Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Level 5
Genre: Turn-Based RPG
Format: DVD-ROM
Released: US 11/15/05
Japan 11/27/04
Official Site: Japanese Site
English Site

Graphics: 95%
Sound: 100%
Gameplay: 95%
Control: N/A
Story: 100%
Overall: 97%
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Carl B.
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
Carl B.

There was a time when console RPGs weren't full of CG and spell effects that take one minute to play out on your screen. What started as a simple tile-based, single monster, single character, level-intensive genre later evolved into a complex affair involving micro-management, overly dramatic plotlines, confusing battle systems and 30 minute anime cutscenes. Although the extra complexity was craved by most gamers and simply "tolerated" by the rest of us, there was a very vocal miniority that clamored for a return to the simplicity of the genre's early days. A return to the kind of gameplay that the first few Dragon Quest games had made famous. Though it made for rather enjoyable threads in classic gaming forums everywhere, expecting such an RPG to come out in this post Final Fantasy 7 world was nothing more then wishful thinking.

Then, out of nowhere, we were given Dragon Quest 8.

Before going forward, something needs to be said: Dragon Quest 7 was an absolute mess. The game seemed to want to hold on to its old school gameplay, yet ruined it by trying too hard to fit into the "Final Fantasy 7" mold. The horribly grainy 3D polygons that made up the world felt like they were put there just to keep RPG fans from wincing at the sight of another archaic 2D game. Even the job system, something many Dragon Quest fans enjoyed in the 3rd and 6th installments, was butchered, thanks to the fact that you never gained access to it until you were a third of the way into the story. What could have been the triumphant return of Dragon Quest to American shores became a poorly executed game that suffered from a lack of direction and a fair amount of confusion about what it wanted to be.

Perhaps learning from that, Enix decided to throw caution to the wind and make a Dragon Quest sequel that was 100% Dragon Quest. That is, as old school as was humanly possible. With no seriously new innovations or gameplay tweaks, the 8th Dragon Quest is every bit as "plain" as the first. Yet, beyond the straightforward RPG game play, there is something that many gamers like me have found. This game, unlike so many others that have been released in the past few years, has a soul. Sounds silly, doesn't it?

Silly isn't the word. As a frequent poster in several major gaming forums, I've noticed that it isn't just old school gamers like me who love Dragon Quest 8. Apparently, its power to captivate lies not in the fact that it is full of the classic gameplay us cranky codgers enjoy, but in its innocence. Much like Earthbound, Dragon Quest 8 is so unapologetic with its design choice, that even the most hardcore post-FF7 RPG fans have come to love it. I often compare this effect to a man falling in love with a really ugly woman who is so confident and emotionally uplifting that she is irrestible.

The first place you are likely to notice this adorably ancient gameplay is in the combat system. Seeing only a few options in the battle menu is a refreshing change of pace from what we RPGers have grown accustomed to in the past decade. There is something magical about having such few options, yet still having a strategically pleasing fight unfold before you anyway. Like most of the game's "systems," an extremely fine and delicate balance has been struck between its outward appearance of simplicity and the actual depth that lurks silently beneath it.

Combat is played out in much the same way it was most old school RPGs. That is, you and the enemy trade turns until one side dies. No real-time elements, no precise button pressing needed, no combo memorization required, and certainly no confusing Xenosaga 2-esque enemy barriers to break through. Everything is the way it used to be, and no effort has been made to change that.

However, there is one new addition to the combat system, and that is the introduction of character "skills." Once you get a few experience levels under your belt, you start recieving skill points after every level up. These points can then be divided amongst several skills that are assigned to your characters. Most of these skills, such as Sword and Fisticuffs, are weapon-based. Raising these skills not only makes you deal more damage with the weapon type they represent, but sometimes open up new attacks that you can perform in combat. The other skills, such as Charisma and Courage, are unique to each character. These skills unlock interesting, though sometimes unneccesary, skills that are available to only one character. A good example of this is Jessica's "Sex Appeal" skill which not only teaches her seductive moves that damage and confuse her enemies, but also increases the chances of monsters falling in love with her and becoming entranced by her beauty in combat. Nothing is more comical then seeing huge, incredibly overweight, hairy, tongue wagging trolls staring at Jessica with hearts revolving around their heads as you pummel them into ground.

Perhaps adding a bit of spice to the mix is the Alchemy pot. Similar to the item creation systems in other games such as Diablo 2 and its famous Horadric Cube, DQ8 gives you the option to throw unused items into a device called an "Alchemy pot," where sometimes these items form something new that you could not get otherwise. Although it seems confusing, it is actually rather basic. After using a few of the first recipes the game reveals to you it becomes second nature and you find yourself experimenting whenever time permits. Some of the game's most powerful items can be made this way. Just imagine taking a helmet, adding a pile of cow dung and some fresh milk to it...then ending up with the "Raging Bull Helmet," one of the most powerful pieces of headgear in the game. Quite refrehsingly, the game coats its seriousness in a thin layer of humor.

While combat was the first thing I noticed, it wouldn't surprise me if most people were to notice the graphics first. Sure, the game is cell-shaded, but the detail present in DQ8's 3D world surpasses that of *any* modern RPG. What makes DQ8's world even more enjoyable is the fact that many RPGs released in the post FF7 era have been totally devoid of an overworld map. Once a staple of this genre, the overworld map (and the sense of exploration that went with it) were phased out and replaced with little map-markers that instantly warped you to important locations. This isn't so in Dragon Quest 8. From the very first time you exit the "starting town" of Farebury, you are greeted with a huge open field of green, teeming with various types of plant and animal life. In the distance, you can see dungeon entrances, caves, waterfalls, and towering oak trees... all loading in front on you in such a seamless way that it makes even so-called advanced 3D RPG worlds like Everquest 2 and Fable look bland by comparision.

As someone who wasted a lot of time in EQ2 and Fable, I can tell you that they honestly have *nothing* on DQ8 when it comes to exploration and world detail. The amount of land that you can travel in Dragon Quest 8 is staggering. Nearly every little nook and cranny of the game world is hiding something. Take a detour on your trip to the tower in the distance and maybe you'll find a treasure chest containing a rare item. Or maybe you'll find a rare monster to recruit for the Monster Arena mini-game. Or perhaps you'll just discover a beautiful little lake or a lonely hilltop that upon climbing it gives you a perfect view of the setting sun. It's the little discoveries like these that make DQ8's world so incredibly lifelike. The fact that the game never stops to load anything, or even appears to load at all, makes it that much better.

So far so good, right? Huge world, incredibly detailed cell-shaded graphics, easy-to-pick up gameplay, fun skill system, and an Alchemy pot that lets you turn useless items into super weapons. The funny thing here is I haven't even got to the two best features of this game. The sound and the story...

Let's start with the sound, since this includes the voice overs which are so important to a gamer's enjoyment of the accompanying story. To put it as bluntly as possible, Dragon Quest 8 has the greatest voice acting I have ever experienced in an RPG. The emotions are all there, the accents are all done faithfully, and the passion in each line is evident from the beginning. From Yangus and his Cockney English slang to the high-strung Italian monster training Morrie and his laughter-inducing, over-the-top Sicilian accent, this game does things with voice overs that pure text could never do. It's one thing when you hear a talented voice actor who "gets the character right," but it's another thing entirely when you actually develop a human response to a video game character because of their voice. Whether it's the arrogance of Angelo's brother Marcello showing through his royal accent, or compassion just barely breaking through Yangus' old boss "Red" as she apologizes to him, this game is the very first RPG where I actually treated NPCs as real people. What makes it even more believable is that every area of the game world has its own "dialect." The cold nothern wastes are home to a bunch of Russian-sounding villagers while the residents of Pickham village all sound like Lister from Red Dwarf.

Oh, and who could forget the other aspect of the game's aural experience: The music.

In a bold move, Enix actually had the Tokyo Metropolitian Orchestra do the *entire* soundtrack for the game. Even music as mundane and unimportant as the memory card background tune has been "Re-done" by this orchestra with amazing results. What's even better is that the music is the exact same music from the earlier Dragon Quest games, only now with the "epic feeling" only a live orchestra could convey. It says a lot when you stay in the memory card loading screen just to hear the giant drum's "BOOM" at the very end of the song before it replays. To say this game has a "must buy" soundtrack is an understatement.

Last, but not least, we get to the story. With an awesome soundtrack and some of the greatest (and most accurate) voice acting ever heard in a video game, you can imagine how these things must bolster the story. Even though it does help, the story can, thankfully, stand on its own without any assistance.

The game opens up with your character, a lowly knight in the employ of King Trode, ending up the only survivor of a heinous attack on the castle by a possessed jester who steals a cursed staff that had been sealed away in the vault below. King Trode, who is cursed by the jester so that he looks like a monster, and his daughter who is cursed to look like a horse, enlist your character's aid in defeating the jester, returning the staff, and reversing their curse. Has that sunk in yet?

The most amusing aspect of this is that from the start, you never know the whole story about how the adventure started. It is only revealed in short in-engine cut scenes as the game progresses and your characters reminisce about what brought them together that you begin to see the whole story. Though along the way, you'll also learn more about the jester, what is inside of him, and the why he wanted the staff so badly.

DQ8's story isn't without heart either. Princess Medea, who was turned into a horse, is given a method to temporarily reverse her curse courtesy of an enchanted spring that you find halfway through the game. Though you don't have to go back to this spring, you are rewarded with some truly touching cutscenes every time you do. Medea transforms, briefly, and engages your character in conversation. As time goes by, she reveals more of the relationship your character had with her before the curse took hold. As more is revealed, your connection with her is strengthened, and her sweet voice and compassionate words are something you look forward to... especially when she finds out how to talk to you in your dreams when your party sleeps at the inn. Without spoiling much, let's just say this little "side story" is worth the 50 bucks you pay to get the game itself.

That isn't the only touching moment in the game either. Once again, I have to compare the game to the SNES classic "Earthbound," since both games absolutely ooze both innocence and love in every scene. Not in the childish, nerdy way RPGs often handle it, but in the mature, genuine, touching way a good book or movie would. This is great to know, since several death scenes are presented to you in the game, and each and every one of them will make you cry. Even if you think you won't, you will. There is one death in particular where the game shows the mourning period this man's friends and followers go through, and even make it a point to say that the rain that poured down during the burial ceremony was "the Heavens crying." For some reason, that whole scene hit me hard.

Though it isn't all doom and gloom. There is also the moment that you defeat Morrie in the Monster Arena, and hear his friends talk about how he cried in happiness while clutching a statue he made of you. Or the time when you help a young king come to terms with the death of his wife and help bring him the closure he sought for years.

So, when it all comes together in a game like this: the music, the story, the graphics, and the gameplay, and even a bonus end-game dungeon, you have to wonder why it took so long to get something like this released. Dragon Quest 8 is perfection. There is no other way to describe it. A flawless RPG that is addictive not in the way that say, World of Warcraft is addictive, but in the way a really intense book or movie would be. With a powerful story, really lovable characters with serious emotions tied to them, and some of the best RPG gameplay you'll ever experience, the game is a must-play.

Welcome home Dragon Quest.


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