Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King is the latest installment in Square Enix's venerable series of Role Playing Games. Dragon Quest is actually one of Japan's most popular game series, but for one reason or another it has not been as successful on Western shores (where until this iteration the series has been known as Dragon Warrior). There is a whole lot here for RPG fans to like as long as they don't mind the content typical of a Teen-rated RPG and some unusual religious overtones. Casual gamers might want to test the waters first because, though the cel-shaded graphics and top-notch production values are modern, the actual game play is, for better or worse, old school to the core.
The story is relatively simple throughout. Cookie-cutter RPG villain no. 302 has stolen a magical staff and has used it to reduce Trodain Castle to ruins and turn the king and the princess into inhuman creatures while he was at it. The mute main character (the player names him at the beginning) was the only person to escape the attack unharmed and it is up to him to journey with the king find a way to reverse the curse. Along the way other characters that have their own reasons for taking the bad guy down will join the party.
There is a twist or two that change things up a little bit along the way, but the story is always very straight forward. This isn't a game like Final Fantasy or Xenosaga that is full of convoluted political intrigue and complicated interpersonal relationships, but it is charming in its simplicity. The characters are one-dimensional but likable, especially the titular cursed king who, with a voice that is something like Grover's with a British accent, always manages to be amusing; it is too bad he isn't a playable character. Anyway, fans of modern RPGs who are expecting a brilliant story probably won't be satisfied, but at least that means the cut scenes aren't billions of hours long.
Dragon Quest VIII plays much like any other traditional Japanese RPG. The heros go from town to town solving the problems of every stranger they meet, fight random battles for gold and experience, and explore caverns and ruins on their way to defeating the big boss. If something sets DQVIII apart, it is scale. The streaming overworld is one of the biggest I have ever experienced in an RPG. There are enough mountains to climb, forests to hike through, and caves to delve into to make the player feel like s/he is exploring real continents and not man-made game environments. Sometimes the size of the world seemed overwhelming to me, but once I realized that there is no real need to visit every place in order it became liberating. The frequency of random battles makes being absorbed into the exploration element somewhat difficult at times, but as the characters learn spells to reduce the encounter rate and obtain faster means of transportation the player will probably find himself or herself purposely going as far off the beaten path as possible to see new sights and find hidden treasures. Dungeons are simply designed and for the most part easy to navigate with the help of a map, and the monotony of walking around and fighting random battles is occasionally broken up by simple puzzles.
The battles themselves are like any old school RPG; the player gives commands to the party members through a menu system and they and the enemies take turns hitting each other. The system is uncomplicated but deep in the sense that you gain a whole bunch of special attacks, spells, and abilities to use, and every one of them is useful. A character can also spend a turn to 'psych up' to make his or her next attack more powerful. This technique becomes vital in the more difficult battles. Sometimes the fighting can get repetitive, but the higher-than-average level of challenge keeps it from getting outright boring. It takes a long time to level up in this game, so good tactics will get the player through the fights faster than gaining a lot of experience will. Leveling up finally occurs, the player is treated to a refreshingly simple upgrade system. Besides the usual increase in hit points, magic, etc, a couple points are given to allocate among a few different skills which are unique to each character. It isn't as deep as the customization in some other, more modern RPGs, but it gets the job done. When the game suffers, it does so because in being so old school it ignores the conveniences of modern RPGs when there is no reason to. The save system is the biggest flaw. Progress can only be saved by going into a town and confessing to a priest of the 'Almighty Goddess'. There are no save points in dungeons or even in the field, and I can't begin to guess why. Also, managing items in the in-game menus is a pain. Characters can only use items in battle which are placed in their own limited inventories, which is an unnecessary hassle compared to most RPGs where all characters draw their items from a communal pool. Other than that the interface works well and the game is glitch free.
There is a lot of game play here. Taking my time (but not being overly meticulous), it took me nearly 80 hours to make it to the end credits. If I tried to complete the Pokemon-esque battle arena mini game, find all hidden medals, get the biggest prizes at the casino, create the best weapons and items using the alchemy pot, and complete every optional dungeon, then that number might get closer to 100.
For the American release, DQVIII was given an entirely new orchestral soundtrack, and it is great. The majestic score adds an epic flavor to the experience. After 80 hours some of the songs, especially the out-of-place battle theme, get repetitive; however, sweet new melodies are added often enough to make this only a minor annoyance. Also new to the American version is voice acting. Nearly every character has a British accent of some sort. A lot of respect has to be given to whoever localized this game because I doubt most Japanese people know the difference between Irish and *****ney accents and the dialects become an integral part of the game's character. The writing takes advantage of characters' voices too, so if someone has trouble pronouncing the letter 'R' you can bet that he will be given lines with a lot of them. With all this fun added to the game by the localization team it is no wonder that it took so many months to bring the game to North America.
The graphics are cel-shaded, so the game looks like a hand-drawn anime cartoon. Often graphics done in this style seem lifeless and flat but the experienced developers at Level 5 have put done a good job of creating the illusion of life in the environments with subtle visual effects and absolutely incredible detail. My breath was taken away by some of the massive cathedrals and monuments in the game world. I just wish the faces on the characters had some real animation and depth. There is some pop up too, which is a shame because in a game with environments this open it would have been great to be able to see forever. The characters and monsters were all designer by Akira Toriyama, whom you may know as the creator of Dragon Ball, so that is the style one can expect. The player characters are all distinctive, but the models for the people in the towns are recycled much too often. The monster designs are fun and cutesy; some were so cute that I felt bad killing them at times.
The ESRB rated Dragon Quest VIII TEEN for Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Simulated Gambling, Mild Language, and Suggestive Themes.
RPG Violence (This is where you enter a command and watch it happen Ex. Final Fantasy) (-3 pts) The violence here is pretty tame even by RPG standards. There is no blood or gore; the cute monsters simply disappear when they die. The player never kills a human being in battle.
No Foul Language (-0 pts) Sexual references are made throughout the game. (-3.5 pts) I don't remember any bad words myself, but the ESRB label says that there is 'Mild Language' (whatever that means) so there might be something in there that I missed. Jessica, the female playable character, has an upgradeable skill called 'Sex Appeal' which grants her skills such as blowing kisses or fondling herself to distract enemies. This type of thing is the main reason why I am hesitant to recommend this game to Children.
Characters clothing is sexy or accentuates their sexuality (Ex. tight clothing or low cleavage) (-1.5 pts) If Jessica had half of an inch more cleavage, then this game would be rated M. Some other female characters also wear skimpy outfits. These characters are probably not realistic enough to incite overwhelming lust, but if you play this game expect to be looking at cartoon cleavage throughout.
Game takes place in an environment with minor occult references. (-3 pts) Fairy tale type magic is used in game by player. (-1.5 pts) Nearly every character in DQVIII reveres the Goddess, and this religion is a major part of the environment and plays a minor to medium role in the story. The Goddess herself doesn't actually appear, but the presence of the church that worships her is very strong. Besides the gender of the deity, this institution resembles the Roman Catholic Church complete with priests, nuns, cathedrals and even knights templar. In order to save the game you must confess to a priest of the Goddess. Some enemies, especially the final boss, are demonic in appearance but I do not think the word 'demon' is ever used. They aren't frightening because like all monsters in this game they are cartoonish and somewhat comical looking. It should be noted that the main villain's MO is to possess people. Also, one boss can only be beaten by praying to a magical staff. These things and the Goddess religion aren't necessarily 'occult' in the technical sense, but they are likely to bother many Christian gamers. Magic is used in this game much like in any other fantasy RPG. Spells may produce fireballs, cure poison, kill enemies, or resurrect dead allies.
There are no issues in this category to speak of.
A lot of this game's content may offend or embarrass many people. If the issues outlined above don't seem like a big deal, then Dragon Quest VIII is a great RPG for hardcore fans of the genre to spend hours on. The slow pace and archaic game mechanics might frustrate casual fans, but for those who take the time to get lost in this giant world will find the rewards worth while. Also, the game comes with a playable demo of Final Fantasy XII, which I will not review here. It isn't worth buying this game just for the demo, but it is a nice bonus for fans of Square Enix's other big RPG franchise.
Sexual Content: 8.5/10