Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

For Christmas, I was given Dragon Quest XI for PS4. Playing it for a couple of hours reminded me of just how much I like Dragon Quest. It also reminded me that I didn’t finish Dragon Quest VII: Journey of the Cursed King when it was released for the 3DS a couple of years ago. So while I waited for Etrian Odyssey Nexus to be released, I dug out my copy to jam in my 3DS and finish off the playthrough I started back then.

Dragon Quest VIII makes an interesting counterpart to Dragon Quest XI because they are so similar. Even in a series known for sticking to a formula, these two games are nearly identical. They are both visually impressive, back to basics games. Both of them are games if not designed, at least positioned for success in the West for what is largely a Japanese series. With the caveat that I’m only about a third of the way through Dragon Quest 11, they are both two of my favorite games in the series.*

Dragon Quest’s reputation for staidness is a little overblown; it does occasionally tinker with the formula. VI and VII has some narrative innovation, with a job system that didn’t become available until too long into the game and some other strange pacing choices. Immediately following 8 was Dragon Quest 9’s Monster Hunter influenced take on the series, with its multiplayer stuff. Dragon Quest 8 was the only “normal” Dragon Quest game for about a decade on either side of it. Really though, the game is stripped almost bare of mechanics and characters, resting its accomplishments primarily on the purity of its vision.

That works for the game. There is a little bit of character customization, letting the player choose which of a handful of weapons each character can use. However, the party capped at 4 characters in the initial release. The 3DS added two newcomers, one who felt like she could have been on the team originally and one oddball. Still, they both join up very late in the proceedings and are mostly there for late and post-game shenanigans. The limited party with limited options lets the game be very specific with challenges. There aren’t a lot of ways to break the game, to do things out of sequence or blow up the difficulty curve. That is a mark against the game with many people, I know. I do enjoy games like Final Fantasy Tactics, which just lets the player go nuts and tear it apart, or Breath of the Wild, which encourages the player to do things their own way. However, I am not one to dock a game for carefully calibrating the experience. There are no shortcuts and few tricks to getting through Dragon Quest VIII, you play at the games pace.

It works because that pace is good. The game starts with a fairly simple quest: King Trode, Princess Medea, and their entire kingdom have been cursed by the evil jester Dhoulmagus. The protagonist is the one lowly guardsman who escaped the curse, and now leads the quest to break the curse. At the start they are joined by Yangus, a burly thief with a heart of gold. Soon they are joined by the fiery Jessica, whose life has also been overturned by Dhoulmagus, and cool playboy Angelo, who has been cast out of his religious order. It is not a story in which characters change a whole lot. The protagonist is silent cipher, with the player having some ability to shape his personality. Yangus has already went straight by the time the game starts, and is always Eight’s, as the protagonist is called, right hand man, with insider knowledge of most of the lowlifes they run into. Angelo is always more than he seems, and most of his secrets are full revealed by the time he joins. Jessica maybe gets the most growth of the party, as she learns her potential after being stifled most of her life. It is a fun group, with different perspectives and reactions to everything the party runs into. But it is also a limited group; you pretty well know how each of them are going to react to anything by the midway point.

The game tailors the challenges around that limited party. Early on it knows that the player has only Yangus’s power and Eight’s all around qualities; that is a time for simple strategies as the player learns the game. Then it adds Jessica the mage, and gives her opportunities to shine. Finally, you get Angelo the healer, so the game can really take the gloves off and come at the player. Your options are always limited, but there are enough things to consider when fighting bosses. It just all works wonderfully. The new additions to the 3DS version add some wrinkles near the end, but that is too late to really change things.

The story, building off the simple quest, is Dragon Quest’s traditional vignettes, with each area telling a complete story that is also a piece of the larger story. That is the best thing the series has going for it; very few games work like that and even fewer do it as well as Dragon Quest. One detail I love is that there is a low key mystery through the game about how the protagonist avoided the curse that is never dealt with before the post-game. No other game would leave that detail for post-credits revelations. Also, the game is gorgeous. The visuals are slightly downgraded on 3DS, but they still create a wonderful cartoon world.

So far, everything Dragon Quest VIII does well, Dragon Quest XI does too. It is structured the same way, but bigger. The world is bigger and better looking. The party is more diverse and there are more options for each character. It still feels the same, though. After a decade of detours, Dragon Quest XI is the game the finally follows up on the game that really got me into the series. With it Western success, Dragon Quest XI feels like the game that Dragon Quest VIII always wanted to be. And really, mostly was.

*For the record: V, IV, VIII, (XI pending completion), IX, I, III, VI, VII, II

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Dragon Quest Rankings

I finished up with Dragon Quest 8 3DS a few weeks ago, but since I’ve already said just about everything I have to say about it in this post, I figured I would mark the achievement, such as it is, by making a list ranking the main line Dragon Quest games. I could have tried to fit in some of the spin offs I’ve played, but what I’ve played and what I haven’t outside of the main series is pretty spotty and it’s been so long since I’ve touched the original Dragon Quest Monsters, for instance, that I thought it better to just stick with the main series.

  1. Dragon Quest 5: Hand of the Heavenly Bride – This is just about a perfect rpg.  It is Dragon Quest at its best, with solid if basic gameplay and interesting narrative experimentations.  Playing through the life of the protagonist, from starting out as a little kid until he has kids of his own. It is just a delight
  2. Dragon Quest 4: Chapters of the Chosen – Much like 5, this is another game that plays around with narrative structure, opening with several short sections with completely different casts until they all come together under the protagonist.
  3. Dragon Quest 8: Journey of the Cursed King – Possibly the simplest game in the series since DQ4.  Yet is is also the most charming since 5.  8 deliberately breaks no new ground, but it is a perfectly executed classic style jrpg.
  4. Dragon Quest 9: Sentinels of the Starry Skies – The only new DS entry is the best version of the series’ class system.  The gameplay is fine but nothing more than the enjoyably basic JRPG that most of the series offers, though it does have a somewhat enjoyable multiplayer mode.
  5. Dragon Quest 7: Fragments of the Forgotten Past – I’ve only played the recent 3DS version and I liked it, but between this and DQ6, no series is better at bungling a class system than Dragon Quest.
  6. Dragon Quest 6: Realms of Revelation – I kind of hate most of this game’s characters and it takes forever to really get going.
  7. Dragon Quest 3: Seeds of Salvation – Full disclosure: I haven’t played more than an hour or two of this game.  Instead of using that as a reason not to include it or to postpone this list, I am instead considering it a mark against the game, since I’ve found the time to play all the rest. I will revisit when I finally do play it.
  8. Dragon Quest – There is stuff to like about the original Dragon Quest, but there really isn’t that much there all told.
  9. Dragon Quest 2: Luminaries of the Legendary Line – Grindy and not all that fun.

Dragon Quest VIII 3DS

I think I had kind of forgotten how important Dragon Quest VIII was to me until I played the 3DS remake.  I always remembered liking the game well enough, slotting it somewhere in the middle of the series when rating my enjoyment of them.  I liked it better than the primitive DQ1 or the grindy DQ2 or DQ6, which I just don’t much care for, but I didn’t consider it a favorite like DQ 4 or 5 or even 9.  It just wasn’t a game I thought much about. Playing the 3DS port/remake, which improves the game in several ways but is also hampered enough by technical issues to not be strictly the definitive version, really brought back how much I liked that game.

During what in hindsight appears to be something of a Golden Age during the heart of the PS2/GC/XBOX days, I largely drifted out of gaming.  I owned a GameCube, but despite a steady stream of solid games, between Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker near the start of 2003 and Resident Evil 4 in early 2005, which was the last new GameCube game I bought before I got a PS2, I played maybe 5 new games. I bought Viewtiful Joe and Tales of Symphonia for myself, got Skies of Arcadia Legends and Lord of The Rings: Return of the King for Christmas, and my brother and I went in together to Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Most of those are great games.  Viewtiful Joe and Skies of Arcadia Legends are among my all-time favorites. Return of the King was a great co-op experience during Winter Break, but I have neither the time nor inclination to revisit it and see if it holds up.  Tales of Symphonia was the right game at the right time in the summer of 2004. And Crystal Chronicles is at the very least interesting.  While those were some great games, and there were plenty of great games hitting the GC and other systems, I found myself less and less interested. While the RPGs in that list took some time to play, none of the others are all that lengthy. Some of my disinterest is could be down to the GC not really having the RPGs that really interested me at the time, but I didn’t really feel a pull to get a PS2, where those games could be found. At least, I didn’t until I saw FFXII on the horizon.

The inexorable pull of Final Fantasy XII was enough to get me to finally take the plunge on a PS2. Since that game was the primary pull for me to get the system, before it was released late in 2006, I picked up a copy of Dragon Quest VIII, which came with a FFXII demo disc. I was interested, though not exactly excited, to play Dragon Quest VIII. The only game in the series I had played was Dragon Warrior on NES and while I had fond memories of it, I hadn’t played it in a decade or so.  Dragon Quest 8 was a JRPG, which I like, with an appealing graphical style not unlike that in Wind Waker.  I wasn’t ready for how much I would enjoy it.

The essence of the 3DS remake of DQ8 is the same as the PS2 original.  That game charmed me with its aesthetics and is back to basics approach to the JRPG.  Most of the games of that genre that I love emphasize a sense of adventure over strictly mechanical or storytelling concerns.  That is why I love Skies of Arcadia and Lunar.  While no Dragon Quest games are strictly complex, DQ8 rolls its mechanics back to the basics.  There is a tiny amount of character customization, but otherwise the game is very simple.  Neither is the story particularly innovative or original.  It has a silent protagonist on a quest to save a princess, join by a trio of like-minded companions. That shouldn’t be the recipe for a beloved classic, but DQ8 shines in the execution of its very simple adventure.  

One thing the game did better than any game before it how well it realized a world.  Other PS2 games, like Final Fantasy X, eliminated the overworld in favor of linear pathways to follow.  Dragon Quest 8 went the other way, creating a full sized world for the player to explore.  Better than any other jrpg I had ever played, Dragon Quest 8 made me feel like I was in the world of the game.  That feeling is greatly helped by its excellent graphics, which helps create a cohesive world.

 

The simple story, the impetuous for exploring the game’s excellent world, doesn’t work without solid characters and that is another area where the game shines. Both its playable and non-playable characters a delightful and memorable.  Jessica and Angelo are simply well executed stock genre characters. Like the game itself, they break little new ground, but are perfect for what they are.  Yangus, though, is the real star, with his cockney accent and general scruffiness.  His interactions with King Trode are a constant delight. The 3DS adds his sometimes paramour Red as a playable characters, and she is likewise a lot of fun. Then there are the characters that make up the casts in each town the player visits.  There are too many to mention.

Something about this game’s back to basics approach, stripping the genre down to its essence and concentrating on the presentation just worked for me, both in 2007 and in 2017. Back then, I was hoping that the forward thinking, groundbreaking Final Fantasy XII would be the game to make me love playing video games again. But Dragon Quest VIII isn’t the most complex game or the most original, but it is a perfectly executed take on the genre.

Musings on Death (in video games)

It is the 25th Anniversary of Dragon Quest—in Japan, the first game took three more years to get to America—and since I’m currently playing Dragon Quest VI, I thought it might be a good ides to celebrate one of the series best features. Dragon Quest is the bread and butter of the JRPG genre, with nearly every other game using it at as a starting point or inspiration. For as much as the series is copied, too few other games use Dragon Quest’s no game over strategy.

In most RPGs, as well as most other types of games, if you die you get a blood red “Game Over” screen and it kicks you back out to the title. However, Dragon Quest, even as far back as the first game in the series, just tosses the player back to the last—or only in the case of DQ1—church. All experience and items gained stay with the player, though the gold the player was carrying is cut in half. It doesn’t quite take all the penalty out of dying, but it does severely lessen the blow. Most importantly, it assures the player that they are never wasting their time. In the normal death model, being wiped by a boss means that all the progress through the dungeon has been lost, where in Dragon Quest all is means is you have to fight the boss again. It allows the game to up the difficulty of fights without frustrating the player since progress is never lost.

How do games like Final Fantasy get around to loss of progress problem? By adding more save points, an imperfect resolution at best. With more save points, frequently one just before boss rooms, there is less loss of progress, but it still wastes time. It takes the player out of the game. Sure, you’ll just reload your save and try again; nothing has changed from the last time other than any knowledge of the boss gleaned from the failed attempt. Instead of distressingly punitive consequences, there are none. Why games refuse to adopt Dragon Quest’s elegant death mechanic is puzzling.

Many ill-informed critics don’t seem to grasp the Dragon Quest system and instead deride the series for its draconian saving policy (i.e. at churches, only at churches). That is a feature, not a bug. Though a quick save feature like the DS games have is a welcome feature. By restricting permanent saves to town, it encourages players to reevaluate their approach after a death.

Playing Dragon Quest just really makes me wish more RPGs considered what they are penalizing on death. I love Persona 3, but its death mechanics are unfriendly for the sake of being unfriendly. In the game, there are two separate battle situations. There are the full moon story segments, usually a boss and maybe a small dungeon with a few random battles, where a game over makes sense. There is little progress lost and the fate of the world rests specifically on that time. However, Tartarus, the randomly generated grinding pit, is the opposite. A game over loses all progress on the long trek to the next safe floor. Everything is stacked against the player. If the main character dies game over, many enemies like to spam instant death magic. The battles are not really random, but the enemies in each are.

Very little challenge would be lost if instead of losing everything upon death the player was instead forced out of the dungeon for that day. The floors a randomly generated, so there is no memorizing the layout. The player would still have to start from the last safe/boss floor and make it to the next safe/boss floor in one go. All the player would keep are the levels from the battle that they already won. There is no loss of challenge, just a loss of time wasting bullshit.

I’m not sure the same could be said of the Etrian Odyssey series, where the challenge is to survive in the maze-like dungeon. If dying merely sent the player back to town, with say the loss of all items being carried, most of the challenge would be lost, turning the game into one long tedious, toothless grind. Of course, Etrian Odyssey is much less dependant on gotcha deaths than Persona, at least after the first couple of floors. Instead of no penalty, it could use a rescue system, where the player uses other characters from the guild to go get the ones who fell, but as it is I think it works. While Etrian Odyssey could undoubtedly be friendlier, it at least seems well considered in its hostility.

Questing for Dragons

I am back to playing Dragon Quest VI on my DS. Like nearly every other entry in the series, I like it. The Dragon Quest series is comfortable. The games may no break much ground, but they are crafted with so much skill and affection that they never feel tired.

Dragon Quest VI highlights one of the series greatest strengths: the episodic nature of its plot. Some other RPGs do this to an extent as well, like the Suikoden series, but Dragon Quest is notable for placing greater focus on the trials and tribulations of each small town and their inhabitants rather than the larger world saving quest. Not that the world saving is ignored, just that the small vignettes are the focus and therefore more memorable. Dragon Quest VI puts even more emphasis on them than other Dragon Quest games. It really helps make the game world seem big and real when not everyone and everything is focused on the central conflict.

Unfortunately, DQVI also continues a trend in the series that is awful and inexplicable: hiding the job system. Nearly half of the DQ series uses a job system and all of them, save maybe DQIII that I have not played, bury it behind ten or more hours of the game. I just do not understand it. A job/class system is a real draw for me; I want to play around with teaching my characters interesting combinations of abilities. Why hide the game’s biggest draw behind a quarter game’s worth of simplified combat? The Final Fantasy games with job systems make it available within an hour of turning the game on. They limit the class options, but still allow the player some early choices. I would rather DQ do that than just dump the system on the player after ten rote hours.