Dragon Quest is what Doom is to the FPS: the granddaddy of 'em all. And just as Doom sparked a craze and clones in the West, Quest practically gave birth to the RPG obsession in the East. (You know you're onto a winner when the government bans a weekday launch of your latest epic due to fears of mass truancy.) Unfortunately Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King is as stereotyped and as clichéd as they come.
Shallow is the word here: the story is simplistic, the combat insipid, and the characters are as dull as dishwater. Instead of freshening up the genre it inspired, The Cursed King panders to the hardcore fans who'll buy anything with the words "Dragon Quest" emblazoned upon a glossy surface. This, however, is what destroys the extremely lengthy game.
The story involves a mute guard (your aviator, known as Hero) who's accompanying King Trode (who's been transformed into a troll-like creature) and his daughter-turned-horse as they journey across the vast land looking for the evil Jester responsible for their disastrous makeovers. Along the way you'll be accompanied by a merry band of RPG stereotypes. Yangus the ogre-like, cockney brawler whose loyalty to the Hero is only beaten by his loyalty to stretching his waistline. Jessica the feisty, busty, revenge-seeking, whip-cracking, sexy female. And finally Angelo, the pretty, rich, orphan playboy who's only interested in three things: women, gambling, and himself.
As they all search for the Jester, all with their own reasons for wanting him dead, you come to realize that the story lacks any real depth. There are no political messages or moral lessons to be learned; the boundaries of race, sexuality, and religious beliefs are never pushed; nor are there any parodies made of real-life issues surrounding us today.
Some may argue that as a fantasy title, its main goal is to act as a form of escapism from real world drama. While valid, another point must be considered: RPGs wish to tell a story, and becoming emotionally attached to your on-screen persona is vital. But if they don't experience any real struggle or hardships or evoke feelings that we can relate to, then they are nothing more than manikins reading a truly awful script.
The voice acting while fine for the most part falls short when it comes to the majority of NPCs. I wanted to be moved by the story and left with a sense of awe, not cringing at that immaturity of it all. The ribbing between Yangus and King Trode is a welcome touch of humor, but it never brings the lackluster story to life. The emotional bonds and friendships are nonexistent and after a while you actually forget about some of the characters in your team.
The original Japanese midi soundtrack has been replaced by a fully orchestrated piece for Western consumption. While it does add a grand, Tolkien-esque flavor, for some bizarre reason most tracks unashamedly play in a constant, annoying loop. This adds to the same old, same old feel of the game.
The visuals are, however, simply breathtaking. The astonishing cel-shaded world and its inhabitants are brought to life in gorgeous 3D thanks in part to its lead character designer Akira Toriyama (of Dragon Ball Z fame). The world is huge to boot as well, with waterfalls interspersed between vast forests, barren desert lands, and icy snow worlds.
Here, though, the real problems begin. The game world, as vast as it is, is largely empty. You are constantly shoehorned down a narrow, linear path with no freedom to do as you please. The structure is as old fashioned as they come: city followed by dungeon, then a town, back to a dungeon again, repeat. There are little in the way of side quests (or any that are actually worth completing) and no mini-games to distract you. The world may look rich, but it never immerses you completely. Most of the level designs are easy enough to navigate, but every so often a castle or dungeon will come along that's too confusing to navigate sans strategy guide. Thus making progression nearly impossible.
The biggest and most obvious flaw, which in this day and age is simply inexcusable, is the game-ruining random battles. In 1986 it may have been acceptable, 20 years later there can be no excuses for its continued presence. It's bad enough that you aren't allowed to choose when and where you're going to fight, but this is made worse by the inability to escape some battles. On numerous occasions my whole party was wiped out all because the game wouldn't allow me to flee. The frustration is compounded by the fact that, after you're resurrected, you're forced to start from your last save point, all of your progress is lost, and half of your cash is taken as a sort of fee or penalty. Not only does this kill any ambition to explore, it also leaves you weakened and disorientated for the forthcoming boss battles.
The game wants you to fight but not much else. Sadly the battling is hardly inspiring, or enjoyable for that matter. It's all just traditional turn-based combat which never tests your tactical wisdom. There is no real strategy required or any depth to be found. And while the game does reward you with skill points after every level gained, you must be careful how you assign them: allocating these points in the wrong slots could render the game impossible to complete. That is, unless, you want to devote even more precious time correcting your error.
It's a cheap tactic to lengthen the game, but you have no choice when you consider the ridiculous difficulty level and the ludicrously expensive items needed. Rather then giving us a huge game world where we can adventure at our own pleasure, we're forced to play how developers Level 5 wishes us to. Everything about this game is artificially lengthened: the cumbersome menus, the aforementioned random battles, the painfully slow alchemy pot, the silly saving system, and endless bouts of insignificant dialogue.
The Cursed King is simply an atrocity, a crime not just against games but entertainment as well. Though the series may have birthed other RPG giants, such as Final Fantasy, that does not forgive it this lackluster chapter. While most of its progeny has evolved with the times, Dragon Quest refuses to take even the most necessary baby steps.
18 July 2006