Above all else, the Dragon Quest series is famous for one thing: games that aren’t worth actually completing. You know where the storyline’s headed, and it’s not worth leveling up for another six hours just to get there and find out that you were right. You’d rather move on to a more reasonable game, such as Kingdom Hearts II, which can be beaten in just a few short hours. By my pet fish. Who died last week. (R.I.P., my aquatic friend!)
That being said, Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey of the Cursed King, released late last year for the PlayStation 2, bucks tradition like it’s G4 showing actual videogame programming: It’s a DQ game that you’ll actually want to complete. That’s about the only place in which this title bucks tradition, though.
You star as an anonymous guard of a cursed kingdom, journeying the land with a criminal, a king-turned-monster, and a princess-turned-horse. You’re all on a quest to lift the curse, smote the bad guy and maybe even bag the horse-princess, who’s arranged to marry someone so lame that even you, the actual player, could probably beat him up. You’re on the tail of an assassin named Dhoulmagus, and throughout your journey you’ll meet new party members, complete a few side-quests, and maybe even tame a few monsters.
In other words, this game ain’t exactly treading new ground. Most of the people, places, and missions have a definite “been there, done that” feel to them, though they’ll still keep you entranced, hoping they’ll do something unexpected. It’s this desire to see anything at all that surprises you that keeps you playing the whole way through, and keeps you wrangling with the game’s old-school mentality even when you’d rather be playing something a little less archaic, such as Ms. Pac-Man.
The game, like its predecessors, has you leveling up for hours before fighting key bosses, fighting random encounters every four steps when you’re just trying to reach a save point so you can pay attention to your girlfriend, and getting lost in dungeons for longer than it takes to beat The Bouncer. To the game’s credit, though, the gameplay is eased up on compared to those older titles. When a boss has two forms, for example, you can die on the second form and not have to start over on the first, which, at long last, makes multi-form bosses not the most irritating things in the world. Also, each dungeon has an easy-to-find map, and only one or two bosses really has you leveling up extra in order to stand a chance.
DQ8’s battle system is turn-based and stripped exactly from DQ7, which was stripped exactly from DQ6, which was stripped exactly from DQ5, which was…well, you get the point. Like South Park, it’s starting to get old. Each character takes his or her turn in turn based on his or her agility, meaning that the move you selected five minutes ago won’t get played out for another five still. Which means you’ll be attacking when you want to heal, healing when you want to attack and so on. Things needed to be livened up here with a more active Final Fantasy-style system; though, DQ fans would throw epic hissyfits anyone tinkered with their games in any way.
Speaking of obnoxious fanboys, something they (and, OK, I) were totally against was the series’ new 3D art style. We were hoping they’d old-school it forever—hoping they’d keep using SNES-style graphics even while the technology’s become far more “advanced” than that. And, more importantly, we were sort of hoping it wouldn’t look exactly like every other 3D game.
I’m sorry to report (really, it pains me) that the new graphics aren’t actually terrible after all. Characters can convey more emotions than they ever could before, and as a result they’re more memorable and lifelike than those in the past (honestly, how many people can you even remember from DQ7?). The worlds and nameless characters, however, still suffer from all looking exactly the same, like they’re goth kids or something. I like to think it’s a throwback rather than just lazy art design.
The characters who do have names, though, also have voices—another addition to the series. And they all have British accents and use crazy British catchphrases, which 14-year-old Harry Potter obsessees should appreciate. The voice-acting itself is top-notch, which, for videogames, means that it’s almost approaching believability, assuming “believability” involves people talking far too slow and saying things that no one from this planet would ever say (I’m looking at you, cor blimey).
The game’s soundtrack, while something I’d love to download if I wasn’t banned from my (absolutely legal, I swear) file-sharing program, seems empty, as though its orchestra was missing several key instruments when its songs were recorded. I’d expected a little more, but then I remembered that past DQ titles offer pretty much the same thing, so I guess it’s not a big deal?
I beat DQ8 in only 70 hours—yes, only 70 hours. The last one took me well over a hundred, so this game’s end sort of took me by surprise. I almost wish the game was longer. There’s a little to do after the game ends, and there’s a super bonus ending to earn by doing so; but I wanted more story, not more “hey, let’s run around and do boring crap!”
This isn’t the sort of game you’re gonna play more than once, unless, of course, you’re insane; it’s far too long for that, and you won’t get much out of it. But the first romp through, even with the clichéd story and the aged gameplay, offers enough fun to warrant the game’s purchase. But only when there’s nothing else to play (which is actually most of the time, until LEGO Star Wars 2 comes out, anyway) so you won’t get distracted and quit.
Though, if you do get distracted and quit, and come back months later having no clue what to do, you can talk to your party members to find out what’s going on. Such an awesome feature that more RPGs need to include; I’ve got a number of titles sitting on my shelf that I can’t go back to because I don’t remember what I’m supposed to be doing.
Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey of the Cursed King isn’t quite a Game of the Year candidate, and it doesn’t bring much new to the table, but fans of the genre (and the DQ series especially) are gonna love it regardless. Pick it up if you’re one of those people and just happen to have 70 hours to kill; otherwise, just wait for Final Fantasy XVII: The Legend of the Lost Hair Gel, or whatever’s coming out this year.