Dragon Quest may have not enjoyed the kind of celebrity status that Square’s Final Fantasy series has managed to generate in the United States but if you head over to Japan, you wouldn’t know it. Culturally, it has the kind of celebrity status that borders on the truly inspired as the series has spawned variations of its themes in other venues including a ballet and the kind of merchandizing that Spaceballs’ Yogurt could only dream of as the franchise has extended itself into nearly everything from battle pens to cell phone releases. It has even been blamed for work interruptions as its new releases have seen millions across the Land of the Rising Sun call off from both school and work just to stand in line to get the latest copy. And this happens with every release.
So why didn’t it catch on in the States? From what I understand, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying or quality. The Dragon Quest series (otherwise known as Dragon Warrior in the US due to a trademark conflict) came in at a time when RPGs on consoles in the States weren’t as popular as they are today…which was the opposite situation in Japan where it was a huge success. Dragon Warrior IV would be the last Dragon Quest released to English speaking audiences as Enix eventually closed its US office. Fans in the States wouldn’t see another Dragon Quest until the return of the series with Dragon Quest VII on the Playstation.
Now, in its PS2 debut, developers Level 5 have been asked to take on the task of bringing the eighth chapter to life alongside Yuji Horii, Koichi Sugiyama, and Akira Toriyama…the key members of the core team from Enix that have been with the series since they started their own journey in the late eighties with the first Dragon Quest.
The result? My personal pick for one of the best RPGs of the year.
Dragon Quest VIII is a quest for the PS2.
Every Journey Begins with a Single Step
An evil jester by the name of Dhoulmagus has stolen a legendary scepter sealed away within the Kingdom of Trodain, unleashing a terrible power that has corrupted the castle and all within it. The walls have become overgrown, the inhabitants transformed into thorny vines with Princess Medea becoming a horse and King Trode changed into a stumpy green troll. As the only survivor of the catastrophe to escape unscathed, the hero along with the king and princess have taken it upon yourselves to seek out Dhoulmagus and find a way to lift the curse that has brought ruin to the kingdom. Along with Yangus, a reformed bandit with an odd accent and a penchant for calling the hero the ‘guv’, you find yourselves hoping to pick up Dhoulmagus’ trail in the next town. What none of them realize is that this is only the beginning of a journey that will take them to the far corners of the world and beyond, a journey that is filled with betrayal, surprise, and a chance to become heroes.
DQ8 won’t wow you with a dramatically new leveling scheme, fancy reflex timed interactions on the battlefield, or real time execution of party orders. The gameplay in the title more of a refinement of the same formula that the game had originally begun with making it feel like an old school console RPG polished with today’s technology. For its North American release, a few more things were tweaked such as the menu but for the most part the game retains the kind of basic gameplay design that has allowed the franchise to sell over thirty four million copies worldwide. Don’t expect pages of skills or spending hours in deciding on who to bring with you on the next leg of the journey. While this might come as a disappointment to RPG players looking for that kind of detail, DQ8 makes up for this by adding a few wrinkles to the basics making it more than just ‘ye olde RPG’.
Along with the hero, you’ve got Yangus and will eventually get two others to join you on your quest. Learning their strengths and weaknesses will become important as you level and start to focus on the title’s skill system. The skill system in DQ8 allows your erstwhile heroes to learn powerful new abilities and spells that they can call upon in battle or on the road to the next town. As you level, you will earn some points that can be allocated to the collection of skills that each character can develop into. Some skills are shared, some are specific to certain characters, but several of the abilities and spells that you may learn tend to be unique for each member. However, skill points earned as you level are not consistent and while you might have dreams of spreading out your points early on to learn a wide variety of abilities, it might pay to focus on a one or two skills in order to get the best results.
The interface for the game is extremely easy to get into and the manual does an exceptional job in describing what everything does. The usual information can be looked up with a simple flick of the button allowing you to view character status, abilities, and your inventory. Each character has their own limited inventory of items that they can carry with them into battle, but there’s also a communal bag that is also carried along along allowing packrats to keep everything they find without having to worry about it ever getting filled. And the world of DQ8 is brimming over with things to collect. You’ll be able to poke your head into cupboards, closets, smash vases, and open up chests in people’s homes and in the hidden corners of the land as you continue your journey. In a nod to what has almost become a tradition among RPGs, you can keep whatever you find without worrying about someone throwing a fit and in some cases, its encouraged. One side quest involves finding what are called ‘mini medals’ which can be turned in for prizes once you reach a certain point in the game. The more you find, the better the prizes making it something of a habit to smash barrels and urns wherever you find them in DQ8’s version of a world spanning Easter Egg Quest.
You might even find ingredients that you can use with your alchemy pot once it’s working. Eventually, you will have access to this artifact in which you can mix certain items together to make entirely new ones. In addition to the ingredients that you might find dropped in combat by critters or in your ransacking of dungeon and home, you can also read books that might contain recipes for special items or hear of new combinations by just talking to the vast number of NPCs that you will run into. With the right ingredients, recipes, or sheer luck in just playing around with the alchemy pot, you can create some really powerful items that you can’t find anywhere else. To add a further wrinkle, some of the items that you create can be used as ingredients for even more items. And don’t worry about having to break out a notebook to keep track of what recipes you find or accidentally discovered while playing around with the alchemy pot. The game keeps track of that for you.
Combat is also easy to manage. DQ8’s combat is round based where you can give orders to your party members and plan out your next moves. The basic system in DQ8 can take a little getting used to, especially in the beginning. Given how open ended your explorations can be, its also easy to end up too far from “home” in areas where the creatures can quickly turn your party into lunchmeat. For the most part, though, random encounters aren’t so nearly obnoxious as they could be. It’s quite possible to explore for a minute or so before encountering enemies, pushing deeper into dungeons or further along in your run to the next town with little interference. There are also one or two tools or spells that you can use to keep weaker enemies away. For those that thrive on combat, especially in working on leveling their characters, there’s an ability that Yangus can eventually learn that can “whistle” enemies to your group if you don’t feel like running in circles just to monsters to notice you.
When combat starts, in addition to giving them the usual instructions, little tweaks have made fighting more than just a paint-by-the-numbers exercise in mashing the button to keep moving on through the battle. Some of the more brutal confrontations will require some strategy as well as in how best to use what the game calls “tension”.
Tension is generated by your characters as they follow the “Psyche Up” command during battle. This allows them to increase their personal power whether it is to be used for attacks or certain spells. By raising it a few levels, characters can launch truly devastating attacks that can tear through powerful foes in one round or heal the entire party in one go. You can go even further, psyching up your characters until they reach a state of “high tension” allowing them to dish out staggering damage that only bosses can really stand against. Bosses, or metal slimes (yes, they’re back). But that’s not to say that foes will just sit there and let you psyche yourself to whatever limits you want to. If any of your heroes fall asleep or are knocked back from enemy attacks or spells, for example, all of the tension you may have built up for them will evaporate. Later in the game, knowing how best to manage your tension and plan out who is going to be doing what transforms the deceptively simple combat system into one where you’ll be on the edge of your seat trying to stay alive while trying to get each of your characters to cover those who might just save everyone’s lives with one, well placed, high tension strike.
If you’re tired of giving orders and just want to sit back and watch with as little interaction as possible, you can always opt to use the “Tactics” command to let the AI take over their actions. You can have the party focus on healing, attacking with everything they’ve got, raising tension, or fighting wisely. If you prefer to avoid combat, you can also use the “Intimidate” skill to literally scare your enemies away and get on with your journey. They might also drop something as they try to run, or just laugh in your face and attack you instead. King Trode will also have some advice for you if you check out your party’s “Battle Record” which not only keeps track of what kind of monsters you’ve defeated, but what items you have found, how many times you may have died, how many monsters you’ve killed and the distance you’ve covered in the world along with how much time you’ve spent in the game. By the end of the game, I had taken out a few thousand monsters which is either an impressive statistic or a depressing comment.
Aside from combat and alchemy, the world of DQ8 is also waiting for you to explore what it has to offer. NPCs everywhere will have something to say and, with day and night cycles, may do or share something different depending on when you talk to them. In addition to talking to everyone that you can find, you can always turn to your party to hear what kind of advice they may have at the moment for your quest or what they might have to say about where you are at or what you’re doing. Once you get out and start exploring the world by ship or other means, you can ignore the main quest for awhile just to see what’s out there…and when you talk to your party, might find out that one or two of them are wondering what you’re doing in the middle of a desert when you were supposed to head to the next city on the next continent.
Make no mistake, the world of DQ8 is HUGE and there are a lot of things hidden all the way out in the wilderness just waiting for you to find from hidden creatures to lost treasures. You’ll also eventually get a world map that you can use to get an idea of where you are or if there are any towns near by. When you’re in towns or cities, you can bring up another map that will help mark stores and other places of interest for you. As you travel, you’ll literally cover hundreds of miles in the game if you decide to try and tackle most of the side quests that are in there as you explore the world. All of this is viewed through a third person “chase” camera that follows the main character wherever he goes, surrounded by the lush textures and details found everywhere from bloom effects for sunlight coming through windows to the bright pastel colors of the countryside.
There are also a few side quests such as the aforementioned “mini medal” quest. And as you explore the world of DQ8, you will also find monsters standing out in the middle of nowhere just waiting for someone to run right into them. The game is all about random encounters, so seeing one of these beasties out in the open should give you pause and for good reason. Some of these beasts can be taken out easily, others can be far more powerful than the other random monsters that you might run into around them, wiping out your party before you even know what hit you. Defeating these creatures will reward you with monster coins that you can sell, but later in the game, you can eventually recruit these beasties. Finding out how to do this and what you can do with them will open up a host of interesting challenges and options that can dramatically change how you fight your battles.
Saving is handled at churches where you can talk to the priest or nun in charge and ask them to write an adventure log for you to keep your progress. In addition to these locations, there are also banks where you can keep your gold (whenever you and your party are wiped out, you lose half your gold when you are resurrected at the last place you saved at), stores with varying wares, and casinos. At casinos, you can trade in your gold for tokens that can be used to gamble at slot machines, bingo, or roulette. Although tokens can’t be exchanged back for gold, you can trade tokens in for a variety of unique and rare items at the casino’s prize parlor.
Dragon Quest Z
Akira Toriyama, probably best known today for his manga masterpiece in Dragon Ball Z, has also been responsible for all of the character and monster designs for the Dragon Quest series since the beginning and the title has continued this tradition with its debut on the PS2. The world of DQ8 is makes use of cell shaded 3D techniques giving you the impression that you’re walking around in an anime-inspired land filled with bright colors and unique characters. The monster and character designs are nothing short of incredible. Just when you think you’ve seen all that you think you’ve seen in terms of monsters, there’s always something else that will throw you for a curve and leave you scratching your head as to what might have been going through his head when you see your first heligator. Day and night will also affect what you might find wandering about.
The animation work is also a feast for the eyes furthering the impression that you’re part of the animated fairy tale that Yuji Horii and his team have created. Fingers flex, villains preen, pose and sneer, monsters laugh as they attack you, expressions are shown on faces as your team is poisoned or are on their last legs, and special effects shown off in certain scenes lend just the right amount of “gusto” to the characters you might find your party making friends…or foes…with. For anime fans especially fans of Akira Toriyama’s work, the game is a veritable fiesta of visual delight. For RPGers, the presentation only furthers the lighthearted feeling of the story and the world that it takes place in focusing on the fun and the delight buried in every corner of the presentation.
The localization for the voice acting in the title has also created one of the best examples of voice acting to date that I’ve heard in any RPG. The voice acting and translation teams that worked on DQ8 deserve a round of applause. The British voice talent used in the game lent it not only a degree of interesting flavor but I also felt that the dialogue work and the voice characterizations were spot on for pretty much everyone in the game. It was staggering how much spoken speech there was and how much of it actually felt right for the characters that spoke their lines. From King Trode to Yangus, to Prince Charmles and Jessica, your ears will love you for playing this game.
Continuing the aural assault is Koichi Sugiyama’s (http://sugimania.com/) work with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. From the stirring opening to the ending credits, the soundtrack has enough twists and turns in its composition to keep it feeling fresh, fun, dramatic, and tragic. From the opening moves of combat to the smarmy notes following you through the casinos of Pickham and Baccarat, to the awe inspiring presence of Savella Cathedral and the Isle of Neos, the music of DQ8 is fantastic.
A Fairy Tale Journey
As for the story itself, DQ8 has continued the tradition of keeping it fun and light with just the right touch of the dramatic as it drives the player through the title. While it might seem pretty straightforward as to what you have to do in order to lift the curse from the King, Princess, and the Kingdom of Trodain, the layers that are wrapped around the final goal of your quest all have their own stories to tell. Just when you think that you’ve come to the end and the final confrontation, there is another twist that pushes the story even further. It’s a great tale helped by entertaining dialogue, strong voice acting, and entertaining characters. At one point, I had completed part of a quest that I didn’t get yet, but when I finally did the dialogue actually reflected what I had already done complete with an explanation for why we ‘had to keep up appearances’ as we pretended to leave only to come back a minute later. There are also “yes and no” choices that you can interact with and in a nod to the old school, you can sometimes repeat the conversation and see what picking the other choice might lead to.
As mentioned before, the dialogue is extremely well localized and flows smoothly through the game. On the Battle Record screen where King Trode comments on how you’re doing, what he says will change with what your record shows. He’ll comment on how far you’ve traveled, how many monsters you’ve killed, or what you might be doing wrong in combat. Just checking back ot see what he might have to say from time to time became second nature as I played through the game. Checking in with your party just to see what their reactions are or what they would have to say wherever I went was also something that was just as fun, just to see if Angelo was thinking of hitting on the nuns at the Cathedral or if Yangus was thinking about pinching a few coins from a home you might find yourself in. As for the characters that you’ll run into the game, the dialogue worked to make every arrogant word, sneer, dramatic gesture, smiling face, and teeth clenching moment something that was always entertaining. The only person who never speaks or texts anything is the main hero who, when asked to speak, pantomimes the scene as if he is talking without saying anything at all. Some might not like this approach, especially given how everyone has speaking lines and text dialogue, but I thought it worked out very well in the game by keeping that a part of the player’s imagination.
As far as the ending is concerned, it’s interactive. It’s not over yet once the final battle is fought allowing you to interact with the story for a bit more before the final credits roll which is always nice to see. There’s also an alternate ending that you can unlock and continue to play through to rewrite how things may have gone. This isn’t an ending that is hidden beneath layers of unknowns, but an ending that any player can try and unlock if they choose to go after it offering a few more hours of play on top of what you have already done. In addition to an altered ending, it also has its own challenges and special events for you to try out and push your party as far as you think they will be able to go if you choose to just keep playing.
There wasn’t a lot that I didn’t like about DQ8, but there were a few things that could have been polished a bit. The music tends to cut itself out when you go from combat and back to exploring and there are a few delays in the game especially in between many of its transitions. There were times where you were forced to wait several moments such as when after I’d try and get into the menu system for my party after leaving an area as one example.
The camera, for the most part, wasn’t bad but there were times where it would look as if it would zoom in on your head in as it was pushing against a wall forcing you to maneuver it out of the way. For the most part, though, it worked well expecially for many of the in-game cinematics that helped to tell the story.
One thing that some players may not like is that the title has a very anime feel to it. While this might not be a bad thing for most, there might be a few RPGers out there that may not appreciate the kind of anime-like humor that pervades the title. If you’re looking for a serious RPG to play and don’t particularly appreciate the kind of humor found in that kind of medium or the lighthearted tone of the title’s presentation, you might not like DQ8 as much as others. The old school approach that the game is based around may also not be something that some RPGers may particularly be fond of getting into.
And as basic as the gameplay is, while its simplicity is part of the charm there were times when I wished that it could have been a bit more optimized especially in combat group effects. Whenever something affects the group as a whole, the engine goes down the line…one by one…reporting on the effects on each character. Even if it was a group healing spell, it would go down the line and report the results for each one instead of summarizing the effects. Early on, it wasn’t so much of an annoyance but later in the game it could drag on. There’s also no way to change how fast the text can scroll, either. And for the worldmap, it would also have been nice to scroll across while viewing it instead of being locked in on where your party is. This is all minor nitpicking, though, and didn’t adversely affect how much fun I still had with the title.
There are over a hundred hours of pure adventure waiting for players in DQ8. And after all that, was it worth it? You bet it was. Not only did both endings feel rewarding with the alternate one capping off one of the best RPGs that I’ve played through in a long time, but the experience as a whole was simply a joy to play through.
With a great story backed by entertaining characters, simple gameplay mechanics, and a uniquely fun presentation that makes every fight and twist in the story an exciting experience, DQ8 is a lighthearted romp through a fairy tale land riddled with intrigue, villains, turncoats, and some of the most unlikely heroes that you will have the pleasure to know. It’s a celebration of an old school console RPG formula tempered into an experience that dungeon crawlers everywhere can enjoy as they follow the Journey of the Cursed King to the ends of the world in one of the greatest adventures of genre in 2005.