Thursday, September 5, 2019

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King Review

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King for 3DS is an enhanced port of Square-Enix and Level 5's 2004 PS2 RPG by the same name. The graphics and music are a bit of a downgrade from the PS2 version, but the 3DS version adds a handful of quality of life improvements to modernize the game. The 3DS version removes random encounters on land in favor of visible roaming monsters, it has a fast-forward toggle for battles, and shortcuts and a map on the bottom screen. DQ8 came out on 3DS a little over a month before the Switch launched, so I’ve overlooked it for a while, but I’m glad I’ve gone back and played it because it’s a pretty great game.

The game's subtitle, Journey of the Cursed King, refers to your NPC companion throughout the game, King Trode. Dhoulmagus, the game's villain, has stolen the Scepter of Rhapthorne from Castle Trodain, turned King Trode's daughter into a horse, turned King Trode into a Namekian-looking green monster, and turned everyone else in the castle into a plant, except for the Hero. This Hero was a Royal guard in Castle Trodain, but was not affected by Dhoulmagus' magic for some reason. Now, the Hero, King Trode, and Princess Medea (the horse) must travel around the world in search of Dhoulmagus in order to kill him and break the curse.

Dragon Quest VIII plays a lot like other DQ games. You travel from town to town, look through everyone's closets and break every pot you find, talk to villagers until you find out what's going on, go to a dungeon for some reason, and then come back to town and maybe get a new party member in the end. This is the thing I love the most about DQ games; the individual scenarios you find in each town. Each town is like playing through a story arc in an anime. They work as self-contained stories, but add to the world and overarching plot at the same time. Even though DQ8’s story ends up being about saving the world, as usual, the town stories feel very grounded and personal. Dhoulmagus is running around killing the descendants of the Seven Sages who sealed Rhapthorne in the magical scepter, so of course, this directly affects the villagers, including the characters who join your party. For example, Jessica, the first character to join your party, is the sister of one of these descendants who was killed by Dhoulmagus, so she is out for revenge.

I especially liked the stories that introduce you to your party members, even though I felt like they could have done a little more with each character after they join your party. There is some character development for everyone throughout the game since they are all closely tied to the main story, and there is some closure to their personal arcs, but they kind of felt like an afterthought compared to the main story of Dhoulmagus, King Trode, and Medea.

The battle system in DQ8 is pretty much the same old-school, turn-based system as in the previous DQ games. You choose commands from a menu, take turns attacking, and your agility stat determines the order in which everyone acts. Aside from the "Skills" menu from Dragon Warrior VII being renamed to "Abilities", the menu has pretty much the same commands as always. The only real new battle element is the “Psyche Up” command. The Psyche Up command skips a character's chance to attack in favor of charging up Dragon Ball style for a more powerful attack in the next turn. You can even use this on multiple consecutive turns to power up your attacks even more. Frankly, I ignored this system for most of the game. The extra damage just didn't seem worth skipping a turn, and bosses have a move that removes all buffs in the late game, so you’re probably wasting your time psyching up in those fights.

Another thing I almost completely ignored is the game's crafting system, Alchemy. With Alchemy, you can combine 2 or 3 items to make another item. You can make recovery items, equipment, and weapons. You can find new Alchemy recipes by reading books around the world or by experimenting. My problem with this system is that it encourages item hoarding, and as a result, grinding as well. I usually buy all the upgrades in a new town, so I buy something and sell my old gear for money to buy the next piece. But with Alchemy, you might get a recipe that calls for an item you got rid of 2 towns go, so I'd have to hoard everything and grind to get the money to buy the new gear in town just in case I need it for Alchemy later on. It's just too much work. I never used Alchemy for recovery items either because I never felt the need to use them. I had healing and Zooming covered with my characters’ magic.

The 3DS version has a completely redone UI that looks a lot like the one in the DQ 4-7 DS remakes. It seems poorly thought out, though. It doesn’t take advantage of the touchscreen, and it feels very archaic, like something out of an NES game. You're constantly sent back to the previous menu when buying or selling anything, you can't buy or sell multiples at once, you have to have a character carry an item for them to use it, and characters can't equip things directly from the bag. It’s very frustrating to work with. The way the bottom screen is used outside of the menus is really nice, though. You get a map for most areas on it, so it's much easier to make your way through dungeons and around towns, and there's a little shortcut menu you can use to quickly talk to your party members, Zoom, use Alchemy, or call your Sabrecat mount.

The thing that really made DQ8 stand out from previous DQ games when it came out was its 3rd person perspective and 3D world with a realistic scale. Even though many games around this time were already using 3rd person cameras and 3D worlds, most RPGs still used fixed camera angles and pre-rendered backgrounds. The realistically scaled 3D overworld made the game feel more like a huge epic adventure than ever before. Flat overhead maps could never capture the feeling of traveling through a DQ world like this.

I really love how the environments in this game look, even if the graphics look outdated now. I think this game captures the look of an Akira Toriyama anime and the classic DQ games much better than DQXI. It's the softer more cartoony look to everything that's missing from DQXI that makes DQVIII look more like classic DQ.

DQ8 feels a bit clumsy to control compared to DQXI, though. The camera can be pretty annoying, especially indoors. It runs into walls, won’t back up through walls, and it can’t see through walls behind you, either. The game also has no jump button to deal with all the new levels of verticality introduced by the 3D game world, so there's a lot of running around rocks, small blocks, and fences in the environment. You also can't fall off the side of a hill if it's too high or too steep, so you have to take the long way around in a lot of places while exploring the overworld, which gets annoying.

The graphics are noticeably downgraded from the PS2 version, but the game still looks pretty nice for a 3DS game. The framerate is 30ish now, but it's pretty steady. The lighting effects are almost completely gone, textures don't have as many blended in textures for paths on the ground and stuff, so they're not as varied, and the anisotropic filtering cuts off about 2 feet in front of your character, so textures viewed at an angle look really blurry. There is also a lot of pop-in everywhere, especially in the overworld. The game doesn't look quite as jaggy and low res on a 3DS screen as a PS2 game on an HD TV, at least. And they did add the roaming enemies in the world without tanking the framerate, which is quite a feat for the 3DS.

I'm not a big fan of this soundtrack. The downgrade from the PS2 version’s orchestral soundtrack makes a huge difference. This just sounds like every other DQ game on DS, and also DQXI. The voice acting is pretty good, though. The delivery felt a bit slow at times, but all the voices felt right for each character. I especially enjoyed Yangus’ VO. Cor blimey! I thought the accents were well done, and not unintelligible, like they used to be in text form in some of those older DQ localizations, too.

I really enjoyed this game. This is my favorite DQ after DQXI now. It is a very traditional and old-school DQ game, but I really like the story and characters. And even though the graphics are not as good as in the PS2 game, they really make me feel like I’m playing in huge Akira Toriyama style fantasy world. RPG fans should definitely set aside 70 hours or so and go back to the 3DS to play this gem.