still easy to get attached to them all, and this feeling is only amplified by humor, and the game’s voice acting.
The battle system in Dragon Quest VIII sticks pretty closely to the system the series has always employed. Battles are turn-based, and the player selects all the abilities and spells he or she will use at the beginning of the round. Weapon-based abilities are learned by allocating skill points to the weapon’s corresponding skill after the character levels up. Most spells are learned strictly by leveling, but there are quite a few spells that can only be learned through allocating points to certain skills. One prominent addition to the battle system is the “Psyche Up” command. Using this command, individual characters can forfeit their turn up to four times in a row to increase their “tension” for the sake of making the subsequent attack or spell much more powerful. To use an item in battle, characters have to be specifically equipped with the item; there is no giant bag of items that every character can reach into like most other RPGs.
Even in random encounters, battles can be difficult. Complex strategy isn’t required a lot of the time, but players may find their party wiped out if they’re not paying enough attention. In death, the game is still unforgiving; the party will find themselves at the last church they visited with half of their gold missing should they fall in battle. The gold penalty can be avoided by resetting the game however, but players will gain back their gold at the expense of losing the experience they gained leading up to the ill-fated battle. Resurrection items are only found for free once in a blue moon, and are only available for purchase later in the game at a hefty cost. Players should expect to make quite a few trips back to town to revive dead party members before they learn revive spells later in the game. Thankfully, traveling to and from locations that have already been visited is quick thanks to a few methods that become available early in the game. Still, the kind of difficulty the game presents can add a sense of danger that is absent from a lot of RPGs these days. Instead of being teleported to a conviniently-placed save point after being decimated in a dungeon, players usually have to venture through from the beginning again should they want to give the it another try, as churches in towns are the only places players can save at. Dragon Quest VIII is a difficult game to play through, which will no doubt prevent those without enough patience and perseverance from playing it through to the end, but the flip side of that coin is that many will also welcome the challenge with open arms as many current RPGs are lacking in difficulty.
Many items can be forged via the Alchemy Pot; most are available for purchase through normal means, but some are exclusive to the pot. To use the Alchemy Pot, players choose a number of items to combine and have to travel a certain distance before the item is ready. Players can simply guess alchemy recipes, or they can learn them through reading books or talking to certain people. Even if a recipe for a specific item is found, sometimes the ingredients are still vague enough to turn it into a guessing game. The Alchemy Pot can only be used in towns or on the world map; it’s kept in the carriage drawn by Medea, and herself and Trode don’t follow the party into dungeons for obvious reasons.
The world map itself is expansive, and just begs to be explored. It’s likely that many will have a blast just wandering around the map, finding treasure chests, capturing “Notorious Monsters” for use in battles and the monster arena, or just plain checking out the scenery. Exploration is a prominent aspect of Dragon Quest VIII‘s gameplay; the party is usually given directions on where to go next such as “go east,” but finding the party’s next destination isn’t always that easy thanks to the expansiveness of the map. The map of the world does lack a little versatility. The entirety of the world is visible from a zoomed out view, but there is no option to pan around to somewhere the party is not at in the more detailed view. This seems to have been done to add to the mystery of exploration, but more often than not it can just be annoying.
The world map, along with the rest of the game, is gorgeous. Employed to do Dragon Quest VIII‘s art was none other than Akira Toriyama, who is known the most in North America for his work on the Dragon Ball Z anime. Fans of the show will notice the resemblance, but Dragon Quest VIII feels like a totally different beast after a little while. The quality of Level-5’s cel-shading makes it easy to forget that the video game on the television screen isn’t just a cartoon such as Dragon Ball Z. Character animations are very fluid, and wide in variety. For example, when a character gives an item to another, the game will show it switching hands in a very believable fashion, and when a character exploring a town reads a book from a shelf, he or she will actually be seen grabbing a book and thumbing through the pages. The character animations are trumped by the monster animations however, which are exquisite, and sometimes hilarious. Complimenting this is the infrequency in palette swapping. Palette swapped monsters do exist, but look forward to encountering many more unique monsters throughout the game. Dragon Quest VIII does not employ any type of CG for event scenes — it is done entirely with the in-game graphics engine. The game is undeniably pretty, and the game’s graphics prove that amazing things can still be done with the PlayStation 2 console’s hardware.
The eyes will be pleasured by the game’s visuals, but the ears are sure to be pleased as well. Added to the North American version of Dragon Quest VIII was a fully-orchastrated soundtrack performed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. At times pieces can all sound the same due to the lack of variety in styles, and it also may sound a bit “distant” to those who have an ear for music. However, in the end, these are minor grievances: the soundtrack is majestic, and likely amplifies the game’s atmosphere more than the synthesized soundtrack in the Japanese version could have. The true quality of the soundtrack may be lost to those who don’t own a good sound setup, so it is highly recommended that players experience this game with the best sound system they can manage.
The ears will be further pleased by the game’s phenomenal voice acting. The English localization of the game was done entirely in the United Kingdom and it shows. Most of the characters in the game have a distinct UK accent, which adds a very unique layer of atmosphere to the game. The voices, for the wide majority of the characters, sound very natural, and it’s refreshing to hear quality voice acting from people who aren’t easily recognizable from countless other video games and cartoons. There are a few characters who sound predictably annoying, but the number of characters who are likely to have mixed reactions can be tallied on one hand and are mostly minor characters to boot.
In regards to grammar, the localization is nearly perfect, and generally only contains errors that are going to be noticed by those who are looking for them. The text of the game was localized in the UK as well, which means that the predominant grammar rules in that area of the world are used in the game. “Armor” is spelled “armour,” “mold” is “mould,” “favor” is “favour,” and so on. The game is also heavily sprinkled with British slang. One downfall of the game’s localization is that many British slang words, such as “jape,” which means “trick” or “joke,” are going to be too obscure for a lot of people to understand without the aid of a good dictionary. For the most part it isn’t hard to figure out what certain words are slang for though, such as the word “bird,” which is pretty much the UK’s version of the word “chick.”
Gone are the interaction menus of yore which presented the player with various options to choose when interacting with an NPC, and in its place players simply hit the action button to talk. When a quest requires the player to manually select and use a certain item to proceed, one must navigate the menu and select the item. If Dragon Quest VIII had one major flaw, however, it would be in the controls in said menus. Navigating them can be an awkward, cumbersome pain. To make matters worse, the circle button defies RPG control norms by acting as the menu button, and there is no way to customize the control scheme. The circle button can also double as the action button, which may lead to accidental use of items or spells in the menu, or it could cause the player to climb a rope instead of opening the menu. However, there are no problems with the controls when it comes to the world map or battle screens. The right analog stick works very well in adjusting the camera whenever the player wants to move it.
The developers of Dragon Quest VIII seem like they took great care in preserving a lot of the things the series is famous for, such as slimes, the first-person view in battle, and the text telling the player what’s going on in battle. They did a good job in preserving another famous aspect of the series as well: Dragon Quest VIII is long as hell. Expect to spend, at the minimum, 60 hours or so delving through the main quest, though it wouldn’t be unusual for many to take longer than that; it likely depends on the player behind the controller.
To summarize, Dragon Quest VIII‘s story is simple, but still good; the battle system is equally simple, but can still be enthralling, and is sure to bring about activity in the nostalgia cortexes of many; the visuals are magnificent, and display that the PlayStation 2 is still capable of great things; the challenge is moderately high, which will please many who don’t find many RPGs challenging; and the music, visuals, voice acting, and overall atmosphere will overload the senses with pleasure. Of course, the game is not without its problems, such as the game’s shoddy controls, the fact that not everybody will enjoy the game’s difficulty, and the lack of a complex story ripe with unexpected plot twists. Overall, even though the cracks can be seen, Dragon Quest VIII will likely become one of the most coveted RPG releases of the past few years.