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Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (PlayStation 2)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168605)
Written on  :  Mar 29, 2006
Platform  :  PlayStation 2
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Cor blimey! That there bloke really 'as a sense o' 'umour, like!

The Good

I've never been a fan of Dragon Quest series. Despite my respect towards Dragon Quest IV and my love to Dragon Quest V (the game with one of the best musical scores ever), I could never relate to most of the series' offerings. I never had interest in the first three Dragon Quest games, and when I saw they were repeating the same old stuff over and over in the seventh game, I thought my relationship with the franchise was over. I was more than skeptical about "Dragon Quest VIII".

Now you probably expect me to write something like "But oh! How wrong I was! How very, very wrong!!". Well, like Wayne Shorter would say, Yes and No. I did fall in love with "Dragon Quest VIII", but not unconditionally.

But first things first: the good stuff, of which there's plenty. The first thing I noticed was the unusually (for a Japanese RPG) high quality of the dialogues. It is possible that all the praise should go to the translators. Finally, characters speak naturally. The choice of words is sometimes surprisingly good. Different characters use different styles of speech. Unlike many other cases, non-Japanese players got a decidedly better version of the game this time. The original Japanese version didn't have voice-overs; the English one has, for all cut scenes. And let me tell you, those voice-overs are really good! I was so used to mediocre voice acting in Japanese RPGs that I absolutely didn't expect such quality. Non-Japanese publishers have a nasty history of not translating the best Dragon Quest games at all; now they are back with a vengeance. Bravo.

I think the biggest attraction of "Dragon Quest VIII" is the charm that it oozes. It is one of the few humorous RPGs out there; not entirely humorous like the new Bard's Tale or even Tengai Makyou, but with enough warm, kind humor to warrant a charming face. It doesn't laugh; it smiles.

The characters are stereotypical: sturdy barbarian with a tender soul, super-sexy magic-casting girl with an attitude, etc. Only now the game acknowledges from time to time that those characters are clichés, and for that reason emphasizes their comical side. Yangus, undeniably a charming fellow, is just so damn understanding and loyal for an ex-bandit (not to forget that his special skill set is called "Humanity"!); Jessica is as determined and straightforward as only a really sexy girl can be; Angelo goes over the top with his love for pretty women; king Trode never forgets that he is the king, even though he looks like a poor green monster, and so on. The characters in this game are a bit like those characteristic puppets in old Italian comedy.

Humorous elements even sneaked into the battles. Some of the enemies include a Lonely Soul who cannot decide what to do, a "gorerilla" who contemplates over the situation - which means scratching the head and doing nothing, and a puppeteer who performs a funny tale and makes your party laugh - but if the spell misses, the character in question just "doesn't get the joke". Not to forget Jessica's "sex appeal" skills...

The game has wonderful cel-shaded graphics which are so much unlike your usual animé stuff. The characters look funny, but not in the traditional super-deformed, "cute" way. The game has its own visual style which is remarkably consistent. Everything is bright and colorful, but at the same time has a warm, soft, fairy-tale- like feel. The animations are simply fantastic and extremely natural.

Many decisions concerning the graphical part of the game were right. They replaced the usual disproportional world maps and accessible locations with a seemless world. The world map itself became a location. When you go out of town, you know you aren't just a dot on a map: the world lies in front of you, ready to be explored. Another right decision was the optional usage of first-person view. You want to look up, down, to the sides, to raise your head and watch how the sun rises behind the horizon, to close-up on a particularly interesting person, just to take a break and look around. I really don't understand why so many Asian RPGs stubbornly refuse to let you control the camera, resulting in such atrocities as for example the fixed camera in Magna Carta.

On the musical side, the game shines as well. Once again, the music of Koichi Sugiyama becomes an inseparable part of the game. It is a classical RPG. It is set in classical medieval Europe-like world. And it has classical music! With inspirations that go all the way to Bach and Mozart, with even a bit of Mahler thrown in, the music of "Dragon Quest VIII" is just perfect for the game. Like with the remakes of the fourth and fifth game, the melodies are so catchy, and the harmonies so enchanting. And of course, the music is fully orchestrated.

Now we are coming to the gameplay... No, don't get me wrong. It's good. It's even fun, if you have enough patience and "respect for traditions" - whatever it means. But the problem is...

The Bad

...that it's basically the same old game in a new dress.

When I was playing "Dragon Quest VIII" I often thought that maybe I was magically transferred into an alternate universe in which innovations in video game development were forbidden by a totalitarian government around 1988, and all subsequent games had to be tailored according to whatever had been released before. Sure, most Japanese RPGs are conservative as all hell. But at least some of them try to add all kinds of smaller stuff to the omnipresent "I hit you, you hit me" turn-based madness. All "Dragon Quest VIII" adds is a rudimentary and unsatisfying skill system. Beside that, it offers absolutely nothing new. It has your most basic, most primitive version of a turn-based - no, check that - round-based combat. How do you develop your characters in this RPG? Do you at least accumulate some special points, choose to learn your own spells, build up different parties? No. You level up. You fight random monsters and you level up. The same thing you did in countless other games without anything to make it more interesting. It really amazes me every time I encounter this phenomenon, but apparently that's what the fans want. They rave over the newest game in their beloved series whenever it has exactly the same gameplay as one released sixteen (!) years ago.

The story in "Dragon Quest VIII" is more of an afterthought; the stories of fourth and fifth games were clearly better. I don't expect every Japanese RPG to make references to Nietzsche and occult Judaism, but I do want more interesting characters, plot twists, and suspense.

The Bottom Line

So there you are. The bloody game made me write and re-write this sodding review too many times. Why? Because I couldn't decide whether it was great or a pain in my ass. So now I decided it was both.

Gameplay-wise, "Dragon Quest VIII" is a toothless reproduction of a simplistic, sleep-inducing stone age system. And story-wise, it just doesn't do enough to make me forget that I'm actually playing a glorified version of the first Wizardry with a lot of make-up.

But... (and that's a very big "but"). "Dragon Quest VIII" has a soul. And that's what ultimately matters in my book. It's beautiful, it sounds right, and it has charm and personality that make me clench my teeth and endure the battles, because I want to see more, I want to stay in this world and find out how the whole thing ended.

By the way, I really hate this whole "back to the roots" business. Game developers should be looking forwards, not backwards, to please fans who want to play the same game over and over again. But in this case - go ahead. Your charm was just too much to resist.

You know wot I'm talkin' about, eh, guv?