(aka Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King)
PlayStation 2 (2004)
The prologue of Dragon Quest VIII (whose Japanese subtitle translates literally as "The Sky, The Sea, The Earth and the Cursed Princess") begins in the small kingdom of Trodain. A malicious jester named Dhoulmagus has stolen a precious magical artifact and calls a plague upon the kingdom. The castle is overrun with vines, the king is turned into a little ghoul, the princess is turned into a horse, and nearly everyone in the castle has become cursed. The only survivor is a young soldier, a hero who is mysteriously unharmed. These three leave the land in order to pursue Dhoulmagus, not only to take revenge and stop him from doing even more damage, but to find a way to turn their kingdom -- and bodies -- back to normal.
The Hero is one of the only members of the Trodain Kingdom that wasn't affected by the curse. Naturally, the reasons for your survival play a huge role in plot, at least later in the game. Like most heroes, he's a pretty balanced character, who specializes in swords, spears and boomerangs, and has some decent magic. Yangus may look like a tough brute, but he's really a big teddy bear. When he first meets the team, he tries to extort some money out of them, only to be left dangling off the side of a cliff. The hero, ever compassionate, spares his life, and Yangus joins out of gratitude, calling him "guv" from there on in. He's a gruff fellow who speaks with a Cockney accent (in the English versions, anyway), and mostly concentrates on physical attacks.
Jessica is the daughter of a rich family, who seeks to take revenge on Dhoulmagus for killing her brother in cold blood. She's mostly skilled with whips and magical spells, although her biggest asset is obviously her sex appeal. Her looks can randomly charm foes if you build them up enough, and she can even execute a "puff puff" on enemies to make them swoon. There are also a number of fetish costumes that you can dress her up as -- she's the only character that changes appearance based on what armor you equip her with. Angelo is a member of the Knights Templar, who concentrates more on boozing and flirting than doing his duties. But after Dhoulmagus sets his abbey on fire and kills his master, he shapes up and joins your party, also motivated for revenge. He's another well-rounded character, with both powerful melee attacks and strong magic. His Japanese name, Kukule, is a bit dumb, so they changed it for the English version. And then there's poor King Trode. He's cursed with the form of a troll, and thus is abhorred by pretty much everyone. He never actually fights, but instead just tags along, keeping watch over his daughter (in horse form) and moving the plot along. However, he does help create the Alchemy Pot, and gives you his comments on your battle performance.
Despite being one of Japan's most popular game series, Dragon Quest's traditionally low production values have been pretty baffling. That changed with Dragon Quest VIII, courtesy of Level 5, the team behind the Dark Cloud games. The overhead view and squat pixellated characters have been replaced with a behind-the-back camera and full 3D graphics, far better than the nice-but-still-cheap-looking PS2 remake of Dragon Quest V. The whole game is like being in full control of the best looking anime ever created, with amazing cel-shaded character models that bring out the best in Toriyama artwork, and gorgeous castles that are stunning works of polygonal architecture.
The overworld is a huge, sprawling field of green, one of the most amazing seen in any Japanese RPG, and only challenged by the likes of western RPGs like Oblivion. It's structured well enough, so that you can follow the path and reach your destination, or spend hours exploring the back roads and hidden nooks for treasures and other cool stuff. Later in the game, you can even ride a Sabrecat/Killer Panther (the same kind you got as a pet at the start of Dragon Quest V) and completely tear through the landscape. Also, for the first time since Dragon Quest V, the day/night cycle has returned. On the negative side, the dungeons are often on the simple side. Although the inclusion of maps are definitely welcome (you just need to find them first), many feel simplified compared to previous games.
The battle system also benefits hugely from the graphical upgrade. For the first time, you actually see your enemies and characters attack each other. Although this makes battles slower, it makes each fight far more engaging than the simple text narration and sound effects, although those are there too. To counterbalance this, the enemy encounter rate has significantly dropped, so combat is rarely overwhelming. This is also the first game where you can finally target individual enemies instead of groups -- it took them long enough! All characters also have the ability to "Psyche Up", an expansion of a skill from the previous games. Psyching up will sacrifice a character's turn in order to strengthen themselves up, which is referred to as "tension". Their tension rises exponentially every turn you Psyche-Up, and dissipates whenever you take another action.
The idea is that you can do more damage if you psyche up for four turns then attack, as opposed to simply fighting every turn. It adds a lot more strategy to the battles, and it carefully balances the risk vs. reward mechanic without becoming overpowered, because many bosses have the ability to reduce a character's tension completely. At a certain level, you can also reach a state of Super High Tension where you freak out Dragon Ball Z-style and turn purple in the process.
Still, in as many steps forward that Dragon Quest VIII takes, it falls a few steps back on other issues. There's no real narrative hook here - DQIV had the chapter system, DQV had the "follow hero through his life" thing, DQVI had the dream world and DQVII had time travel. DQVIII is much more simplistic -- you're a small band of travelers out to defeat evil, and little more. The plot eventually kicks into gear about midway through the game -- as to be expected, Dhoulmagus is far from the final bad guy -- but if you're expecting anything revelatory, DQVIII doesn't really offer it.
Similarly, there are only four human characters to play as, which is disappointing considering the wider roles offered in other games. What it lacks in story is made up for in personality -- due to both the expressive character models and outstanding writing, this is easily the most memorable cast of characters seen in a Dragon Quest game. They converse amongst each other more often, and using the Talk option to learn about current events is much more constructive than it was in DQVII. Furthermore, the English version of the game features some absolutely outstanding voice acting. Most of the actors and actresses come from British drama troupes, and feature over-the-top British accents, goofy voices, and quirky speech mannerisms that turn even the minor NPCs into amusing caricatures. It's definitely a welcome addition, considering the Japanese version doesn't have any voice acting at all.
The class system has been ditched in favor of a more simplified skill building system. Each character can master one of three weapons, in addition to bare-handed fisticuffs, as well as a single character trait (the hero has Courage, Jessica has Sex Appeal, etc), for a total of five different fields. When you level up, you're granted skill points to distribute in each of these areas. At certain intervals, your character will level up that skill, and be granted either additional attack power or special skills. In one way, it removes a lot of the depth from character building found in DQVI and DQVII, but it's also much easier to manage and less confusing.
Capturing monsters works much differently too. While walking around, occasionally you'll find monsters that are visible on the field. These are called "infamous monsters", and are usually a bit more powerful than their normal counterparts. Once you certain part of the game (Morrie's Coliseum), these infamous monsters will join your "monster team" once they're defeated. You can then use these monsters to fight in automated tournament levels, which can eventually earn you new items and such. As you progress through the ranks, you can eventually get a skill to call your monster team into regular combat to take your party's place for a few turns.
Also new is the Alchemy Pot. Similar to the item creation systems in other RPGs, you can toss items into this magic pot and end up with a completely new item. Randomly chucking things in won't get good results, but you can find new recipes by checking out bookshelves spread throughout the world, or by cheating and reading a strategy guide.
In addition to the voice acting, the English version includes fully orchestrated music from the Symphonic Suite album, whereas the Japanese version uses rather dull synth. The double edged sword is that the music was originally recorded for an album, and the quality sounds somewhat off when used in game. The English version also features an improved menu system which uses pictures. The only downside is that these features increase the loading times a bit, but never to a point where it's too irritating. The Japanese version also uses classic sound effects from the 8-bit games when you attack, cast magic, or execute any other action in battle. Most of these were removed from the English version, except for the "dodge" noise, which is still present.
Since it reclaimed the Dragon Quest name for the American release (the original trademark held by the TSR board game had since expired), the translators decided to reboot the naming conventions and make them closer to the original Japanese names. The spell names are closer to pnomatopoeia -- "Heal" is still "Heal", but now the fire spells have been named "Sizz" and "Sizzle", the ice spells are now "Crack" and "Crackle", and such. Some monsters have reverted too -- wyverns are now known as chimaeras, for example. A bunch of other silly names include the Funghoul (an evil mushroom), Treevil (an evil tree), a Chainine (a chain-wielding dog), a Goreilla (a mad ape) and Spitnik (a floating sun that spits fire.)
Unlike many Square Enix games where improvements were made for a western version, DQVIII was never re-released in Japan, so all other territories definitely got the superior version. This is also the first time Dragon Quest has been released in Europe, although it ditches the numeral and is simply referred to as Dragon Quest: The Journey of the Cursed King.