Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

As you might have noticed, my plan of a "Summer of Dragon Quest" has really fallen apart.  Instead I've retooled the project as a "Second Half of 2011 of Dragon Quest"!  Which is just as good, though a lot less snappy to say.  Unfortunately I just do not beat RPGs all that fast.  So I'm about two thirds of the way through "Dragon Quest VIII", and I fear if I don't review it now, I'll never review it at all.  I'm currently thirty hours in, and as far as I know, there could be another thirty hours ahead of me.  That means the review happens now, and as a matter of fact, you're reading it.

"Dragon Quest VIII" is a notable chapter in the Dragon Quest story because it was the first - and so far* the only - fully 3D main series Dragon Quest game ever made.  Its also the first and only one to have voice acting, which is a feature that only came in the overseas versions.  This is also the first game to feature Level-5 as the main developer working under Square Enix and Dragon Quest grandfather, Yuji Horii.  In North America, "Dragon Quest VIII" probably more than any other game allowed this franchise to gain a large fanbase, though this title is probably still best known for coming paired with the demo for "Final Fantasy XII".  Its certainly the first Dragon Quest game I ever saw, even though it took me some six years to finally play it.

Now "Dragon Quest VIII" is a milestone.  Unlike the latter day Final Fantasy titles on the PS2 and PS3, its kept up the same classic styles of the older games like "Dragon Quest IV".  This isn't an update of the Dragon Quest formula, simply a repainting.  It may have the graphical powers of the PS2, but it is much less advanced than a typical PS2 RPG.  Dragon Quest is not a franchise that moves into the future without being dragged kicking and screaming.  And as always, I got to admire that kind of steadfast obsession with remaining the same.  Everything about this game is classic.  They didn't remake the franchise when it came into the third dimension, they took a regular Dragon Quest world and gave it 3D graphics and voice acting.  Everything else was kept the same.

Now the first thing that must be said about "Dragon Quest VIII" is this:  for some reason or another, this game has the single most retarded control scheme in the history of RPGs.  For reasons that only be speculated, Square Enix decided to shuffle the traditional PlayStation buttons for something far more idiotic.  So Circle isn't cancel, now its the menu.  Triangle is the cancel button.  X at least is still select.  Trust me, you will never get used to it.  As far as I know, no other game ever made has a button layout like this.  I've accidentally bought items I didn't want because I hit Circle to cancel out of pure muscle memory.  This game came out in 2004!  That was at least a decade after gaming companies came together and realized that we should standardize the buttons, or else its fucking confusing!  I know "Final Fantasy VII" had a weird button layout, but I can forgive it for being Square Enix's first game on the PS1, and also, "Final Fantasy VII" did something really intelligent:  IT LET YOU CUSTOMIZE THE BUTTONS.  Yes, Circle was select, but I could go into the menu and make X select like every other game ever made.  Why doesn't "Dragon Quest VIII" do this??  What, do they think that the normal button layout is too traditional?  Too mainstream?  Fuck that noise!  Put the buttons in the right place, and that's it.  Discussion over.  Now for the rest of the review.

(Deep breath)

When a franchise updates directly from 2D to 3D, rarely will there be such heavy continuity with the art style.  To take a Zelda example:  "Ocarina of Time" doesn't look at all like "A Link to the Past".  The trees aren't spheres with colors of concentric circles, Link doesn't have pink hair, the enemies are all far less cartoony and more threatening, the list of changes goes on.  The only other franchise with such heavy continuity with art style I can think of is Mario, where the characters and monsters all look basically the same no matter how high the resolution gets.  Does a Goomba in "Super Mario Galaxy 2" look any different from an 8-bit Goomba in 1985?  Nope.

When you walk into a town in "Dragon Quest VIII" you might as well be walking into a town from "Dragon Quest IV", only with a controllable camera.  Level-5 has captured Akira Toriyama's very distinctive art style perfectly.  The characters in this game are the sprites from earlier games come to life.  I suspect that "Dragon Quest VIII" is the first 3D Dragon Quest game because it was only by the PS2 era that 3D graphics had reached the point that a game could look exactly like a Toriyama anime.  Yoshitaka Amano drew artwork for the Final Fantasy series for years, but nobody ever succeeded in getting his heavily distinctive style actually in the game (and sadly nobody ever tried).  Cel shading is the exact innovation that Square Enix was waiting for to make this transition.  But it goes deeper than simply art style.  Its the details.  Many of the generic NPCs are exact recreations of NPCs from earlier games.  Look, there's that muscle dude in bondage gear, and there's the bartender with a mustache.  And who can forget, Bunny Girls!  Woohoo!

I guess its time to talk storyline a bit, right?  Well, this game is subtitled "Journey of the Cursed King", so obviously its a touching story about a young girl growing up in the South dealing with abusive parents, learning to express herself, and finally writing a painfully boring autobiography, right?  Hell no!  Its a Journey, and you're carrying around a Cursed King - and cursed princess.  The subtitles are always directly to the point in Dragon Quest, no prissy "Advent Children" for this franchise.  You're a Hero, you don't talk, you travel with your King who has turned into a toad monster.  You have to hunt down an evil wizard named Doulmagus who likes to murder people.  And so you travel from town to town, solving various problems, blasting through dungeons, and hoping that the next leap is the leap home.

Let's character this thing up:
  • The Hero is the Hero.  He does heroic things.  Since he's drawn with big eyes, he looks innocent and a bit confused most of the time.  But that red bandanna proves he has a killer sense of style.  The Hero is also the Beastmaster, because he has a pet rat that can be commanded to go anywhere in a feature that I think the designers forgot about.  You can only use it twice, so far as I know.  The Hero fights like every other Dragon Quest hero, he's a Jack of All Trades, but only really a master of healing and attacking.
  • COR BLIMEY!!  Yangus is by far the best character in this game.  This is universally agreed upon by all who play this game, and he has even gotten his own spin-off game... which is Japan only.  Fuck!  Since he talks in a gruff Cockney accent, Yangus is secretly a fat Jason Statham.  Yangus is awesome for three reasons:  1) his accent, of course, 2) the way he calls the Hero "guv", and 3) his bizarre spikey blond haircut.  More importantly, Yangus likes to pick his nose, has an extremely hot girlfriend, and likes to mispronounce words.  Even more importantly, he's the big physical attacker dude.
  • Jessica has boobs.  This is her main role in the plot.  Square Enix proves this point home by giving you all manner of increasingly shameless outfits to dress her in.  Jessica's brother might have been killed by Doulmagus, but I wasn't paying attention.  I was... distracted by a... pair of things.  ANYway, Jessica is the Black Mage.  Her main interest though seems to be in dieing, because she does that.  A lot.  Its annoying.  There are no back rows in Dragon Quest, so if you have a magic-based character with no defense, they're going to die.  You can't help that.
  • Angelo is the last of the four playable heroes, and easily the least interesting.  He tries to be a suave Balthier but completely fails.  Its just not there.  Angelo is no Leading Man, he's a wanna-be.  Honestly, I liked his scumbag big brother better than him.  So I have nothing left to say about this guy, except that he's the White Mage.  But he comes with a sword and shield, so he can actually survive attacks.
  • King Troad is the cursed king.  He's not playable for reasons that have never been made clear to me.  I get the sense he'd be a wacky Torneko-type, but alas.  King Troad has the most annoying voice actor in this game, and you might want to strangle him.  However, after thirty hours, he starts to grow on you.  Troad is like an annoying grandparent, you hate them, but you're obligated to love them out of some vague sense of familial affection.
  • Princess Medea is the horse.  She was a beautiful princess, but now she's a horse.  She pulls the cart.
Now we can talk gameplay.  Unfortunately, this is where the praise train comes to its last stop.  "Dragon Quest VIII" is a massive world full of open-world adventure.  Yuji Horii could have easily made a straight-line RPG like the Square side of his company did with "Final Fantasy X".  But no, he made sure that his game was a mighty world full of open fields and hills to explore.  As a matter of fact, "Dragon Quest VIII" might actually be bigger than "Final Fantasy XII", hard to say.  This would usually be a selling point to me, and I have to praise the work they did on this game world.

However, they included random battles.  Unlike "Final Fantasy XII" or even "Dragon Quest IX" where you can just run through zones without really needing to worry about pestering enemy attacks from weak monsters, "Dragon Quest VIII" tortures you with it.  Yes, there is a spell that can stop random encounters, thank God.  Also, there's a giant tiger you can ride later in the game which allows you to move faster, but doesn't stop battles altogether.  Sadly tigers just don't have the same intimidating effect that Chocobos do.  Also, is it me, or is the encounter rate extremely high in this game?  It feels like it takes a million years to complete any dungeon because I have to fight another battle every three steps.  I'm willing to concede that random encounters can work in old 2D games, but they definitely cannot work here.

The hugeness also can be a bit annoying when you're walking into town.  First of all, there are load times for everything.  That's usually a minor complaint with me, but it is frustrating to first have a random encounter, and doubly frustrating to have to wait a second or two for it to load.  The menu has a load time, somehow.  In town, every time you enter a new building, it has to load up.  So if you're just walking into even a small-sized town to just rest up and save your game, it will take at least five minutes.  This game shares an issue with "Final Fantasy XII" in that your character just takes too damn long to jog to places.  The International Version of that game included a fast-forward button so you can speed through, sadly that wasn't a feature in the North American release.  What I really loved about "Dragon Quest IV" and am loving about "Dragon Quest V" is how fast the game goes by.  In ten minutes you can beat a boss, move on to the next town, and watch a major plot point.  In ten minutes of "Dragon Quest VIII" I might walk to the river.  Why can't I ride on Princess Medea's back?  I'm the Hero, I'll probably ride her anyway in the ending once she's human again.

But these complaints are really minor in the scheme of things.  An even more minor complaint I have is how bland this game's world looks in comparison to most 3D RPGs.  I remember "Final Fantasy XII" and even "Final Fantasy X" were feasts for the eyes with fantastic vistas and amazing locations.  If Final Fantasy does one thing well it makes sure that each game is an incredible adventure to experience.  "Dragon Quest VIII" really only has rolling green hills and forests... everywhere.  There's no locations that really take my breath away.

More positively, "Dragon Quest VIII" is another great example of Dragon Quest's trademark sense of humor.  Early in the game you fight a giant schizophrenic squid that uses his tentacles as sock-puppets.  Enemies will routinely fail to attack on their turn because they've fallen in love with Jessica.  And if you fight a female enemy, Jessica will always win "the battle of the bulges".  Finally, there's the Puff Puff.  You'll want to play this game for that alone.

Finally, I love how every voice in this game is British.  Because British accents are just better.  If this game was localized by a bunch of Southerners, I never would have been able to play it.

So that's "Dragon Quest VIII".  I'm going to try my best to beat it in the next week, but that seems doubtful.  In the mean time, I got "Dragon Quest V", which I'm completing at a very nice clip.  Hopefully it won't take two months for a review of that to come out.  Then I got "Dragon Quest VI" to purchase and defeat, and possibly "Rocket Slime" if I feel like it.  And with that, the Dragon Quest Half-Year will be completed**.

* "Dragon Quest IX" has 3D graphics, but its a top-game game.  I think we can reasonably guess that "Dragon Quest X" on the Wii will be another 3D RPG.  But after something like three years of development, nobody has yet to see a SINGLE screenshot, artwork, or even design document from this title.  So its too early to guess.  Which is incredible, since the Wii is about to be retired, and only now is this game even getting its first trailer.  I'm glad that Level-5 and Square Enix took their time, but goddamn man!  Can't you speed it up a bit??

** If you're keeping notes, that would leave "Dragon Quest I - III" and "Dragon Quest VII" the only games I haven't played.  The first three games were remade on the Game Boy Color ages ago... but I don't actually own a system that can play Game Boy Color games anymore.  I'm hoping the Wii 25th Anniversary Collection gets localized, otherwise I'll have to give up on this one.  "Dragon Quest VII" was released on the PS1, and I've heard mixed reviews about it.  That one is definitely a "wait and see".  Its also over 100 hours long, meaning that I might finish it sometime in Spring 2017.


  1. do you have a good computer, you could emulate the Dragon Quest games you don't have

  2. I claim scandal, perverted scandal, Jessica is the slut of this game,the puff-puff is a way to try and pervert the game like how they FF12 did with Fran. And the encounter rate is pretty normal to me, certainly not as bad a FF10's Thunder plains, that was torture.

  3. This is what I meant when i asked in your DQIX review if you had played DQVIII. This is my favorite one out of the entire series and is in my top 12 best games every list. It comes from one of my favorite gaming companies, artwork is done by my fav anime drawing idols, and it can be serious, but not too serious. The only drawback is that the magic system is shit. To me it seems that Final Fantasy and some western RPGs have a non complacated magic system.

    P.S. You forgot Jessica's bunnygirl outfit.
    -The 1 & only Uzuki

  4. depends what kind of british accent...

  5. You posted this exactly 9 minutes after Bleach's timeslot.

    This is totally not a complaint.

  6. This game uses rows as the first Final Fantasy did. The first slots in the party receive the most attention from enemies.