Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
The Enix Dragon Quest series of games is one that’s always been greatly revered in Japan but in the West has always tended to be overshadowed by the Final Fantasy games from Square. Now the two companies have merged into one RPG giant called Square-Enix and woken up to the fact there is some money to be made released games on the PAL market, we in the UK finally get to see what all the fuss is about, with the release of “Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King”, the first Dragon’s Quest game to see an official PAL release in fact.
The biggest problem with Dragon Quest VIII is the game you find yourself playing when the 30, 40 and 50 hours landmarks tick past on your menu screen is essentially the game you were playing when the 10 hour mark was passed. That might sound like an obvious thing to say, but it’s more about the perceived lack of story and character progression than anything else. You are a Silent RPG hero, a guard at your Kings Castle who escapes the curse placed on the castle and journeys along with the King, who is cursed to look like a Yoda thing and his daughter who is now turned into a horse. Your quest is to chase down the evil Jester/wizard who placed the curse. This entails arriving at a city, upgrading your armour and weapons, gathering information, finding you need a special item, being told you have to visit a nearby dungeon to prove yourself worthy of receiving the item, then acquiring it and moving on across the World Map to the next city, where you can buy upgrades, acquire info etc etc
Now while this is the base structure of pretty much every RPG that’s ever been made, some disguise it better than others. What tends to set the Final Fantasy games above the rest of the RPG herd is the sense of urgency and threat injected into the narrative you are following. Dragons Quest VIII is simply too slow and the content is too sparse for the time you’re expected to put in. To make a perhaps unfair but relevant comparison, it’s similar to the hunt for Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, but while that injected huge eventful segments and big character revelations to keep things moving, this game just slowly plods from A to B, the clip-clop from the poor Horse-shaped Princess marking time as you struggle onwards fighting to retain interest via the sparse gameplay.
What I mean by sparse is in reference to the levelling up system which is both bewildering and simplistic. The problem is that you cannot control your character’s direction properly. When you level up you are awarded points to spend on various attributes. Depending on which attribute you decided to buff up, new spells and abilities will be unlocked. But not being able to steer the character in the direction you might wish to and worst of all not being able to undo badly allocated points makes the character growth element frustrating and almost purposely designed to get you to purchase a Guidebook or go online and check out a FAQ. If you make the mistake as I did of trying to spread the points out to create a more balanced character, you will have to spend time fighting lots of tedious random battles to level up and gain more points to be able to access abilities that will make the dungeons a little easier. Because the game can get very hard if you haven’t built the characters right and can be very unforgiving. Nothing is more annoying than arriving in an area and finding sets of monsters that are extremely resistant or even immune to pretty much everything you can throw at them. This again, happened to me at least once during the game.
The lack of playable characters also makes the game seem routine. You slowly acquire a full party, but never any more than that and so this also forces a more rigid progression on the characters. Your Mage does have the ability to become a good fighter to, but because she’s the only one who can cast the most powerful elemental spells you have to make her grow in that direction or you’re left with Boss fights that are completely impossible later down the line.
It’s a real shame really, because there is much to commend in the game. For a start it’s one of the best realised western versions of a game I’ve ever played. It scores hugely for having an almost totally UK voice cast, even the heroes have English accents which is greatly appreciated. It also looks gorgeous. The cel-shaded designs are outstanding and the designs come courtesy of Akira Toriyama, who might be better known as the creator of the Dragonball manga, and his distinctive style is stamped all over the game. Which is a big plus for me as I am a huge fan of his art and designs. The story game structure is initially quite relaxing, but it then ambles at a snails pace and it’s not long before gameplay starts to intrude on the story and not in a good way, as you have to spend too long fighting on the world map to be able to progress the story further. By the end the feeling of being charmed by the game has vanished and I was rather playing the game on auto-pilot which is a rather sad thing to admit, but the game is just too long and just doesn’t sustain itself.
It feels like a throwback to a more “Traditional” way of approaching an RPG, while simultaneously trying to be more approachable to players new to the genre. However this game seems to have missed the point. Older games compensated for the lack of flashy graphics and simplistic story structures by allowing you to become immersed in complex but ultimately rewarding character design systems. Dragons Quest VIII takes the simple story structure of an older game but offers only a rigid character design system that is frustrating for a newbie player and extremely dissatisfying for the hardcore rpg nut like myself with an added dose of Grind, Grind, Grind. The characters are difficult to care about, even with the excellent voice acting and by the end I was really just going though the motions, I’d lost all interest in seeing how the story resolved itself.
In summary, the game starts well, but gets repetitive fast and the story is too slight to keep interest going for the 50+ hours you’ll be playing it. Less would have definitely been more, about a third of the dungeon crawl sections could have been chopped out and the running about in the towns and cities significantly reduced and it would have improved the game no end. Or, more playable characters should have been added and more significant plotting placed around the characters to make the story sections feel more exciting and relevant. It has to be said this hasn’t made me interested in tracking down any of the prior games in the series on import, but while I did get some enjoyment from playing it, especially the first 20 hours or so, I’m left craving something more substantial, probably something that invloves the words “Fantasy” and “Final”…