I was a long time holdout when it came to the Playstation 2 – I managed to not even buy one until after the Playstation 3 was on shelves! But eventually the PS2’s position as the greatest Console RPG platform since the Super Nintendo got to me and I could resist no more. There were many titles that I had seen or heard about on the PS2 that I just had to play so get one I did and the first title that I managed to get my grubby little hands onto was Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King.
I didn’t grow up with access to the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) so I wasn’t introduced to the Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior) series until later in life when I played the released titles on the Game Boy Color. So Dragon Quest VIII was the first “new” DQ game that I got a chance to play (Dragon Quest IV – VI were not released in North America and Dragon Quest VII is relatively rare.) I was drawn to DQ8 as my starting point on my Playstation 2 odyssey for several reasons.
The Dragon Quest series has long been one of the most popular in Japan where the genre has its home. The genre isn’t known as jRPG for nothing. And even here in the United States DQ8 has received some of the highest accolades for any game on the PS2. The reviews mostly echo the same sentiments: Dragon Quest VIII is the best traditional jRPG ever made – from gameplay to story to graphics to soundtrack to scale this game is well balanced, fun, paced and just “right”. With reviews like this you just have to try it out for yourself. So I did.
Dragon Quest VII and VIII are the first two “stand alone” titles in the Dragon Quest series. The first six games were grouped into two trilogies (Dragon Quest I-III and IV-VI) but these later games do not depend on earlier games in any way which is important because Dragon Quest VII was the only game of the series available on the Playstation and Dragon Quest VIII would appear to be the only one that will ever be available on the Playstation 2. The upcoming Dragon Quest IX is slated to only be released on the Nintendo DS.
Dragon Quest VIII supports old-school “standard definition” televisions but also has a widescreen setting so that it doesn’t look awful on modern monitors. It doesn’t support any advanced resolution settings though but the PS2 only has so much power so we take what we can get. DQ8 goes for the “cell shaded” style of graphics which I really enjoy. Cell shading provides the “living in the cartoon universe” feel that you just can’t get from other techniques. These graphics help to make the game even more engaging because they feel more “authentic” because of their similarity to hand shaded cell animation.
The story of Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King begins outside the small rural village of Faebury where you, the Hero, are introduced (in the game) to your traveling companions. The game’s backstory involves a beautiful faery tale castle which is attacked by an evil jester who uses magic to curse the castle and to turn everyone living in it into a plant. The king and the princess manage to avoid the same fate as their subject but are turned into a little green monster (King Trode) and a pure white horse (Princess Medea.) The only subject of the entire kingdom who has avoided the curse entirely is you – a low ranking and young castle guard – but no one can explain why you were spared. Now you alone must track down this evil jester and reverse the curse laid upon your sovereign.
Everything that I had heard about Dragon Quest VIII was totally true – this very well may be the greatest jRPG ever made. There isn’t anything particularly ground breaking in this installment of the classic genre but what it does is it gets everything right. All of the pieces come together for a perfectly balanced game that is just a lot of fun to play and there aren’t any glaring weak spots. Traditionally a game will have lots of good parts and then some parts that are incredibly weak and ruin it for you. But definitely not in DQ8. This game is rock solid from beginning to end.
The game is long too. You can easily rack up ninety hours or more in this involved game world. I really appreciate the games open-ended feeling. You can run around and explore to your heart’s content once you are into the game. The landscape is designed to force you onto certain general paths without making the game feel overly linear but this drops away, for the most part, and eventually you can wander at will over the landscape. The world is big with lots of interesting places to explore and many characters to interact with.
One thing that I really appreciate about the Dragon Quest series is how child friendly it is. Instead of killing lots of monsters you simply “defeat” them and convince them that you aren’t worth attacking anymore. Even the “boss” battles always clearly end with the “boss” being defeated but definitely not dead. Normally a significant victory triggers a conversation with the defeated enemy. This makes for a lighter, happier style of gameplay. There are some dark sections of the game and a few characters will die in movie sequences but not by your hand and the deaths are important parts of the plot and lend drama. While jRPGs have a tendency to be very child friendly in general this title is moreso than the average jRPG.
I also appreciated that DQ8 tends to avoid “stumper” moments – those times in the game when you just have no idea what to do next. Instead there is almost always something useful that you can do to advance the story and move on to the next thing. And losing a big battle and having your entire adventuring party “expire” is not the most dramatic setback ever but is handled in a reasonable and balanced manner that keeps the game from becoming overly frustrating when things get tough. Casual gamers and younger gamers will appreciate these aspects more than the hardcore jRPG set but the overall feel of the game is light and fun. It draws you in and tells you a story. You want to complete the game because you want to uncover more and more about the characters.
One interesting aspect of the game that players can choose to explore or to ignore is the idea of the “alchemy pot.” A short way into the game King Trode introduces this item to the Hero and explains that by mixing different ingredients gathered during the course of the game together in the alchemy pot it is possible to create new items. This adds a level of complexity to the game that can be used casually, focused on heavily or ignored completely adding to the non-linear feel of the game. Throughout the game the player can discover recipes and half-recipes and suggestions for making new items using an alchemy pot. It is a fun twist making the game a little more unique.
The music in DQ8 is phenomenal although any music played over the course of one hundred hours will become monotonous. The soundtrack lends an air of sweeping epic and pastoral comedy. The overarching feel of the environment will almost make you feel like you have stepped into a Studio Ghibli animation like <em>Kiki’s Delivery Service</em>.
One interesting twist that DQ8 provides is a double ending feature. You can first complete the game having skipped a large portion that includes a significant amount of backstory and does not tie up many of the “loose ends” of the game. Once you have completed the game in this way you are able to go back and play more – about twelve hours more – to reach the true ending of the game. This extended portion of the game includes the toughest villains and the most “filling in” of missing plot items. In order to reach the very end of the game I put in approximately one hundred and twenty hours.
In the end Dragon Quest VIII is nearly flawless and must rank as a cornerstone of the jRPG / Console RPG genre. DQ8 clearly has earned its place on any “must play” list. It has my hardiest recommendation.