I've always recognized that Level-5 knew how to make good RPGs (Dark Cloud 1 and 2 definitely showed that), but after playing through the team's latest project, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, I'm now totally convinced of it. Just like Camelot Software and tri-Ace before it, Level-5 truly understands the role-playing genre as few other companies do. Through its grasp of always-important concepts like pacing, presentation, and design, the crew has shown on two prior occasions that it has an uncanny ability to make the familiar feel fresh again... and that's exactly what it's done once more with Dragon Quest VIII.
In other words, Square Enix's latest commission is very, very good. Developed as the first "truly 3D" installment of the long-running Japanese series, Journey of the Cursed King is a nice leap forward compared to 2001's effort, Dragon Warrior VII. This jump isn't just resigned to the fact that the game has finally gotten its name in North America synched up with the Japanese version either (up until now, legal restrictions had kept the franchise from being ported over with its proper moniker), as there are major improvements in nearly every other aspect of the experience -- be it the art, the mechanics, and most else in-between.
The only exception in the game's mass list of progression (there always seems to be one), is the plotline. Of course, the Dragon Quest series has never really been the pinnacle of storytelling in the first place, but Journey of the Cursed King is particularly basic when it comes to the narrative. Truth be told, it's mostly generic RPG fare the majority of the way through, and it's certainly among the most predictable stories I've seen in quite some time (minus two or three little twists). But the fascinating thing is, and I mentioned this earlier, Level-5 has taken an adventure that we've otherwise seen several times before and turned it into something fun and entertaining -- in spite of its broad commonality with other RPGs.
This kind of appeal is achieved because of the game's absolutely brilliant presentation. Every character and monster in sight has been designed by the Tobal No. 1 and Chrono Trigger guru Akira Toriyama and honestly... I think it's his best work ever (yes, even better than Dragon Ball). As such, there doesn't seem to be a single weak design -- from the lowliest NPC and monsters to the main villain and the heroes themselves. The production team has done an equally fine job of moving those designs into the 3D cel-shaded realm too (it's the best example of cel-shading since Dark Cloud 2, which by the way, was also done by Level-5), and the level of expression on each character's faces is terrific.
But "terrific" is a good descriptor for just about everything visual in Journey of the Cursed King. Vibrant and colorful, the world really jumps out at you and truly gives the feeling that you're playing an anime. Occasional pop-in and infrequent slowdown aside (thanks to the streaming environments), the draw distance here is very impressive and you'll be able to see plenty of detail for miles. It looks even better in widescreen mode for TVs that can support it too, although progressive scan was left on the cutting room floor.
Supplementing the high-end visuals even further are the equally-impressive voice-overs. Not available in the Japanese version of the game (they were recorded specifically for North America) the vocals add even more personality to a story that already has lots of it. And while I'm sure you'll notice as I did that that just about every character sports an accent of some kind (mostly British, but there are Italian and Irish ones thrown in there too), they do seem to fit the somewhat regal nature of the setting and its supporting players.
But the excellent production values aren't limited to just the sensory pleasures. Square Enix has taken great care in going back into the Japanese code and has streamlined the menu system to be cleaner and more accessible for U.S. gamers. There are also a number of cool statistical things you can follow as well, with a running bestiary (complete with sortable tabs by geographical region and species), a battle counter that totals walked miles, enemies defeated, and conflicts avoided, and a "collected items" list that shows you everything you've possessed. These kinds of things may not make the earth move, but they're always great to have and go to show you how much attention the developers really paid to their product.
At the core of Dragon Quest VIII, however, is its gameplay and in that regard it has a surprising amount of it. Totaling well over 100 hours in length if you were to try to do everything (and there is a lot to do), it's a positively huge game with multiple continents, islands, and hideaways for you to explore. In fact, if you were really thorough, you could spend in upwards of 30 hours on the first continent alone before moving on to your next location -- it's that damned big. But unlike other time giants that get to be too tedious after their marathon quests, Journey of the Cursed King does a solid job of mixing things up by changing your experience as you go along (if you think you'll be able to tell what it has to offer even when you've played halfway through, think again).
A big reason that Dragon Quest is so fun is its simple combat system. Completely menu-driven and built along the same lines as all previous titles in the series, battles are based heavily on stats and initiative and offers users with basic commands like "Attack, Spells, Abilities, Items" and the like. What makes this interesting is that the CPU AI has been balanced to be smart enough to almost always make you think about what your next move is going to be. It's not overly difficult to be sure, but it is challenging enough to require you to do more than just press the attack button over and over again. And even if you take the time level grind (it takes a long time to get stronger in this game), your opponents will still mix things up by doing unpredictable things (i.e.: call for reinforcements, focus on a weakened party member, or bust out a spell you didn't even know they had).
Now if you've played the previous Dragon Quest games then this all probably sounds familiar to you, but there are a couple of notable changes worth mentioning that do mix things up a bit. The ability to charge a tension gauge (skip your turn for more powerful future blows), for example, adds a nice bit of strategy to tougher conflicts and the streamlined skill system has been refined so that there are far fewer abilities to learn. But fewer abilities isn't a bad thing by any means, because now almost all of your spells and powers are important to have -- whereas before, the huge number of skills in the last Dragon Warrior seemed too arbitrary and superfluous for their own good.
As much as I enjoy battling it out in Dragon Quest VIII, though, I did end up fighting enemies an awful lot. The random encounter rate is almost as high as in Digital Devil Saga (this year's king of repeated RPG combat), so I can definitely see how more casual RPG players may be put off by the frequent warfare. As I mentioned earlier, the overworld itself is pretty big too, so oftentimes you may find yourself wandering around a massive collection of plains looking for someplace to go. As you'd expect, those two factors can cause some extended frustration when coupled together.
But unlike other RPGs that run into that problem, Journey of the Cursed King does a great job of making you forget its shortcomings. This is thanks, in part, to an excellent dungeon design that never feels like its plodding along. Your opponents and the number of simplistic puzzles you have to solve as you go along are all balanced extremely well and when you're given the chance to figure out a neat little brain-teaser before fighting a kick-ass boss monster time after time, the slower overworld navigation doesn't seem so bad.
More importantly, though (and as I alluded to earlier), Dragon Quest VIII is constantly mixing up the kinds of things you can do throughout the experience. There's an alchemy pot, for instance, that allows you to create rare and more powerful items that you can't get anywhere else (ala Atelier Iris), and the ability to hunt down special monsters for use in arena combat is a cool bonus too. Other little goodies, like faster overworld transportation, casino mini-games, and a couple of added surprises bring a lot to the table as well.
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