Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: November 15, 2005
Buy 'DRAGON QUEST VIII': PlayStation 2
When you play games for a living, you quickly come to one realization about them: most are kind of bad, and in somewhat repetitive, formulaic ways. It can get frustrating trying to think of new and interesting things to write about titles that are bland virtually identical. Every so often, though, a game comes along that is truly different, that makes you remember why you love video games. Sometimes, that game even seems to ennoble the entire beleaguered medium. Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King is one such game. A lot of reactions to it when it was released in Japan used the phrase "breath of fresh air", and there is perhaps no other title published for the PS2 since Katamari Damacy that deserves to be described as such. Dragon Quest VIII returns the RPG genre to its most basic form, and in so doing lets a player rediscover what makes a good RPG so much fun. This is one title where the question in reviewing it is not so much "How do I write something interesting about it?" but "Where do I stop?"
If you read WorthPlaying's review of Lunar: Dragon Song, you will recall that a major complaint leveled at the game was the fact that it did not have a plot, so much as a series of fetch quests masquerading as a plot. You could almost say the same about DQ8, but it says a lot that this game uses the exact same format in such a superior fashion.
Not long ago, a jester named Dhoulmagus stole a magic scepter from the castle of King Trode. With the scepter's power, he was able to curse the kingdom and freeze time, wrapping the castle in magic vines. Only you, a palace guard, were able to escape the curse's affects. King Trode was turned into a horrible toad-like monster, while his daughter Princess Medea was turned into a horse. To try and life the curse, you leave the kingdom with them to try and track down Dhoulmagus, who is using the scepter to terrorize other kingdoms as he works toward some unknown goal. Along the way you meet Yangus, the reforming bandit who owes you his life; Jessica, the noblewoman whose brother was senselessly murdered by Dhoulmagus; and Angelo, the Templar who failed to save the head of his order from Dhoulmagus' murderous designs.
Each character is slowly introduced to the audience through a series of events that are connected by the thread of King Trode seeking Dhoulmagus. Often basic things like fetch quests, dungeon exploration, and simple travel to designated destinations progress the plot, often with real-time cut-scenes rewarding you for completing a particular task. The cut-scenes are attractive not so much for their technical prowess as for the care put into making the characters follow the rules of Akira Toriyama's art style. They emote with genuine warmth and it's always easy to tell what a given character is feeling, even when speaking to them in mundane town environments. Stellar voice-acting helps make the cut-scenes emotional and immersive, and rounds out perhaps one of the most impressive RPG localizations ever published. Much of the dialogue was translated with a slight British slant to the English usage, which is reflected with startling accuracy in the spoken dialogue. This helps a surprisingly faithful translation (name changes aside) retain the tone and flavor of many sorts of scenes that are usually mangled in game localizations, and helps lend a certain flavor to the fairy-tale like setting of the game. Square Enix is really to be commended for its treatment of this title. All of works to make the plot build up in scope and importance as you play through the game, even though every adventure feels different and somehow complete in itself.
As with any good RPG, much of the heart of the gameplay when you're not simply exploring is combat. What's amazing about combat in Dragon Quest VIII is that it's incredibly simple, more comparable to what might be offered by the NES titles in the series than Dragon Quest VII's labyrinthine skill system or virtually any other PS2 RPG. Battles are strictly turn based, with the player selecting each character's actions before a turn plays out. Characters can attack with basic weapon techniques, use special skill-based Abilities, cast spells, use items, defend, or try to escape. You can, if you want, use a system called "Tactics" to customize your party members into AI allies that make their own decisions, or you can simply make all the decisions yourself. If it's a weak enemy group, you can use the Intimidate command to try and simply scare them away, or stun them, instead of immediately fighting.
Each character has five skill sets, four that become available if you wield the appropriate weapon and a "personality" set of skills unique to that character. Each skill set represents a tree that you progress through by spending skill points as the character levels up. Some skills you unlock are passive, such as a bonus to attack power when using a certain weapon, others are passive skills you can use on the map, still others are special attacks or bonus spells for a character. Using most special abilities or spells consumes MP, which works in classic fashion. As in the original NES title, enemies appear in groups, and while you do see attack animations for your party a text box at the bottom still provides a readout of how the battle is going. Fights are fun, just challenging enough to engage a player's tactical sense but not quite as focused on obsessive management as, say, the Shin Megami Tensei games. Picking which skills you invest in for a character is really more about individual style than trying to break the system open. Characters have relatively low HP so even in random encounters, there's always a chance you could lose someone if you don't play your cards right.
In an unusually old-school move, saving your game is limited. There are no save points out in the world where you adventure, which helps up the danger factor of traveling. In order to save, revive a dead character, or perform a few other minor functions, you have to visit a church. Basically every town has at least a church and an inn for taking care of saving and HP restore duties, and then all the usual RPG town buildings are usually present as well. Some missions that require particularly long trips across the countryside will feature strategically placed "wayside" churches and inns, so while the limited saving is a challenge it's never a frustration.
Level 5 made their mark as a developer with the excellent Dark Cloud games, and a little homage to what made those games so great is the final facet of Dragon Quest VIII's gameplay. After you've played through the first few parts of the game, you'll get access to something called the Alchemy Pot, which lets you basically mix items together to create newer, usually better items. As in most games with alchemy systems, there are some items you can only craft through alchemy. The recipes for alchemy are pretty intuitive, and some you can discover simply by putting random items in the pot and seeing if the combination results in a valid item. You can also examine bookshelves all across the world to amass recipe ideas, which the game stores as a handy database. What makes working with combination so addictive is that every item combination has to "cook" for a certain amount of time in the pot, according to the same realtime progression that makes day turn into night as you run through the world. So, once you've found a valid combination, you have to run around and do other things while you wait for your item to finish. This adds a welcome level of strategy to making items - which items will be the best use of your time? Early in the game you can only combine two items at once, and later on can combine three. Some items can't be used for alchemy, but the vast majority, ranging from weapons to random bits of debris you find lying around, can be "cooked" with something to make an item that's better, or at least unusual.
Dragon Quest VIII is a game that, like old RPGs, really focuses on the idea of immersion. The protagonist never speaks because it's implied that his voice would be yours. With most RPGs trying to tell increasingly bigger and more character-focused stories, it's a refreshing change, and helped out by the cleverly staged cut-scenes and nicely fleshed out supporting characters. Certainly the score, provided by the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra, does a lot to make you feel like you're wandering through some sort of big-budget Miyazaki film. There's also a powerful shot of nostalgia for folks who grew up on NES Dragon Warrior, as the menus are patterned after that style - and yet as usable and slick as anything you'll find in an RPG. All told, Dragon Quest VIII is one of those rare games that can be fairly called a masterpiece. It's something any gamer with even the slightest taste for RPGs can simply fall into for happy hours at a time.