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Cidolfas's RPG Reviews: Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (PS2)

You Are: An unnamed silent protagonist, a Cockney reformed bandit named Yangus, a womanizing girly-boy Templar named Angelo, and the amazingly pneumatic Jessica, who specializes in whips and magic, and who you can actually play dress-up with by equipping her with different armor.

Your Goal Is: To break the curse on Castle Trodain, which has turned almost everyone into plants, except for the king, who's a little troll, and the princess, who's a horse.

General System: Class RPG goodness with a few twists. You walk around, get into random battles, and buy things. Each character can only hold a certain amount of items (including weapons and armor) and everything else goes into The Bag(tm), which is inaccessible during battle. DQ8 is nice in that it almost instantly gives you immediate access to almost everywhere you've already been (certainly every town) via Chimera Wings. You can also instantly exit dungeons, which is important because there are no save points at all. You can only save inside towns or churches. However, if you die, the game isn't over; you're just warped back to the last church you visited with half your gold. In addition, it takes a very very very long time before you gain the ability to revive one of your characters, so often if one of them dies, you have to exit the dungeon and warp ALL the way back to town to have a fighting chance against the boss.

Each character can equip three different types of weapons, and as they level up, you can apportion skill points to the weapons, as well as Fisticuffs (bare hands) and a special skill for each character (e.g. Courage for the hero, or Sex Appeal for Jessica. Yes, that wasn't a typo.) Unfortunately, your characters level up supremely slowly (I finished the game under level 40), meaning that you won't be learning too many abilities at all, especially not if you want to keep your skills balanced.

Two cool additions are the Alchemy Pot and the Monster Arena. You can use the alchemy pot to mix two or three items together to make a different one. Most of the more useful recipes are gleaned from books or talking to people, and a few can be found. However, most recipes are a bit vague, meaning you'll have to try and guess what the actual ingredients are. Once you've put the items in, it takes quite a while before the result pops out - and you don't have access to the pot while inside dungeons. If a particular combination doesn't work, you won't lose the items, so that's nice. Still, the sheer amount of ingredients is so vast that getting the best combinations is practically impossible without using an FAQ.

The Monster Arena is also cool - you can meet visible monsters around the world, and if you beat them, you can grab them for your monster team. You have limited capacity, though, so you'll have to ditch older monsters when you get stronger ones. Pitting them against other monster teams in the monster arena gets you nice items as well as the ability to summon your monster team(s) in battle, which can really turn the tide. If you get particular combinations of monsters - e.g. three golems - you can get special attacks or effects.

The world map itself is absolutely enormous - which unfortunately lends itself to large loading times. To exacerbate this, when you're on a ship or other vessel, a second, higher-level world map is used, meaning that if you dock, then realize you're in the wrong place, then reboard your ship, you can easily waste thirty seconds or more. Just going in and out of a town can kill fifteen seconds. Luckily, you can use spells or items to stop weak enemies from attacking, letting you explore earlier places easily. There's also a day-night cycle - during the night, most shops are closed, but stronger enemies (including some Monster Arena enemies) come out.

Battle System: Turn-based and pretty simplistic. Characters can Psyche themselves up - this raises their tension, which in turn raises attack or magic power of the next action they take. However, tension can be punted back to zero if a character is hit by a number of status attacks, so psyching up is a risk. Also, if you're fighting weak monsters, you can Intimidate them to try and get them to run off and possibly drop chests (stealing or waiting for enemies to drop items takes forever in this game, as the drop rate is insanely minute). There are cute messages along the bottom of the screen reminiscent of the old Dragon Quest games, but with a large dollop of humor; status effects include "getting the dancing bug", "doubled over laughing", or "staring in rapt admiration".

Graphics: Nice and cartoony, with good contrast and very detailed textures where appropriate. Unfortunately, Akira Toriyama's artwork seems to give almost everyone the same face.

Music: The most classical score I've yet heard in a video game. While it's nice to listen to, it means the tunes are almost all unmemorable, with nothing to catch the ear.

Story: The major downside of the game. The story consists largely of one fetch-quest after another, all in the interests of fighting a mindless big bad guy. Of your six travelling companions, only four can even talk, and two of them have almost nothing interesting to say. However, the English script is very entertaining for the most part. The voice acting is largely a boon, as every location seems to have its own accent, which is a refreshing feature. (I especially like Pickham's Cockney slang.)

Challenge: Medium/Hard

Length: About 75 hours, minus the bonus dungeon (no, that's not a typo).

My Thoughts: This is my first foray into the Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior series, and I've got mixed feelings. DQ8 has all the makings of an excellent game, but severely stumbles in several areas. It desperately needs a quick-save function - even one that deletes itself once loaded - because forcing one to play for almost two hours straight with no save point (unless one wants to exit the dungeon and find his way all the way back to where he is) is ridiculous. There is NO PAUSE BUTTON. The button configuration is non-standard and does not allow you to redefine it. Loading times are atrocious. The story is bare-bones and does almost nothing to keep you going, at least after the first fifteen hours or so; the great voice acting does make up for much of the lack of depth, but not all of it.

On the other hand, the gameplay is really excellent for the most part. The exploration is a lot of fun (stopping random battles helps) as is collecting alchemy recipes, which is sort of like solving riddles except when it gets too vague. The difficulty is pretty solid without being insane, despite the fact that you will be chronically broke for most of the game. (I finished it without buying a single thing from the last shop. How on earth am I expected to afford an 18,000-GP item when regular battles max out at 200 GP?) I personally prefer more growth (i.e. getting more money, levels and items) than DQ8 offers. Still, it manages to give a challenging experience while not going crazy with the damage numbers like most recent games like doing (by the end of the game, my regular attacks were doing 100 HP damage), which I last saw in Paper Mario. I also want to give a shout-out to Richard Honeywood, the localization director, whose work in FFXI has carried over here into a menu and battle system which actually uses proper grammar when describing items and monsters. The naturalness of the messages is heads and shoulders above anything you've seen before. (Beating three monsters called "Gigantes" results in "The giganti were defeated!".)

It's a shame about the usability issues and the story, but DQ8 is still very solid and recommended. It's about twenty hours too long, but still worth a playthrough.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10

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