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Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

Dragon Quest's first non-remake Playstation 2 entry was a surprisingly big event, going on to become the series' best-selling title outside of Japan (until XI broke the record years later) and garnering quite a bit of acclaim even among those who barely paid attention to the franchise beforehand.  But was this just because people were hoping Square Enix would prove their worth in the RPG arena again after several baffling missteps, or was there a genuinely good game to be found here as well? 

Dragon Quest as a franchise of course needs no introduction, especially for Japanese gamers - it's pretty much their bread-and-butter over there, selling millions of copies with each entry and most stores famously refusing to sell it on weekdays so kids don't cut class to go buy it. It never had quite the same impact in the west, though. While the original game was notable for having some 400,000 copies given away as an incentive to subscribe to Nintendo Power magazine, the franchise was mostly relegated to niche status throughout the NES era and got no western releases at all during the period when JRPGs started to get big. Yep, while games Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasies 6 through 9 and Breath of Fire were making bank, Dragon Quest got zero representation from Enix. Well, aside from a late and little-promoted release of VII on the Playstation 1 which was met with middling reviews and mediocre sales.

However, after Enix merged with Square, they would make another attempt at turning Dragon Quest into a household name in the west.  They commissioned Level-5 - a newcomer hot off their success with Dark Cloud 1 and 2 - to develop it, and under them the series saw a significant upgrade.  Formerly noted for its relatively low production budget and minimal animation that stuck with it even up to the Playstation 1, Dragon Quest VIII moved the series into true 3D, with colorful and lushly-detailed environments, well-animated and expressive character models, and a cel-shaded visual style very similar to Dark Cloud 2's that gives the game the look and feel of a well-produced anime. For the western release they went even further, adding CD-quality orchestral music and full voice-over for plot scenes - a major leap over the Japanese version which had comparatively dull synth music and didn't feature any voice acting at all. Dragon Quest VIII also reaped the benefit of a heavy promotional campaign, being released alongside a limited edition controller shaped like the series' iconic Slime enemies and having commercials aired on channels like Cartoon Network and Spike TV.  As a result, the game ultimately sold around 650,000 copies in North America and another 750,000 in Europe - fairly low next to Japan's 3.6 million, but certainly not a bad showing for a series western gamers had been largely apathetic about for so long.

Dragon Quest's fundamental design remains relatively unchanged - turn based, random battles (though thankfully, the rate at which they appear is relatively subdued compared to some earlier titles), and a group of prefab characters on a journey to - what else - save the world from evil.  It doesn't have the clever narrative gimmicks of some earlier titles, like 4's chapters that follow different characters or 5 following several generations of a bloodline, but what's there is well-told and memorable thanks to its strongly-written characters and a solid sense of humor.  It also has a relatively small cast of four playable characters (with two more added in the 3DS version), though each is quite distinct and can be customized over the course of the game - a welcome fat-trimming after the two previous games became somewhat notorious for their rather bloated design and extremely overwrought class systems.  Each character can put points into one of four weapon skills, which will give passive bonuses when wielding them and unlock new techniques (spells for staves), and each also has one unique skill category, which generally adds new special abilities and passive bonuses.  For example, the hero can use swords, spears, boomerangs or fisticuffs, and his unique Courage skill gives him useful utility spells that let him instantly return to visited locations, cure negative statuses or reduce MP cost of all of his spells.  Some of these are humorously overpowered, too - Jessica's Twin Dragon Lash (in the Whips category) is famously one of them, hitting twice for 1.5 times the damage of a normal attack and costing only 3 MP (nerfed in the 3DS version to 0.9 times).  Points also cannot be recovered once spent, so one should consider carefully before committing to a particular build for a character.
A new mechanic for this entry is "Tension", which basically lets you save up energy for a turn (or several) to give your attacks or spells significantly more punch - great for dealing with enemies that have very high defense and would just absorb normal-powered blows, or getting more mileage out of MP used for healing magic.  Saving up for one turn will give your next one a 1.7x multiplier, and up to four will give you a whopping 5x effect, letting you deal devastating damage or heal your party very efficiently. Later in the game one unlocks the ability to randomly enter Super High Tension, where a character basically buffs up Dragon Ball Z style and gets a whopping 7.5x multiplier instead.  However, most later bosses have a move called "Disruption Wave" that will instantly dispel any stored tension, so relying solely on Tension-buffed attacks is a very poor strategy.

Dragon Quest VIII also features a crafting element in the form of the Alchemy Pot.  By speaking to King Trode after a certain point in the story, you can combine two or three items together to create a new one; everything from stronger medicine to weapons and armor (in fact, some of the best pieces of equipment in the game can only be created this way).  Experimenting with various items can sometimes yield good results, but your best bet is generally to explore towns, checking bookshelves whenever you can to learn new recipes.

But of course, no PS2 RPG is complete without side content.  The series' trademark game-spanning search for mini-medals is back once again, ensuring that you'll be searching every corner of dungeons for treasure chests and smashing every piece of pottery you can for them, as they can be turned in to unlock all sorts of useful rewards.  There is once again a casino where you can gamble for coins to trade for rare and useful treasures, and even a side dungeon or two to explore.  Probably the most substantial one overall is the Monster Arena - after a certain point in the story, you gain the ability to track down and defeat "Infamous monsters", which can then be pitted against progressively tougher fights in the arena to win rare prizes.  While not as deep as something like PokΓ©mon (or even the spinoff series Dragon Quest Monsters), it's nonetheless a fun little diversion.

Dragon Quest VIII may not be the deepest RPG ever made, or even the deepest one within its own franchise.  However, what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in presentation, taking the franchise into true 3D and utilizing a cartoony, fun visual style that makes its vast environments a joy to explore.  The characters themselves benefit from this as well, having very expressive animations and personalities that play off one another brilliantly throughout.  Dragon Quest's defining element - the impeccable level of polish in its mechanics - definitely does not suffer under Level-5's watch either, with a surprising amount of strategy and planning being required to overcome many of its challenges, and relatively few abilities that feel grotesquely overpowered or totally useless.  A charming, well-made adventure that easily ranks among the finest on both PS2 and 3DS, as well as one of Level-5's best games to date.

Developer: Level-5 (PS2), Square Enix (Mobile/3DS)
Publisher: Square Enix, Nintendo
Platform: Playstation 2, Android, iOS, Nintendo 3DS
Released: 2005, 2014, 2017
Recommended version: The 3DS port has some added content, including two new playable characters, and you can see dungeon maps at any time on the second screen, whereas you have to go to a separate screen for them on the PS2 version.  This version also features visible enemies instead of random encounters, and battles can be sped up to make mundane fights quicker.  It doesn't have quite as nice graphics (running at a lower resolution and missing some lighting effects) and it sadly loses the orchestral score of the US PS2 release, though it does at least feature a higher-quality synth soundtrack than the Japanese PS2 version.