Thursday, March 02, 2006

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King review

It's been a while but finally it's time for me to share my thoughts of Dragon Quest VII: Journey of the Cursed King for the PS2. I am also introducing a new more detailed ratings system with this review and splitting the review into several different criteria. Without further ado, let's get on with the review shall we?

Format: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Level 5
Genre: Turn based RPG
Region: NTSC (USA)
Price: Around £10

The Dragon Quest (or Dragon Warrior) series is one of the pioneers of the console RPG scene. Together with the Final Fantasy games in the mid 80's, it set the template for the entire genre that followed. Unfortunately, apart from the occasional US release that was appreciated by fans but pretty much overlooked by everyone else, western gamers have had to go without. At last Square-Enix have seen the error of their ways, as the US release of DQ8 shows. It is actually even better than the Japanese game, due to a soundtrack that has been completely performed by a full orchestra (the Tokyo Philharmonic no less), a brilliant localisation, and improved menu's. Not only that, but Square-Enix recently announced that it is going to be released in Europe, which marks the very first time that we have ever received a game in the series. I beg, urge, plead, beseech, implore you to go out and buy a copy of this game if you are in any way interested in the RPG genre and a PS2 owner. It was incredibly close to being my favourite game of 2005 (and if it wasn't for Resident Evil 4, it would have been).

Graphics: 10 out 10
As you can see from the screenshots, DQ8 looks amazing. After around 70 hours of playing the game though, you will be even more in awe of what Level 5 has managed to produce on the aging PS2. It's the attention to detail that really grabbed me. In other games that feature huge worlds where you're free to go where you want, such as World of Warcraft, the sense of realism is let down by the repetition of the architecture. Every Night Elf settlement is basically made up of the exact same building, for example.

In DQ8 though, every town has been created thoughtfully by hand, so each inn, church, shop, or whatever looks different to all the others. Even decorative items like paintings, carpets, and flowers blowing in the wind have been painstakingly placed down, which makes the world feel real, and makes you want to explore the world all the more to find out what surprises lie around the next corner.

There is also a wide variety of monsters to encounter, ranging from the creepy to the silly, and each one has their own range of attack animations. Really and truly, the graphics is the main area that DQ8 differs from all the other games in the series. Everything else about the game has been left intact, but Level 5 has brought the series visually right up to date at the cutting edge of what you can achieve on the PS2.

Sound and Music: 10 out of 10

Yes, that's right, another 10 out 10. Get used to it folks, this game really is that good. To be honest though, you may not agree with me on this one if you absolutely hate classical music. That's not to say I'm a classical fan boy, but when it is appropriate and done as well as it is here, a composition of a more symphonic nature really enhances the overall product. Noisy death metal or hip hop just wouldn't have worked. The music does tend to repeat a little bit (which is hardly surprising given the games length) but personally I never got tired of it.

Square-Enix went above and beyond the call of duty when they localised DQ8 for the American audience. Whereas other lesser companies may have been content just to translate the text (sometimes extremely badly), S-E not only enlisted the talents of the Tokyo Philharmonic to rerecord the score, but they also hired the UK studio Side. Thanks to Side's commitment to delivering quality voice work and finding new voice talent for each project, the characters in DQ8 really come alive. My particular favourite is Yangus, who kind of sounds like a seedier version of Bob Hoskins. The only voice that can tend to grate after a while is King Trode, but by the end I even found him quite likeable.

As for sound effects, Level 5 took the clever approach of keeping the classic effects from the old NES and SNES Dragon Quest games, which helps cement the feeling that Level 5 haven't just created an RPG and slapped on he Dragon Quest name, but they've really looked at what made the old games so special and somehow managed to capture the essence and reproduce it here in this game. This feeling is present in every aspect of the game, from the monsters, the music, the wondrous world, right through the menus and battle system. It really is one of the greatest 2D to 3D transitions the gaming world has ever seen (up there with Zelda Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64 and Metroid Prime in my opinion).

The amount of detail present on the character models still impress today despite the prevelance of HD.

Plot and Character: 8 out of 10
only has four playable characters, which is considerably less than most modern RPG's. However, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, far from it. What is allowed Level 5 to do is focus more on those characters and give them enough depth for the player to form a connection with them. Alongside the hero, Yangus, Jessica and Angelo are King Trode and the princess, however. These two characters are the catalyst for the whole plot - when the kingdom of Trodain is cursed by the jester Dhoulmagus, they set out to try and track him down and reverse the evil effects of the curse. These include turning King Trode into a green toad-like thing and the princess into a horse, as well as covering Trodain Castle in vines and turning the population into stone.

The main character is a member of the royal guard and the only other person apart from the King and Princess not to be turned to stone. He valiantly agrees to continue to protect the royal family on their journey across the world, and reformed criminal Yangus decides to go with him. Yangus has a habit of calling the main character "Guv" all the time, and it is clear that some event in the past ties the two together. Along the journey the party will encounter Jessica, a spirited and "well endowed" young woman who is adept at magic, and Angelo, an orphaned Templar Knight.

While the plot is rather traditional and it doesn't really hold that many surprises for experienced RPG players, the colourful characters are more than enough to sustain your interest. As well as the main six I've already mentioned, you will also meet people like Morrie (owns a Monstrous Pit) and many many others throughout all the towns you will explore. There is definitely something of a storybook charm to the plot, it's like a lost Grimm Fairy Tale.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
sticks with the tried and true random encounter model for initiating battles, which some players can find rather tiresome but I don't really have a problem with. The only time it can be a nuisance is when you need to go out or go to bed and you're trying to get back to somewhere that you can save, and the pesky monsters keep attacking you.

The battle system itself initially seems rather basic but the further you get into the game the deeper it gets. It's a traditional turn based set up whereby you tell each character what to do and then sit back and watch as both parties take turns whacking each other. As the characters level up you have to decide which of four areas you want to level your characters in, which differs depending on the character. For examples, Jessica has Whips, Fists, two other weapons which I forget... and Sex Appeal. I personally spent half of my points in a particular weapon proficiency and the other half in each character unique ability - in this case Sex Appeal. As her sexiness got higher, more and more monsters would simply stop and stare longingly at her instead of attacking. Brilliant!

Then there is the tension gauge, which can be increased up to 100 and muliplies the amount of damage you can do to an enemy. Combined with Jessica's Oomph spell this can be devastating, and is a great help against many of the bosses. Don't think you can simply use the same technique all the way through the game though, as quite a few bosses have a special move which wipes out any positive status effects on your party in one go.

Before buying the game I had heard how tough it is, and it very nearly put me off buying it. I'm glad I put my fears aside however, as while the game is indeed difficult, it is fairly so. This means that as long as you don't skip battles, keep your equipment up to date and keep your wits about you, most battles can be won without too much hassle. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security however as even some of the lowliest monsters have abilities than can kill your party members instantly.

One thing that did irritate me about the mechanics of the game though is the menu and inventory. I just found it a bit cumbersome do use and not as well designed as it could have been. Apparently it has already been improved since the Japanese version, but on this evidence not quite enough.

All in all Dragon Quest VIII is very much a traditional RPG under the hood. There are a few new ideas to help give the old formula a bit of spice but most of the mechanics can be traced back all the way to the first game in the series. This is by no means a bad thing, as it helps the game keep the feel of the series that has made it so special to fans over the years. It may be a bit harsh for those just starting out in the world of RPG's however.

All four playable characters: Yangus, the hero, Jessica, and Angelo

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10DQ8 doesn't score all the highly on the innovation front - like I said before most of what you can find here has already been done elsewhere in the genre, or even the same game series. What makes DQ8 unique though is the sheer polish and attention to detail the developers have lavished upon it. It runs throughout everything - the graphics, the music, the voice over work, the length of the game, the plot and its side quests. A Final Fantasy game may look pretty, but it can't compete with the professional job done here. These things considered I believe DQ8 deserves a 7 in this category, not because it's particularly innovative, but because of the clever way it pulls everything off.

Value and Replayability: 9 out of 10
DQ8 took me 73 hours to complete. 73 hours! I can't remember a game that took me that long before (Skies of Arcadia comes close at around 60 but still doesn't quite match DQ8 for sheer size). Now if half of those hours were spent wading through tedious gameplay, then the game may as well have been half as long. However, for me at least, DQ8 managed the difficult task of remaining fun to play all the way through to the end (and beyond).

This 73 hour run did include some side quests, but I'm fairly certain I didn't do all of them. The main side quest in the game is the Monster Arena, where you can defeat certain special monsters in the overworld and recruit them in your personal Monster Team. Like in other RPG's that feature a monster arena (Arc the Lad 2 for example) you don't have direct control of the monsters themselves, so you just have to sit by and hope that the monsters are strong enough/clever enough to defeat three other teams on their own. Moving up through the ranks gives you various benefits, including many specials items, and the ability to summon your monster team in regular combat, which can be very useful indeed against the more vicious bosses in the game. The owner of the Monster Area, or Monstrous Pit as he refers to it, is one of the most colourful character in the game, and even side characters like him are given the full voice over treatment.

Then we have the Mini Medals, which have been a staple in the DQ series for many years now. You can find these things every where throughout the world in chests, pots, barrels and bags, and you can trade them in for special equipment at Minnie's Castle. This encourages you to thoroughly explore the game world (as if the beautiful graphics weren't enough encouragement) and seek out every last one. Trust me, the later items really make the task worthwhile.

While this is truly an amazing game, one of the best the PS2 has ever seen, whether you will come back and play it again is debatable. This is mainly down to the huge size of the game. Maybe in a year or two you will come back and play it again, but personally I hardly ever play the same RPG again, unless it's one I really love (Skies of Arcadia and Shenmue being examples).

Overall: 9 out of 10
While there are a few niggles with the menu's and the challenging, lengthy nature of the game could well be off putting for some, I have no doubt that this will be remembered as one of the crowning glories of the PS2 era. The quality of Final Fantasy X doesn't even come close to this game. So what if it doesn't really shake up the classic Dragon Quest formula? That's not what fans of the series want. Level 5, Yuji Horii and Square Enix have worked miracles with this game, producing breathtaking visuals and sound, backed up by deep and absorbing gameplay. If you're looking for a quality quest for the PS2 to get your teeth into, there are many choices available, but Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King should be at the top of the list.

1 comment:

Calvin said...

Great write up!

Bummed I missed out on this one. Perhaps it will come out as downloadable on the PS3 or can I pray for an iOS port?