Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King is the first Dragon Quest game I finished since the original Dragon Warrior. It was one of those games I started, got distracted and nearly gave up on. But once I returned to it, I was completely hooked and played until I finished it. Here are my final thoughts.

Story

I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly gripped by the story at first. Sure the characters were funny and Dhoulmagus was an interesting villain but I wasn’t sure why he had cursed King Trode and stolen the sceptre. It took awhile for the story to develop but once it did, I was much more involved and wanted to see what happened. It was pleasantly surprising to realize why Dhoulmagus had been killing people and the revelation of the actual evil presence behind the story was a lot of fun.

The story was fairly simple (or should I say straightforward?) and ultimately boiled down to “bad dude wants to destroy the world and good guys must defeat him.” There were no complicated, interweaving subplots and things seemed almost grade-school level compared to something like Final Fantasy VII and its complex and confusing narrative. But that was fine with me as DQ8’s story was told well, with a lot of personality. It’s nice to not have an angsty, dark hero at the center of things.

The real charm of DQ8’s story lies in its characters. All the major characters were great and I enjoyed finding out their backstories and watching their interactions. I think the developers did a great job of creating a party of three supporting characters that were distinctive and enjoyable to spend time with. Yangus, in particular, was a riot and I’d overhear my children saying “Cor blimey!” from time to time.

Dragon Quest VIII’s towns and their inhabitants were also a highlight of the game. I enjoyed all the side stories from Prince Charmles’ adventures to Yangus’ interaction with his love/nemesis Red to relatively minor characters like the ultra-virile Morrie. Usually I hate running through towns in RPG’s and talking to the residents there but I thoroughly explored every town in DQ8 and enjoyed speaking to every resident.

Dragon Quest VIII’s story gets a 9 out of 10.

Presentation

What can I say? I love cel-shading when it’s done well. Ever since I played Jet Grind Radio on the Dreamcast I liked the look of a cel-shaded game, and Dragon Quest VIII has to be one of the best examples of the technique. Playing through the world of DQ8 is like taking part in a high-quality anime, like a Miyazaki movie. Everything has this distinctive, consistent style from the cities to the characters to the monsters.

And I have to say the crazy monsters were one of the best things about Dragon Quest VIII. I couldn’t wait to find a new creature and my kids and I would grin at the silly animations. How many RPG’s have monsters that turn around and spank their bottoms, leaving your party members shocked and unable to move for the rest of the turn? The quality of the humor and the animations were definitely a high point of the game.

I understand that some gamers were turned off by the silly design and humor and wanted a “serious” game. That’s fine. There will always be games like Oblivion for them. But games overflowing with style like DQ8 are rare and something to be treasured.

Also remarkable is the draw distance in the game. I noticed this early on when I could see an object off in the distance and gradually work my way over to it, with no loading whatsoever. That’s just an amazing feat of programming for a system as “simple” as the Playstation 2. And even when there were loads, such as when we entered a city or a dungeon, they were brief and infrequent.

Almost as impressive as the graphics is the audio in DQ8, particularly the voice acting. With the exception of King Trode, who always had an irritating voice, every character was voiced in a very professional, brilliant way. Yangus was particularly great, but even the run of the mill characters were well-voiced. I don’t understand the reasoning for the Hero remaining silent, so the game gets a small knock for that. But otherwise I almost never skipped past a character’s speech and I usually get bored with dialogue and can’t wait to move on. Compared to Final Fantasy X, the voice acting in DQ8 was nothing short of a revelation.

Last comes the music. I know the Japanese version of DQ8 didn’t have the symphonic score that we North American types get, and that’s a shame for them as the music was uniformly great and the orchestral score really gave the game this grand scope, making it really feel like an epic adventure. It’s a testament to a game when I find myself humming tunes through the week while I’m at work, and that happened all the time with DQ8.

Dragon Quest VIII set a high water mark for presentation for a role-playing game. I give it an amazing 10 out of 10.

Gameplay

Here’s the thing about Dragon Quest VIII’s gameplay: it is, for lack of a better term, old-school. There are random monster encounters that happen frequently. Not so frequently that you can’t take ten steps before fighting but it’s definitely not a system like Final Fantasy XII where the enemies are visible and you can choose how to approach them. Battles are turn-based and can take a minute or two to resolve. This drives some people crazy but DQVIII allows several different strategies during combat. Do I put my enemies to sleep, beat the crap out of them, hit them with a fiery inferno or perhaps do the underpants dance and shock them into submission? I like this system but I understand that others don’t.

Character development is also a bit… barren. You can equip armor and weapons. You can spend points on any of the four different skill tracks for your characters, making them better at swords or bows or even magic abilities. You get new skills at prescribed times based on your level or your skill points. But that’s about it for character customization. There are no classes to change and no jobs to develop. You don’t really have a lot of choices that will influence the story or even some of the subplots.

DQ8 also suffers from being unnecessarily vague and could have benefited from more information given to the player. The alchemy pot was a big mystery and I spent (wasted) a lot of time trying to make something useful. Though the recipes were helpful, more clarity would have been nice. I also didn’t know what skills my characters would develop as they progressed up certain skill paths. I would like to have known more clearly what I was aiming for with my skill point allocations. I chose to specialize rather than spread my points among the four options so I was happy but I could see being really frustrated if I hadn’t done that and didn’t have access to some of the higher-level skills at the end of the game.

But despite all this there’s something very compelling about Dragon Quest VIII. The developers have managed to tickle that addictive nerve in me that makes me want to keep playing just a bit more. Part of it is that your characters are always learning new abilities and attacks. Part of it is the ability to make things in the alchemy pot that can give you a tremendous advantage in combat. I personally got quite addicted to the monster arena and enjoyed scouting around for notorious monsters to recruit and improve my monster team. And as I progressed I could take my monster team and call them into a battle which helped a lot with some of the later bosses.

It’s difficult to specify what makes DQ8 so addictive for me, besides just listing the things I liked. Part of the charm is just how “traditional” the game is. There’s a certain simplicity that I found really appealing. Compared to the overly-complicated systems in a game like Final Fantasy VIII, DQ8 almost seems juvenile but there are layers of depth that I discovered as the game progressed.

Dragon Quest VIII gets an 8.5 out of 10 for gameplay.

Conclusion

The true test for me of how much I liked a game is the replay factor. Would I ever want to replay this game again? And with Dragon Quest VIII the answer is definitely “yes!”. Even as I was going through it I was thinking of things I’d like to do differently on a second run-through. All in all, Dragon Quest VIII was a very polished, fun and surprisingly deep game. It had characters I liked, looked flat-out gorgeous and gave me a large world to adventure in. It’s honestly one of the best role-playing games I’ve had the joy of playing.

Final score: 9.2 out of 10

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