A very welcome poison.
By John Robertson
Some re-releases feel like the return of a welcome old friend, others like an unwanted school reunion with old acquaintances who peaked long ago. Thankfully, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King is a roleplaying game that remains as worthwhile and wonderful as it was in 2005. the core premise and structure still hold strong, and are further improved by some well-implemented new features.
Fundamentally, this is a Japanese RPG of the most recognisable type. The turn-based battle system does little that you’ve not seen in countless other games, the quality of the writing ebbs and flows from the weirdly charming to charmingly weird and back again, and there’s a familiar nature to the way you travel between towns, dungeons, and open environments crawling with enemies.
What sets this adventure apart from the majority of its peers, including those that have come since its initial PlayStation 2 debut, is the skill with which everything is produced and sewn together. Not a single element feels out of place, and not a feature is wasted in the quest to deliver a game that demonstrates just how gratifying the traditional structure of a JRPG can be. Everything from the visuals to the writing, the battles to the world map layout has been produced and delivered with a flair and skill that can come only from its designers understanding precisely the framework within which they’re working.
Take the character design, for instance, which is nothing short of incredible and surely represents some of famed designer Akira Toriyama’s best work. This is the man responsible for drawing characters in everything from Dragon Ball Z to Chrono Trigger, with the Dragon Quest VIII cast adhering to the same exacting standards of quality.
Much of the reason why this game manages to continue to feel so enticing and ageless comes down to that character design, the cel-shaded art style, and the bold, almost rainbow-like color palette proving themselves immune to the dulling effects of time.This quality of design helps to embed each character with a unique persona before they’ve even opened their mouths. Yangus is stumpy and round, conveying his rough, inelegant personality while the sometimes pompous, arrogant Angelo has a trendy, elaborate fashion sense to match.
Characterization is further enhanced by full voice acting, some of which is new to this release, the constant presence of which adds more weight to the brilliant English-language localization. There’s a slapstick quality to much of the voice work, which highlights and embellishes the humour-heavy script in a manner that is in keeping with the ridiculousness of the central storyline.
This 80-hour plus offering is one that begins with the conceit that you need to travel the world to investigate how to break a spell that has transformed the king of the land of Trodain into a small green troll and the princess into a large white horse. It’s a setup that wouldn’t feel out of place in Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Monty Python, or Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure – albeit with (generally) more swords and dragons.
The central plot is not the primary reason to lose yourself in the narrative, that instead comes down to the fantastic dialogue and the entertaining character interactions. Really, this is a game about unlikely partnerships and relationships and how very different people are able to look beyond their differences and work towards a goal that would be unattainable for any individual. This is a story about characters more than it is about plot.
An option to play through battles at fast-forward speeds has been added, and it’s a great feature that takes into consideration the portable nature of the 3DS. Those relatively brief moments on bus and train journeys can be taken up with progressing through dungeons quickly rather than waiting for animations to play out. This comes in particularly handy if you’re spending time grinding to level up in anticipation of a tough boss fight.
Other than that time-saving option, the biggest alteration to the way battles work is that encounters are no longer random. In the original release, monsters attacked without warning, as they do in Pokemon and Final Fantasy VII, but here you see them moving out in the open and therefore decide whether or not to engage, as in Ni No Kuni and Final Fantasy XV.
This has a marked change on the overall pacing in that, in effect, you’re given governance over how often you draw your sword. If you come to the conclusion that you’d rather not engage in combat, perhaps because you’re low on health and out of medical supplies, then you can take a route towards a town or other safe haven that avoids conflict.
Ultimately, it pays to fight as often as you can in order to move up the levels and become more powerful. Still, having the option to hobble safely back to town with my tail between my legs rather than losing progress is a welcome one, and itmakes me feel more in charge of my own moment-to-moment destiny.
Battles themselves are simple turn-based affairs that ask you to intelligently decide between whether to attack or defend in any given moment. Exploration forces you to think about the trade-off between potential rewards for moving forward and the risk of dying and having to retrace your footsteps. In continuously presenting these little decisions, Dragon Quest VIII kept me interested and on my toes, whilst topping off these mini-conflicts with a comedy script that fills regular pauses in the action with levity.
These new features represent a sweetener to the package, but they’re not the real reason to invest your time into Dragon Quest VIII. Just as it was over a decade ago, it’s a grand example of how you can add value to a genre without necessarily breaking any of its rules.
If you’ve played the PlayStation 2 original then it’s worth stepping back in not only as a remembrance of just why it was so good the first time around, but because it’s still great today.. If you’re new to this goofy adventure then it’s an excellent example of how much traditional JRPGs still have to give. No matter your level of familiarity, the bottom line is that Dragon Quest VIII is still as entertaining today as it was in 2005.