November 28, 2013

That's A Wrap: Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

warning: may contain spoilers 

So here's an excellent PS2 classic RPG, guaranteed to burn 100 hours of your life away: Dragon Quest VIII! I remember playing this thoroughly when it first came out in 2005 and loving every minute of it, so it was high time I revisited it. And it's as good now as it was then! A title more than worthy of its name, DQ8 is a wonderful fantasy RPG. It had some pretty ground-breaking qualities for its time, with its great big overworld (unlike so many others, it actually takes forever to get from point A to B), cool "day and night" effect and character interaction that wasn't very common back in the day. It was also the first Dragon Quest (or Dragon Warrior, if you prefer) to be released for the PS2 which meant it was another long-running title for fans to experience on new hardware.

And that meant shiny new graphics! Well, sort of. DQ8 is by no means the epitome of the PS2's capabilities but it's a very bright and colorful game that still looks stunning on my 50" Sony. The graphics have held up very well over the years and with the exception of miscellaneous characters, it loads quickly and painlessly. I think the thing that stands out most in DQ8 is the backgrounds; beautifully designed and detailed, varied... lovely. Well that, and that every character has my brother's haircut from 1996. Characters will look very familiar to fans of Toriyama anime and manga of the time.

The soundtrack for DQ8 is not exactly breath taking, but it does grow on you over time. It suits the game just fine, but it's just not as memorable as other soundtracks. The battle theme doesn't exactly inspire a fighting spirit so much as it makes you think you've signed up for some kind of timed cooking competition. I maintain the menu music is some of the happiest I've ever heard.
The sound effects work in DQ8 is pretty sad. They take some time to get used to because they don't ring as true to their purpose as most other games. The voice acting doesn't blow me out of the water either, some of the actors were a miscast, and they all read the lines sooooooooooo slowly. I consider myself a turtle-paced reader and I was able to plow through the dialogue before the actor finished a single line. They would also try and add character effects (the trolls, for example, would slurp and slobber through their dialogue) that were just atrocious. I spent at least half this game with the volume turned down in favor of watching Dragonball Z... it's still Toriyama...

The title of DQ8 is Journey of the Cursed King, and the plot is just that! You play as the hero, whom I named Thatch (with the help of my twitter friends), a soldier in the castle of King Trode. The castle was attacked by the jester Dhoulmagus, who cursed the land and its King, as well as his beloved daughter, turning him into a sort of troll, his daughter into a horse and his land into a thorny hellhole. Thatch was the only servant of Trodain to survive the curse and consequently agrees to travel the world in search of relief. And thus begins your journey...
In spite of being a 100-hour game, DQ8 unfolds at a great pace. It has a number of twists, especially regarding bosses, and good character development, too! If I had to nail down one complaint, it would be that DQ8 is much more juvenile than it needs to be. It would merit more points were it a more mature story. Then again, Dragon Quest has never been a terribly mature game series.
The ending to DQ8 is pretty long and frankly, you'll probably figure it out half way through the game. Nevertheless, a rewarding many moments after all your hard work. Personally, I think Trode makes a better namek than a human...

As mentioned before, you are first introduced to your hero, who is without a default name so I put out a casting call on twitter for a one.
He's your strapping, courageous, young lad charged with the safety of his King. He has no voice actor and doesn't actually say much of anything, really. He's a well balanced character capable of handling swords, spears and boomerangs, as well as using magic. I decided to focus mainly on swordplay, with spears and boomers being an afterthought. He has some pretty useful spells, too, especially in the early game, so he's handy in all situations.
The second member of your little gang is an interesting bloke named Yangus. He's the crew's brute strength and comic relief.
Yangus is all power, the master of axes, scythes and clubs with high attack and defense; virtually useless in the magic department with the exception of a no-MP-required spell he learns early called "whistle" which calls nearby enemies to attack. SUPER handy when you're grinding. I chose to have Yangus master scythes and eventually axes, as there are plenty of cool skills attached to those weapons, but more on that later.
In time, you meet Jessica, the game's source of gratuitous near-nudity. I'm pretty sure she only exists to add sex appeal to game. No really, one of her skills is "sex appeal." She's also the only character whose appearance changes based on what you equip her with.

She belongs to nobility and is expected to behave as such, but she skips out on all of that in favor of avenging the death of her brother. She's your party's primary offensive spell caster, being learned in the magic arts, but she's also able to equip knives - and eventually swords - and whips in addition to staffs. I found knives to be a good place to put skill points, but whips are much more fun.
The last member of our motley crew is a cheeky man named Angelo. He's introduced to you as a troublemaking orphan who wound up a member of the Templar Knights. He has a complicated story but takes a shining to Jessica and joins your party to avenge someone close to him. He uses swords as well, although he prefers a smaller sword, like a rapier, when possible. He can also master bows and I think staffs as well, which is a complete waste of your time. He's a magic user, indeed, and gains a number of useful life and status spells, as well as a couple of attack spells. Angelo was my primary healer for the tough battles and, in spite of his ridiculous high-waisted pants, my favorite character.
The rest of your entourage is made up of NPC's Trode - the aforementioned cursed King who, in spite of his stature, still packs a punch...
...and his daughter Medea who's been turned into a horse, so they're like "well shit, you're a horse now, better cart some stuff around." She doesn't seem to mind though, as she has eyes for our hero.

Combat in DQ8 is quite complex and yet very familiar to RPGers. It's a turn-based system, in which your party of (max) 4 takes on any number of enemies that may be presented to you in groups or as singles (if they're grouped, you can use some attacks on the lot of them). You can fight, run away, intimidate them - which I never did - and change your battle tactics, which is a handy feature because it allows you to program your party to fight automatically with commands like "show no mercy," "don't use magic," or "fight wisely". I like this feature, it makes grinding a lot less painful and grinding is something you will likely do a lot in this game. And the A.I. isn't terrible! If you choose "fight wisely" they do just that. I'm pleasantly surprised by this.
Your fight menu includes melee attack, defend; use items, spells or abilities - which are learned by increasing your skills with any type of weapon (via level up); and a neat little strategic option: psyche up. 'Psyche up' is an ability you can use to power up a single attack by "increasing the tension by 5" and if you continue to psyche up, by 20, 50 and ultimately turn into a super saiyan (100). Another neat thing you can do in battle: some weapons have item-like uses as well, and you can use them in battle to attack or heal your party. The icicle dirk, for example, packs a pretty hefty ice attack; the cheiron's bow gives the whole party a small HP boost, or the dream blade which can put all of your enemies to sleep by simply holding it in the air! You need to have these items in your party's active inventory to use them in battle. For that matter, you have to have these or any items in someone's inventory (essentially equipped) to use them in battle, as you can't access your bottomless pit of a bag.

Your enemies are all manner of weird. They range from gruesome, armored foes to green peppers. Yeah.
I'm particularly entertained by the miscellaneous "attacks" some of the baddies have, which include having no idea what to do, laughing, staring into the distance, assessing the situation and telling stories.
As per usual, your success wins you experience, money, the occasional useless item. When you level up, which takes forever, you're not just rewarded with stat boosts but also skill points, which you can use to boost your characters familiarity with any of the weapons in which they specialize, as well as "fistcuffs" or fighting without a weapon if you choose to go the monk route, and then each character has a unique specialty like Jessica's sex appeal or Thatch's courage, which usually nets you new spells.

The rest of the game plays like a typical RPG, you move from town to town, dungeon to dungeon on foot, via sabercat (awesome, right?) or fly with your random magic bird ability (you'll get it if you play the game), gaining knowledge and allies and advancing the story. It's a long game but it really doesn't feel like it. I clocked 95 hours on story alone but it felt like much less. The game has a few other fun features, like the Alchemy Pot. I remember using the alchemy pot a lot in my first pass of DQ8 but I decided to keep my wits about me this time and use it minimally. If you're not familiar with video game alchemy, you simply toss a few items into the pot, pass some time, and voila! out pops a shiny new item. One of the things that bother me is that the alchemy pot takes a long time to cook things up and you can only access it while on the overworld map (while with your carriage), which is a pain when you get to the final dungeon especially.

Some sections of the game require you to call upon Thatch's mouse pal, Munchie, whom I always forget about. You can use Munchie in battle, too, if you feed him cheese, but I neglected him altogether save for the parts where you're forced to use him to navigate the level.

There are a number of side quests you can do, though I chose not to participate in many this time through. The story alone chews up a chunk of your time and grinding always takes priority, but the side quests are a fun option if you're enjoying the game.
Of course, to use the alchemy pot effectively you need to first hunt down recipes, which are often found on bookshelves or given to you by the characters you speak to in town. You can also participate in the Dodgy Dave side quest, in which he sends you off to make certain items with your alchemy pot, and then rewards you. There is also a pretty typical "monster arena" quest which can be instigated by visiting Morrie, who gives you handful of memos detailing monsters that can be found on your overworked map (as opposed to random encounters), the defeat of which adds them to the arena for you to battle later on. You then, of course, win prizes for completing the different ranks.
I did pay mind to the Princess Minnie side this time, which requires you to scour the land for "mini medals" that you can trade to Minnie for somewhat useful items.
Like so many RPGs, DQ8 has not one but two casinos! The second of which requires you to participate in the Dragovian trials quest. Then you get to play bingo. And lose. A lot.
There are a number of other menial chores you can do, like finding a guy's tool bag or returning a precious ring to a lady, but these don't stand out as side quests so much as random things to do while getting acquainted with the land.

The menu organization in DQ8 is poor. You open your menu to your party and their basic stats, money etc. and the items tab, the magic tab, the attributes tab, and the everything else tab. Who designed this?! The first three make enough sense but why was everything else lumped together in a misc tab? And it's pretty useless, to boot. There's a 'heal' option, which is nonsense; an 'edit tactics' option which is useless because it's easier to do from your battle menu; 'equipment options', also useless because you need to use your item tab to move items into the person's inventory to equip them (each person can only hold so many items so you move them around a lot); your game settings - straight forward enough; a help option; your battle records which hosts all matter of fun facts about your playthrough; and the alchemy pot. I really feel the menu could have been designed to be much more user-friendly and make more sense.

The other thing that really pisses me off in DQ8 is the controller mapping. If I ever get my hands on the jerk that decided to make 'circle' the menu button and 'triangle' the cancel button, I'll hang him every Tuesday for 6 months. This drove me crazy! If it ain't broke, don't fix it, SQUARE!
Flying controls in this game are a pain as well; unrefined and either over- or under-sensitive.

Unlike so many games, there are no save points before bosses in DQ8. You will lose a lot if you can't defeat them and many of the bosses are pretty tough. Furthermore, you do not have items to revive fallen party members and it's a long while before you learn any spells, so it's a painful trek back to a church (and hard on your pocketbook...) if you lose someone. This is the chief source of difficulty in DQ8. If you're a seasoned RPGer you know grinding is a fact of life, but in DQ8 it is an inarguable must. Beyond that, it's a pretty straight game, there's quite a bit of wandering as the overworld is massive, but you're only ever presented the correct final destinations so you'll find your way eventually.  It also takes a while for you to get the world map in DQ8, which is a great, great help for the rest of the game. I don't find the dungeons and puzzles in DQ8 terribly challenging, if you can find the maps for each dungeon (usually hidden in the first chest you will find) then they are no trouble at all.

All in all, I think Dragon Quest 8 has aged beautifully. It's still very much a fun, great-looking game with excellent characters and an amazing story. If you consider yourself a fan of classic, fantasy RPGs, and haven't played it, I implore you to consider it. It's frequently compared to Final Fantasy games, which makes sense but the Dragon Quest/Warrior franchise has always provided me with plenty of entertainment and I recommend it to anyone looking for a fun RPG series.

LOTIPS
  • GRINDING: early and often. Use this opportunity to hunt chests on the overworld and use your alchemy pot. Otherwise, Yangus' 'whistle' ability will erase the need for running around in circles. Also, utilize your hero's heal and squelch abilities, rather than visiting a town & church every time someone is low on HP or poisoned. This will save you money!
  • Avoid monsters visible on the overworked map in the beginning of the game. These are part of Morrie's side quest and they will obliterate you in your low levels. Should you get caught sneaking by one (they give chase!), run away!
  • An early alchemy item that you should invest in is the "thief's key". This will unlock a number of the unobtainable chests in the early game. You can do this after you complete Pereguin Quay, as you should have obtained an iron nail and a bronze knife by then.
  • Various forms of "metal slimes" are found throughout the game, and you will need the sword ability "metal slash" to kill them. If you manage to do so, they net you a ton of exp., but beware: they usually run away before you can do them in. They don't have a lot of HP compared to other enemies, but your metal attack will only do 1 or 2 damage.
  • Putting enemies to sleep is often a good tactic, especially when facing many at a time. Jessica will learn the "snooze" spell, but you can also buy a "dream blade" once you're well into the game. Simply using this weapon as an item will often knock out the whole field. If you program your allies to "fight wisely," they will often do this for you.

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