One of my very first console RPGs was Dragon Warrior for the NES, a title that was beautiful in its simplicity. It simply cast you as a warrior who had some skill with a sword and magic trying to rid the land of evil. It also provided a number of challenging, yet entertaining monsters and a large, sprawling world full of dungeons and other enemy-laden locations. Why am I mentioning the ancestor of Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King in the intro of its review? Because Dragon Quest VIII is perhaps one of the better throwbacks to old school gaming that’s come out in a while, and easily the best RPG of this year.
Akin to Dragon Warrior, Dragon Quest VIII begins with an extremely simple premise. A powerful magical scepter was created and sealed away in a castle for a number of years to protect the realm. Unfortunately, the evil wizard/jester Dhoulmagus managed to shatter the seal and release the power of the staff, cursing the castle and its inhabitants. The king was transformed into a giant talking toad, while his daughter was morphed into a horse. Somehow, out of the ensuing mayhem, you, a palace guard known only as The Hero, escape unscathed. Seeking clues to Dhoulmagus’ whereabouts, you set out with the king and his daughter to track him down. Along the way in your adventures, you’ll add a former bandit, a barrel-chested man named Yangus, an aristocratic tomboy named Jessica who’s skilled in magic and Angelo, a supposedly holy knight that’s more interested in the pleasurable temptations life offers him than the teachings of the church.
This four person party that you’ll slowly acquire over time is the nucleus of the game, and you’ll constantly square off in random battles with these characters against a wide array of monsters, many of whom come into battle with a smile on their face or a comical stance. Don’t be fooled, as many of these enemies can be fierce in battle, particularly at nighttime when every enemy gets much stronger. Unlike some of the recent RPGs on the market where there’s been a larger focus on constantly attacking, defending or performing some action in the midst of combat, Dragon Quest is turn-based, allowing you to plan out your moves. The combat system is pretty simple to understand: when you run into an encounter, you essentially have one of three options (setting the tactical decisions for your team shouldn’t really count as a choice). You can try to run away if you don’t want to engage the monsters or know you’re going to lose to them. If you think you’re more powerful that they are and you don’t want to waste the time fighting them, you can try to intimidate the creatures into running away.
Inevitably, however, you’ll wind up getting into a fight. Everyone in your party can use a number of different weapons, such as swords, clubs and projectile weapons to simply attack any enemy in front of them. You’ll also be able to increase the amount of damage inflicted by psyching up your characters, raising their tension level in battle. As long as they don’t have some status effect placed on them, the next attack will be a lot stronger as they blow off steam. Your characters will also develop magical skills as they gain experience, as well as points that can be applied to a skill tree with five separate categories. All four characters in your party have three weapon categories that apply to different weapon traits, abilities or spells. For the most part, traits and abilities are continually applied, while spells are triggered manually. The fourth one applies to unarmed combat and the fifth is a category unique to that person. Angelo’s focuses upon his Charisma, Jessica’s focuses upon her Sex Appeal, Yangus’ targets his Humanity and your character hones in on his Courage.
Like most RPGs, building up every character and expanding their skill tree is an extremely important part of exploring the game world and preparing for tougher battles. The one tweak that the Dragon Quest series has always thrown into the mix has been the truly varied sense of the strength of the enemies that you'll face in each random encounter. You can run into one encounter and every enemy in that group is a piece of cake, and the very next fight will kick your party's teeth in. Part of this is because monsters will wind up pulling out completely new attacks that you've never seen before, call in new allies or even resurrect fallen allies to continue battles. This is especially more dangerous during nighttime, because every single monster becomes much stronger. Even the easy creatures grow a stronger backbone when the sun goes down. Considering the number of random battles you'll be fighting (and you will be fighting a lot of them), you'll be extremely glad that you'll have the time to think out and plan each step of a fight.
Regardless of the provisions that you try to take, you'll inevitably wind up falling in battle. Fortunately, the game quickly whisks you back to the last church that you entered for a group resurrection, but at a steep price – half of your gold will be deducted from your pocket each time your entire party "dies." It may seem a little unfair, but it's actually a decent trade off for not losing any serious progress level or experience-wise. You may be able to prevent needing to use the services of the church if you adequately use some of the items and abilities available to you. For instance, one item prevents enemies from attacking you until its effects wear off. You'll be able to cast spells to whisk your party out of an exit and another that immediately transports your party back to town, where you can re-equip and rest up for your next battle.
Of course, you'll be talking to every townsperson you meet, trying to gather information to piece together Dhoulmagus' location. The main plotline of Dragon Quest will take you somewhere around 50 to 60 hours to complete, but there are more than enough sidequests and extras to raise the limit of this game to 100 hours or more if you were really interested in finding everything. However, one of the things that does feel a little limiting (and it's essentially a minor personal gripe) is the 12 item per character limit. You're given an additional bag which acts as a storage space as well, but you'll have to continually transfer items back and forth between characters and your virtual backpack to use them in fights, sell them in stores or other tasks. Sure, when you get all four characters you'll have 48 slots available at any point along with the bag, but it's a little time consuming to constantly have to access and slot an item whenever you get it to use it in the game.
The visual style of the game is nothing short of exceptional. Akira Toriyama's character designs are expressive and vibrant 3D characters that capture both an anime flavor and cel-shaded modeling to make everything pop out. The result feels like you're controlling an animated pop up book, where each character and structure has additional weight and depth instead of looking like a simple flat image. What's more, each character has their own unique animations, whether in battle or in cutscenes, which gives them additional personality. This has been extended to the monsters as well, and so you'll notice them making faces, dancing and doing other strange, yet amusing movements in the midst of battle. You'll also fall in love with the landscape, from the lush green rolling hills and pouring waterfalls to the massive oceans and underground caves. This is truly a visual feast for the eyes.
I will admit that I was surprised at the amount of voice-over work performed in the game, but it was quite a pleasant addition to the title itself. Interestingly enough, the first thing that came to mind was some minor character study of Monty Python, as most of the characters that you meet have some variation of a British dialect ranging from classic R.P. to working class Cockney. Part of this was reinforced with some of the in-game jokes, which felt like they could fit into a British comedy. However, the voice acting is excellent and flushes out the characters quite nicely. You've also got a wonderfully sweeping score that provides light and airy exploring tunes that quickly change into melodies tinged with notes to imply danger at any moment, which can become engrossing and somewhat catching. Numerous times I caught myself absentmindedly humming along to a battle sequence or recalling some outdoor tune.
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King harkens back to a time where one very small group of heroes joined together to overcome seemingly impossible odds against a dangerous threat to the land, and it does so extremely well. It also proves that sometimes simple is better that complicated character moves, secondary people you probably don't care about and massive cinematic sequences that make you a passive observer instead of an active participant. Instead, it proves that placing more attention into the gameplay and taking these few characters on a massive journey can still be appealing to both the hardcore RPG fan and the mainstream gamer, and could spark a flash of imports as players seek out older Dragon Quest titles to play.