Review: Dragon Quest VIII

(Note: This review originally appeared at Game-Vixen.com in 2006.)

For the first 10 hours, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King was one of the best RPGs I’d ever played. But I started to have my doubts about it as the pace of the story slowed down. By hour 30, I was just hoping that the game would end soon.

After more than 75 hours of gameplay, I finally completed the interminable game. I couldn’t get the disc out of my PS2 fast enough.

For fans of the Dragon Quest series, this game was a long time coming. The seventh installment in the series, called Dragon Warrior VII in the U.S., was released in 2001 on the original Playstation. To many Dragon Quest fans, the opportunity to spend up to 100 hours playing the latest title must have been considered a gift. But for those of us new to the series, Dragon Quest VIII is an awful introduction.

As the subtitle suggests, the characters in the game search for a way to reverse a curse placed upon a king (and his daughter) by an evil magician. Like most every console RPG, the characters eventually discover that the immediate problem is part of a larger catastrophe that could destroy the world.

Plenty of games have been successful using this story formula. Final Fantasy VII is perhaps the best example of a local issue blooming into a worldwide crisis. But the heart of every Final Fantasy game is its characters, and Dragon Quest VIII simply doesn’t have the heart.

The lead character in the series is The Hero. He’s a guy without a pre-set name, and the player never hears him speak. This technique is not uncommon in Japanese games, but it’s a little jarring for American audiences. It can be hard to get swept up in a story in which lead character is mute. (Not always *cough* Chrono Trigger *cough*, but often.)

We meet The Hero as he’s traveling with the title’s cursed king, Trode (who’s been turned into Yoda’s less sexy brother), the princess Medea (now in horse form), and a reformed thug, Yangus. Along the way, the party is joined by adventurers Jessica and Angelo, who are also looking for the magician that cursed Trode, for their own reasons.

These characters are united by a common goal, but they don’t seem joined by friendship. If the Final Fantasy series has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t do anything without your buddies. Jessica, Angelo, Yangus, and the voiceless Hero rarely interact unless it’s to discuss where the magician’s trail leads next.

Also crippling the characters’ interactions is the incredibly slow-paced voice acting. Nearly everyone speaks as though talking to their 90-year-old grandmother. It ruins the pacing of the game and encourages players to hit the ‘X’ button just to skip the talking and speed things up — a shame, since the quality of the voice acting is otherwise very good.

The story speeds along through its early hours, as Jessica and Angelo join the party, but then stalls out as the characters are forced to undertake numerous pointless sidequests. Find the magic mirror, cheer up the depressed king, find this lady’s son — all as part of the main storyline. Sidequests are fine if they reveal something about the story or are optional tasks, but in Dragon Quest VIII, they don’t and they aren’t.

Along the way, strange things happen that the player can assume are part of a larger mystery, but the story takes too long to reveal what the mystery is. None of the characters even acknowledge that something bigger is going on until almost two-thirds of the way through the game. Revealing the mystery at that late stage without much build-up makes it nearly impossible to provide a satisfying conclusion.

Sound
The game’s best feature is its music. It’s absolutely beautiful and entirely orchestral, sounding like a professional film score. Despite frequent repetition of the overworld, town, and battle themes, I never grew sick of the compositions.

Graphics
Rather than aiming for something realistic and winding up in the uncanny valley, Dragon Quest VIII is straight cel-shaded cartoon. The characters are cute without being cutesy, and the landscape is colorful and inviting.

Gameplay
One of the nice things about Dragon Quest VIII, at least early on, is that the battle system is fairly simple, especially compared with other RPGs. Though you always have precise control over The Hero’s actions, the other characters have autopilot options, which can be switched on and off throughout each battle. It’s refreshing to be able to choose whether you want to take your time micromanaging your characters, or whether you simply set them to automatically beat the tar out of the bad guys.

The character improvement system is simple, too. Apart from allotting a few skill points at each level, most character building is done by upgrading weapons and armor, which can be bought at shops or created by combining items found throughout the game.

Although the easy gameplay features are nice, they also emphasize the weakness of the plot. Eventually, every non-boss battle becomes nothing more complicated or interesting than a couple minutes of pressing the ‘X’ button until it’s over. But you need to grind and endure as many of those battles as you can, just to ensure your characters have enough experience to survive the fights that really matter. Unfortunately, those fights, and the plot advancements that surround them, are far too infrequent.

RPGs like Xenosaga have shown that stripped-down gameplay can be successful when paired with a compelling story. And games like Disgaea have proven that complex gameplay can keep a player’s attention for over a hundred hours, even with a thin storyline.

But Dragon Quest VIII, with its plodding plot and simple battles, ultimately makes for a tedious gaming experience.

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