Blast from the Past Reviews - Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King is one of the greatest games that I've ever played, and you owe it to yourself to give it a try.
The Good: Amazing graphics, character and enemy design; fantastic battle system is a blast from beginning to end; great character customization options; plenty of side activities and loot to find; memorable orchestrated soundtrack; lovable characters wrapped in an awesome story; a long journey lasting around 50-100 hours of play.
The Bad: Difficulty may be a bit off-putting for some.
What makes one franchise more popular than another? Quality games would be a great starting answer, but it goes much deeper than that. Advertising? Sure, that definitely helps. Truthfully, though, it’s a combination of the two. Final Fantasy has become one of the biggest role-playing franchises in the world over its fourteen numbered entries thus far. Some claim that the seventh game in this beloved franchise was the key to its overwhelming success. Of course, the previous six games were downright legendary in their use of storytelling and role-playing elements, but it was Final Fantasy VII that got people talking. Over the course of just a few months, VII’s legacy grew, and to this day it remains one of the greatest games of all time. Even if it wasn’t entirely due to this game’s overwhelming success, the Final Fantasy franchise has gained a global fan base that’s hard to ignore.
Here’s the weird thing: the Dragon Quest franchise is made by the same developer (Square Enix) and is the most popular franchise in Japan; arguably more popular than Final Fantasy. In fact, Dragon Quest influenced a lot of what made Final Fantasy such a success. Not only was Dragon Quest the first RPG (the acronym for “role-playing game”) to establish a class based system (which eventually lead to paradigms in Final Fantasy XIII) its monster training system lead to one of the greatest selling franchises of all time: Pokémon. Gamespot went on to call the original Dragon Quest, “one of the fifteen most influential games of all time.” It’s really a shame, then, that these games don’t receive as much attention in other parts of the world as they do in Japan, because my first foray into the franchise, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, is among one of the greatest games that I’ve ever played.
Dragon Quest VIII’s story isn’t overly complicated, nor is it entirely simple. It manages to hit the sweet spot where “story” is concerned by introducing you to a group of lovable, relatable characters that simply never seem to lose their charm. The story begins in the Castle Trodain, where an evil jester named Dhoulmagus manages to steal an ancient, cursed scepter. Before departing, he uses the power of the scepter to summon dark vines that cripple the castle’s foundation while turning all of its residents into unresponsive plants. The King and his daughter, the beautiful princess Medea, both witness Dhoulmagus commit these unspeakable acts, and thus are treated to special transformations by the evil jester. King Trode is turned into a small, toad-like creature while his daughter is transformed into a silent, white horse.
The mystery lies with you, the hero of the story. While everyone else suffered a terrible fate, you were unharmed by the dark magic of the scepter. As the king’s last remaining guard, you join up with a portly street bandit named Yangus to help return the cursed monarch and his daughter back to normal. As previously mentioned, you’ll meet a lot (and I mean A LOT) of different characters over the course of your adventure, each of them containing their own unique story. However, you’ll only have three of them join you on your quest. The aforementioned Yangus is the powerhouse of the group and typically wields heavier weapons. Jessica is a headstrong magician who is skilled in both offensive and defensive spells. And Angelo is a young bachelor who uses speed and amateur spell casting to keep enemies on their toes. You’ll quickly become wrapped up in various quests and adventures that display expert storytelling and incredibly well developed characters apart from the main storyline, but the fact that you’re always following the path of the cursed scepter is a constant reminder of what exactly you’re fighting for.
The overall design in Dragon Quest VIII is classic RPG. The world is simply massive and full of random monster encounters that vary in difficulty depending on where you’re fighting them. Towns both big and small permeate the action, allowing you to stock up on various items and weapons, replenish your health at inns and seek out a number of different quests. As you progress through the story, you’ll gain access to different modes of transportation that open up more areas of the map in rather unique ways. It’s a tried and true design that constantly challenges and rewards you no matter how you play.
And you’ll have to play smart if you want to survive. If you think you can complete your first quest in the world of Dragon Quest VIII as easy as most RPGs nowadays, you’d be painfully mistaken. Attempting to rush in to confront the first boss without prepping and leveling up several times is pretty much suicide. Luckily, leveling up is flexible and easy; allowing you to choose which weapons and abilities you want your heroes to be more adept in. Once a particular weapon-based skill is leveled up enough, that hero will not only do more damage with it, but he (she) will also be awarded with a special ability pertaining to that type of weapon. As new, more powerful weapons become available (either through shops or exploration) you’ll constantly be leveling up different skills to keep your character strong now matter what they’re attacking with. It’s important to keep both your armor and weapons up to date in order to deal with some the tougher monsters that become increasingly more difficult as you progress through the game.
Battles in Dragon Quest VIII are frequent, but always engaging. This is partly due to its rather simple, turn-based setup. You’re given quite a few options when confronted by an enemy. Your most basic option is to attack the enemy with your current weapon, and this is how you’ll get through your first few battles due to your limited set of skills. However, once you begin leveling up, you’ll gain access to various abilities and spells to add to each characters’ repertoire. Depending on the character and what skills you choose to upgrade, these abilities can range from the Assassin’s Stab (possibly learned by Jessica) which has a small chance of killing the enemy outright, or the ever-useful Miracle Slash, which damages the enemy while healing the attacking character. You’ll start off with rather basic spells like Friz (fireball) and Heal, but you’ll soon learn more powerful magic, allowing you to cast spells that can heal your entire team or do damage to multiple enemies at once. There are hundreds of abilities and spells that can be learned, and it’s incredibly cool finding out what types of attacks will fell some of your more difficult adversaries.
Characters also have the ability to Psyche Up, which makes their attacks do a substantial amount of damage the next turn. You can have your character Psyche Up multiple times, increasing the amount of damage done on the attacking turn, but a stray attack from an enemy or waiting too long without attacking will return their overall tension to normal. Of course, you’re also allowed to utilize various items to increase characters’ stats or heal them if you’re low on magic. Some items can also do damage to enemies, so it’s important to know what you have in your inventory. If you find yourself overpowered, there’s always the option to flee, but it’s never a guarantee. Enemies can block you off and deliver an extra attack on your party, so it’s a gamble when trying to escape from some of the tougher monsters.
There are over two hundred and fifty types of enemies in Dragon Quest VIII, each with different spells and attacks. Some of them even have the ability to psyche themselves up or use desperate attacks to do massive damage to your party. However, the enemy difficulty as you progress is nearly perfect. As you continue to find new areas and reach new towns, you’ll always encounter enemies who put up quite the fight compared to the previous area. There was never a moment in this game where I was just sailing through the battles without thinking about what I was doing unless I was revisiting an area with weaker monsters. There are also some genuinely interesting situations that you’ll encounter during battles with certain creatures. Candy cats (lower level monsters) might refuse to attack and instead wash their faces with their paws. Perhaps a small enemy like a Khalamari Kid might get called by his mom to leave the battle and come home. There are also some occasions where the enemy will suddenly attack at the beginning of the battle, or they might not even notice your party’s presence, allowing you a few extra attacks without fear of immediate retaliation. Also, due to a constant day and night cycle, different enemies will appear at different times. With all of these different factors affecting each battle, you’ll constantly be challenged to think on your feet and plan your attacks accordingly.
But battles aren’t the only things that you’ll be participating in. Some towns house casinos where you can gamble to get better items, weapons and equipment. And speaking of weapons and equipment, Dragon Quest VIII is absolutely full of them. Not only will you find items and armaments in stores, there are hundreds of chests that are littered throughout the environment containing rare weapons, armor and expensive trinkets that can be sold for cash or utilized in battle. Some chests are even hidden in fairly devious locations, asking you to trudge through many random battles to get to them. Some may be in an unreachable area that demands a certain form of transportation that you have yet to acquire. Otherwise, you can find them virtually anywhere. Houses, wells, under a tree, in a maze-like dungeon…there simply seems to be no end to them, making for quite the addicting, loot gathering experience. And even if you don’t feel like finding the right equipment, you eventually gain the ability to make your own using an alchemy pot, allowing you to mix various ingredients to create weapons and armor.
But out of all of the side activities to take part in, none is more beneficial (and more fun) than the Monster Arena. Early on, you can find a man standing atop a small stone building. He gives you a list of monsters to find and collect before you’re able to compete against other people in the arena. Here’s what’s interesting: while most battles are random, you’ll find monsters roaming about the environment in specific areas seemingly minding their own business until you approach. Battling these unique creatures is tougher than felling their random counterparts, but once they’ve been defeated, you’re able to have them join you. With them, you’re able to form a monster team to compete in the Monster Arena. Though you can’t control how they attack and can only have a certain number of monsters at a time, collecting them is simply addicting. Stronger monsters reveal themselves throughout the game in different areas and may only appear at certain times. Creating a good team to increase your Monster Arena rank and finding other, more powerful, monsters as you progress through the story is a fantastic incentive to continue forward on your quest. As you increase in rank and defeat more enemies in the Monster Arena, you’ll be rewarded with items and weapons…at first. After just a few ranks, you’re given the ability to call your team into battle to aid you which is incredibly helpful for some of the tougher enemies. This also makes finding more powerful monsters to join you that much more of a necessity.
It’s the first time in the franchise that Akira Toriyama’s iconic character designs and animations made famous by games like Chrono Trigger and popular shows like Dragonball Z are featured in full 3D. Characters are animated beautifully and look simply fantastic with Toriyama’s signature style encompassing every detail of their cell-shaded design. This is also the first time that we actually get to see our characters engage in battle, perform spells and attack enemies. Previous Dragon Quest games focused on the enemy, showing scratch marks or simply telling us that our characters were attacking, causing quite a disconnect between the game and the player. Here, we get to see characters attack and receive damage from enemies. Take too much damage and your party will actually looked fatigued. Every enemy is animated in such a way that they are given so much more life in 3D than they ever had in their stationary, two dimensional forms. Various spells and abilities feature bright and colorful effects as well as awesome camera angles while the environments that you traverse show off a lot of creativity and variety. You’ll be traipsing through snowy valleys and staring over grand prairies as you make your way through an incredibly large map that features several different islands to explore. Needless to say, I still enjoy this game’s visual style to this day.
Along with the overall presentation of the game is one of the greatest orchestrated soundtracks in the history of the medium. Featuring quiet, soothing melodies as you navigate through the open fields as well as intense, thrilling scores that make battles a blast to participate in, the soundtrack in Dragon Quest VIII is as memorable as they come. Meanwhile, you have some very competent voice acting which wasn’t included in the Japanese version of this game. The numerous conversations are read fantastically by each voice actor, with characters displaying their respective attitudes brilliantly. Sound effects feature nostalgic jingles from past games on the Super Nintendo, which is a nice ode to older fans of the franchise.
It took me over one hundred hours to complete this game on my first playthrough, and after the final boss is defeated, you’re given an extra quest that leads to an alternate ending (which is well worth seeing). If you’re in a rush (which you won’t be), you might be able to get through it in about sixty hours or so, but what’s here is so amazing and fun that you’ll feel almost compelled to participate in numerous quests and loot gathering to keep your party strong. To be honest, I have yet to find a single flaw with this game. Sure, the difficulty may be a slap in the face for those accustomed to some of today’s simpler games, and some might say that it isn’t very original, but I truly miss the days when role-playing games were made to this caliber. Things were simple, but complex if you wanted them to be. Progression was tightly managed and characters were endearing and fun to adventure with. This game is the definition of everything that makes the role-playing game such a popular genre. It comes with my highest recommendation.