a review of Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
a videogame developed by Level-5
and published by Square-Enix
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by Ario Barzan
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. This is a video game that managed to make me plunk down three days’ worth of hours, never to complete it, to speak of it as the most beautiful little monster. A great title that’s not great because it cheats itself out of true potential – accomplished by way of fetishistic and arid adherence to long-pointless craft, now cuddled by baroque swirls of Tradition – Dragon Quest VIII is presented as a young, budding musician in a shop who forsakes his talent and inherits his father’s business of shoe making. He’s forming the most wonderful compositions in his head – but, look, he’s in a shoe shop.
The story, here, is simple and straight, if sometimes embarrassing because of the (unusually good) voice acting that brings out the absurdity of situations (talking evil dogs with death vendettas). And, really, the voices are good, but I and the game could do without them. You are cast into the boots of Silent Hero Nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine, and your journey started before you started the game. Some time ago, a magician put a spell on the castle you guarded, turning most everyone into plants. Mysteriously, you weren’t affected. Now, you are stopping by a town for information, and your companions are a princess horse, a gremlin king, and a squat ruffian.
Your first battle is with three blue, bouncing, happy-faced dollops called Slimes, seemingly the series’ mascot, who leap out from the grass at your camp site. The screen’s colors smudge, then refocus. A first-person view shows the enemies with text saying “A slime appears!” three times. You select “Attack” from a menu displaying battle options, and you or the ruffian named Yangus will lash out with sword or club. You exchange blows with the Slimes until they are dead. It’s quick, mindless. The slimes are cute. Were this a one-time, referential throwback, I’d be slinging an arm around Dragon Quest VIII‘s back and telling it, “Listen – let’s hit the town, tonight. Drinks are on me.” But, no. Japanese RPGs come and go, faceless drones pumped out of the unloving corporate womb, and it’s a shame that here is Dragon Quest VIII, containing more character than damn near everything, and it’s a tragedy of design.
For forcing me into a three-to-five-or-more-minute situation every fifteen seconds, the game doesn’t do a very good job in validation. It’s not even that I have a big problem with the turn-based mold. Super Mario RPG was excellence. This realizes its format and hands in a circle with two dots and an upward crescent as a portrait for its figure drawing class. Simplicity is fine, provided there’s a constant verve. Dragon Quest VIII‘s mechanics are grayed by a tired prosaicism: there are no tweaks that produce even mildly involving combat.
The timing of button presses in Super Mario RPG let you better your attacks or reduce the potency of enemies’, and that simple element slipped such a deceptively thin layer into the fighting, leading to great results, like taking out bosses in a single usage of the Super Jump because you were awesome enough. Dragon Quest VIII‘s “timing,” then, is the Tension feature. Select “Psyche Up” and watch your avatar attempt to ease their constipation and incrementally increase their strength. This simply makes them into a pacifist; if you want your hit to be powerful enough to matter, you’ve go to keep selecting “Psyche Up” with each turn and refrain from all other actions until you’ve become a pseudo-Super Saiyan. Sometimes you won’t even fully power up. I guess that’s the game’s idea of a cute technical quirk. It’s cardboard-flavored, and relies on arbitrary oppositional behavior for proper execution (i.e. oh god I hope this boss doesn’t kill me before I can get a hit in at MAXIMUM POWER).
None of the fighting you do – and you do a hell of a lot of fighting – seems to matter, because you aren’t doing any fighting. Every attack is an animated substitute backed up by statistics, numbed by a wash of NES RPGs’ graph-paper-white and the disconnect from player input. It’s your numbers crunching against others’, and the so-called skill required for progress translates to the path of time consumption and “paper beats rock.” It doesn’t help that equipment is sold at merciless prices. The blur of the screen and the swell of the battle music sends a sickness through the gut similar to the feeling upon looking at the clock and knowing your shift at a hateful job is about to begin. The fighting isn’t something to be enjoyed within itself; it’s an aspect to get over with as soon as possible, which is sort of morbidly hilarious, considering how dragging the fights really are. There are awkwardly long pauses for loading and “charming” padding that drags. If Yangus hits an enemy and paralyzes them, the screen will say “X is paralyzed!” below, and represent this with zig-zagging lines around the monster. Then, the camera will zoom in on the monster and repeat the line, “X is paralyzed!” These annoyances build up to form speed bumps. Even saving is a bunch of drawn-out nonsense.
It’s a weird twist that part of Dragon Quest VIII‘s undoing is its own sincerity regarding its format. Seams are touted as time-honored triumphs (Look! I’m like what you played when you were little!). I surprise myself when I say the thing could be better off with a slice of dishonesty. Or, preferably, guts. I mean, okay – random fights. Why don’t we give them reasons for happening, rather than warping us to scuffles with three dragons when there were not three dragons in front of us on a huge field four-seconds ago? Logic, people. As part of any game becomes literalized, the remaining abstractions clash more furiously. The cohesiveness, pacing of Dragon Quest VIII‘s world cracks when naturalness is split up with antiques. Chrono Trigger did it right, and maybe if we’d stop being so afraid of it, maybe if we were willing to digest its ideas and stop treating it as that game – maybe we’d be somewhere.
So what else is left? Everything you do outside of the killing, and that, ladies and sirs, is the running, which is some of the most gorgeously divine running next to Shadow of the Colossus. It’s so good, hell, you might want to walk. I don’t care what you think about Akira Toriyama, his imprisoned character style be damned, because Dragon Quest VIII is luscious to gaze upon. When it’s on the television screen, I am playing 3D for the first time, as it were, using the camera like a madman to sop up blue, blue skies and bending trees on green, rolling hills. Heaven help those who’re insufferable maintainers of the same Mature Gamer pride that kept them from appreciating the joy of Wind Waker‘s style (God knows what would happen if they weren’t found chewing beef jerky, guffawing at a Chuck Norris joke, and sniping someone’s head via Sam Fisher). You could live in Dragon Quest VIII‘s buildings, warmed by fireplaces and thick colors, supported by velvety beams of wood and brickwork you want to touch. It’s disgustingly rich. Yes, I invested close to seventy hours on my file, and it was all for the running and the clean shorelines and the freshness of a pale sunrise.
Koichi Sugiyama, close to being in his eighties, and a gear in the series’ distinct trio (the other two being Toriyama and Yuji Horii), really got me to buy Dragon Quest VIII. The man is Bernstein, Debussy, Hubert Parry – a wealth of composers rolled into one distinct mind. He’s another Hitoshi Sakimoto, writing compositions not bound by the usual play-required context of game music. As far as I’m concerned, Sugiyama still hasn’t gotten past the peak of Dragon Quest V, a commonality in the field (Uematsu has his Final Fantasy 6, etc.), but it’s difficult to get disappointed with how consistent he is. This consistency, admittedly, has made some of his output feel a bit recurrent. Dragon Quest VIII‘s non-Japan release has (usually) orchestrated music, a decision I can appreciate, not being the world’s most rabid fan of MIDI. The soundtrack is sweet, clear, waiting to be explored, though it could use some restraint at points, or extra spice. The overworld theme gets too loud and too loopy after a while. On the other hand, the music for sailing is the greatest sailing music in the world, anything and everything it should be.
There is a part in Dragon Quest VIII where you’ve exited a town near the sea. The town is renowned for its sculptors. Beyond it, the climate has changed. Trees’ leaves and the grass are coated in autumn tones, a result of the Northern location and its nearby snowy lands. Between you and your ulterior motive is a Pisa-like building called Rydon’s Tower. Rydon, a man obsessed with height in his architecture, is supposedly still in the tower, still building up to the sky, still trying to outdo himself. Each slice of a floor is supported by columns, and their spacing exposes the blue enamel of the sky and brown, limber trees. The wind and Sugiyama’s in-game masterpiece quietly mingle. It’s a dream. As a professor is more critical of the slacker genius than the brain-dead slob, I pick on Dragon Quest VIII. While the coating is generally matured, sparkling, the mechanics remain rooted in the diaper they shat in two decades ago. An invocation of nostalgia is used as a crutch for entertainment, and the battle design isn’t “daringly antique” or “classically refreshing” – it’s stagnantly unaltered and impotent. People fear change above all else: this fear squashed and wrinkled Dragon Quest IX‘s intention to put us in the action. I hope Square-Enix has the balls to give the series’ pants a kick in the future. Dragon Quest VIII is a frustrating mixture: both sub-mediocre and soaring above the crowd. For that, I recommend it and say, “Stay the hell away.”