A few months ago, I reviewed Dragon Quest VII, and after forty hours with the game, my thoughts could only be generously described as mixed. It certainly made me question of affection towards the series and how I would feel about Dragon Quest VIII, but after playing it for only a short while, I realized that Dragon Quest VIII is something of an antithesis to its predecessor, and I’ve never been happier to use that word.
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King Review
Platforms: 3DS(Reviewed), PS2
Developer: Square Enix (3DS), Level-5 (PS2)
The story of Dragon Quest VIII is refreshingly direct. There is a jester-like mage by the name of Dhoulmagus who is going around the world and causing turmoil, and it’s up to a gang of unlikely heroes who he wronged in some way or another to ban together in order to both seek revenge and save the world from devastation. It’s a basic JRPG plot, almost like a template, but the actual execution makes things vastly more compelling.
One of the ways this is achieved is the immediacy of the early story. The game begins after the main character began his journey, and assembled a jaunty little party of a reformed bandit, a king who was turned into a troll that looks like Babidi from Dragon Ball Z, and a princess who is a horse. They already have an objective, to find a person, only to realize that he was killed by Dhoulmagus, in an act that makes him seem threatening. However, this game of cat and mouse eventually comes to a stopping point after the four playable characters are assembled together by the ten hour mark and the player is finally given a good look at the antagonist of the game.
During all of this, the game deals in small side stories involving inconsequential characters, and while simple, there is a certain charm to all of these, which is largely achieved by the fantastic British dub this game received. The accents, inflections, and personalities that the voice actors express breed an incredible amount of life even into minor characters who only have a handful of lines to say in the entire game, and do wonders for fleshing out the main cast. There is a distinct chemistry with all of them, and seeing them interact with each other, either through cutscenes or by consulting them on the field, was a highlight of the game for me.
Unfortunately, the story itself worsens after a peak of silliness involving a singing mole king and a harp that controls the memories of time, or roughly the 40-50% mark. The world opens up significantly, only to reveal how needlessly large and ultimately uninteresting the plains of greenery and hills that make up the world actually is. The main storyline grows more dour as a new antagonist is introduced, and the silly interactions between the main characters are increasingly relegated to optional consulting options.
While the silly and fun mischief the characters still run into during this part of the game ends up feeling far more dissociated and distracting because of how much more weight is placed on the main plot. Which itself becomes a goose chase where the main characters continuously fail to stop the antagonist, and struggle to think their way out of relatively simple situations, with the greatest offender being the prison scene. It was still an enjoyable story to go through, but lost poignancy as it unfolded.
Around the very same halfway point, the Dragon Quest VIII undergoes a noticeable difficulty increase. The game follows the standard turn based sensibilities that anyone familiar with Dragon Quest will quickly pick up, only offering a few novel mechanics to differentiate this entry from the others, namely weapon based skill points, item combination, and the attack charging tension system. The general battles quickly divulged into a routine series of commands to efficiently dispatch enemies while minimizing the damage taken, MP used, and time invested in each encounter. I would have gone through most of the game with auto-battle enabled, but the game did not recognize my method as the most effective one, even though it was incredibly simple.
As for why things became more difficult in the second half, it was simply due to how the HP, attack, and quantity of enemies all underwent a noticeable and disproportionate increase to the main characters. Combat is still very manageable during this, but healing after almost every encounter becomes a necessity, and even when my team were about two or three levels overleveled for an area, they still felt underleveled. Because of all of these things, combat became a chore, at least until I found an island filled with liquid metal slimes, which are worth a lot of experience points, and gained about ten levels.
From there, I was able to go through the game with relative ease until I reached a boss who kept inflicting status effects on my party members, taking away their buffs, and dealing loads of damage. After which I went to the casino, saved and reloaded my way to get some endgame armor and weapons, found a place with even more liquid metal slimes, and gained another ten levels.
Beyond the combat, which is still fully functional and solid in its own right, there is little to note about the gameplay. Dungeons are basic in their design and surprisingly few in numbers throughout the game. Enemies are visible from the overworld, allowing for most encounters to be avoided, which is appreciated. A handful of quality of life improvements, such as the ability to save anywhere by trying to download for a non-existent bonus item, are added and appreciated. While the user interface is basically unchanged from the what the series has been sticking to for the past decade.
On that note, this is a remake of a PS2 game, and a rather gorgeous one at that, so it naturally had to undergo some visual downgrades in order for the game to be playable on the 3DS. While concessions have been made to effects, and I believe a general polygon count, the game is still visually impressive. Character models are well detailed, environments look nice, and battle animations are smooth. It’s clear that a lot of dedication went into the series’ initial transition into 3D, and it looks quite good even when the graphical fidelity is decreased.
The developers certainly did an good job at bringing the character and monster designs of Akira Toriyama to life, and while many of them do have a distinct style to them, certain characters or elements of their appearance failed to appeal to me. Such as the main character’s bandana, or Yangus’ outfit, which consists of striped parachute pants, a fur vest, and a spiked yellow helmet. It still manages to retain the aesthetic that is partially responsible for the series’ past success, while also offering some unique sensibilities that, as far as I can tell, are exclusive to this installment.
The soundtrack also offers its share of new and old themes, and like with part VII, it is reprised using MIDI versions of the tracks instead of the orchestrated score of the Japanese version. This strangely did not bother me like it did with VII, but that may have to do with how I often played this game without headphones, and only made it a priority to use them during boss battles and the many wonderfully voiced cutscenes. Some of which were newly recorded for this game, and are spliced in with the voice work from the PS2 version in a manner so seamless that I honestly could not tell where new scenes were added beyond a few obvious ones involving the two new optional party members. Yet even those sound like they were recorded at the same time.
While there certainly were some hang ups, ultimately enjoyed my time with Dragon Quest VIII. It was a jaunty 70 hour romp that held a lot of creativity and splendor as well as a solid JRPG experience. Unfortunately, underwhelming aspects about the latter half of the story and it’s largely routine leave the story on the cusp of being something truly great, and make it simply a very good JRPG. One that is certainly far more impressive and endearing than what came before it.