I’ve spent almost my entire life in Oregon, a state whose populace has a reputation for being both laid back and outdoorsy. While I’ve definitely mastered the laid back part, I never quite got a handle on the outdoors thing. I love the scenery around here, but I usually prefer not to be in it. Strange, then, that I feel totally comfortable spending countless hours wandering the simulated countryside in Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, a lengthy old-school role-playing game (RPG) wrapped in modern visuals that manages to feel like more than the sum of its parts.
Dragon Quest VIII puts players in the role of Hero, a young castle guard on a quest to find Dhoulmagus, the evil magician who destroyed his castle, placed its inhabitants in suspended animation, and transformed King Trode and his daughter Princess Medea into a toad-like monster and a horse. Joined by Yangus, a dumpy ex-thief with a Cockney accent, Jessica, a sultry redhead from an aristocratic country family, and Angelo, a suave Templar with a penchant for women and gambling, Hero will engage in a long series of adventures in order to restore his kingdom.
The game possesses a distinct charm that can largely be credited to the character and monster designs of Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama. Each character comes to life with clean lines, bold colors, and expressive faces, from King Trode’s indignant glare, to Yangus’s confused gape, to Angelo’s mischievous smirk. The monsters are some of the strangest and most amusing I’ve seen in a game, ranging from a smiling blue blob that looks like a piece of candy, to bullfinches, buffalogres, and bunicorns (the names should give a clue as to what they look like).
Although the characters and monsters are rendered in 3D—a la Toy Story—they retain a distinctly 2D look—a la Mulan—an effect that seamlessly blends Toriyama’s 2D designs with the 3D game world. Unlike many games that strive to be as realistic as possible, Dragon Quest VIII’s comparatively simple visuals and consistent physical scale (i.e., characters and objects stay the same size between all the game’s environments) lend the game a satisfying artistic coherence.
The gameplay sticks to tried-and-true RPG conventions. Characters enter a town to purchase weapons and armor, with important locations conveniently marked—shield sign for the armor store, sword sign for the weapon store. The party ventures outside to fight in random monster battles and acquire experience and gold. Once strong enough, the group defeats a boss in a nearby dungeon, obtains some essential item or piece of information and moves on to new areas and towns. Simple? Indeed. Yet, even after 100 hours it never got old for me.
Aside from the standard battle commands—attack, heal, etc.—players can “psyche up” a character to raise tension, which can be stored for a more powerful attack on the next turn. Repeatedly psyching up characters will whip them into a state of “super high tension,” making them look something like a demon about to undergo nuclear fission, and unleashing one of these attacks is one of the most satisfying parts of the game. Other fun battle moves include Jessica’s ability to use “sex appeal” (an upgradeable stat) to hypnotize enemies, and Angelo’s use of “charm” to similar effect.
Even with such powerful “assets,” I still found my party getting wiped out quite a bit. Fortunately, however, instead of forcing players to start over from their last save, the game merely strips the party of half its gold and transports everyone back to the nearest church. Having experienced the profound frustration of losing several hours of progress in an RPG after dying unexpectedly in battle, this feature came as an enormous blessing. While I have since been informed that this system has been a part of the Dragon Quest series from the beginning, it still felt downright revolutionary to me.
Where Dragon Quest VIII truly distinguishes itself from other RPGs is in the size and scope of its world. Beautiful and lush landscapes stretch for miles in every direction, and walking between towns feels like an adventure unto itself, with fields, mountains, deserts, and oceans. Everything is woven into one staggeringly expansive environment, and more than any other game (only Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, often noted for its massive world, can compare), Dragon Quest VIII conveys a sense of true-to-life scales of distance and sheer physical space. Standing outside the first town, I spotted an orange patch far off in the distance. As I headed towards it for the next 10 minutes I watched it gradually grow in size until I was standing in front of an enormous tree with autumn-colored leaves. Even the most distant mountains form part of a continuous world open for exploration.
The music, some of which was recorded by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, sounds superb. As good as synthesizers are at imitating the sound of real instruments, I must admit that nothing quite compares to the real thing. The soothing pastoral melody that bathes the overworld and the noble refrain that fills the cathedrals particularly stand out. A few additional musical tracks would have helped reduce the inevitable repetition that occurs in a long RPG such as this, but the quality mostly makes up for the lack of quantity.
I’ll readily acknowledge that Dragon Quest VIII is not the best-looking game out there, nor the most exciting, nor does it have the best story. The loading times could be faster, the music could be more varied, and leveling up could be easier and less time consuming. For some players, these issues may well constitute valid reasons to avoid the game. For my part, however, these weaknesses completely evaporated next to the game’s sheer addictiveness and heartwarming charm. If lengthy leveling up forced me to stick around longer than the content justified, then I sure as heck wasn’t complaining. In the end, Dragon Quest VIII succeeds brilliantly by taking time-tested traditional-RPG gameplay and placing it in a uniquely vast and beautiful world that is a pure joy to explore and inhabit. Exploring the world of a videogame may not count toward my Oregonian outdoors credentials, but at least it more than fills up my laid back quota for the year.