Best of the quest.
Ever watch one of those home-makeover shows? Some family leaves their dilapidated mess of a house, only to come back a few days later and find their loveable old shack transformed into a mansion of beauty and stylish functionality. It's the same old place with a whole new face.
Likewise, if the original Dragon Warrior was my homey little bachelor pad, then Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King marks its full transformation to lady-killing penthouse suite.
It's finally got the right name, too. The Dragon Warrior games for the NES were actually called Dragon Quest in their native Japan, and the series continued overseas with little heed to the States after the death of the old gray box. Apparently this has all been sorted out, and thankfully so, since the game really marks the pinnacle of classic RPG gaming.
The plot is about as old-school as it gets: you unite with your comrades in the common interest of destroying the evil plaguing the world. This time around it's Dhoulmagus, who's yoinked a scepter of terrible power from its ancient resting place and proceeds to keep a few steps ahead of you while seriously messing up anything in his path.
You'll be traveling with Trode, the "cursed king" the title indicates. Dhoulmagus showed up at the Trodian castle and covered the place in thorny vines, somehow leaving you, a lowly solider, unaffected. He transformed Trode into a squat green monster, however, and zapped the princess into the horse that pulls your wagon along. It sucks to be the king.
But it rules to play the game. While not bursting with innovation, Dragon Quest VIII is a study in refinement and sheer fluidity. The massive 3D world streams continuously, with only small pauses when entering towns and such. If you're wondering where that waterfall you need to explore could be, climb a hill and look around. You can see for miles. You can also free-look at any point, either to get your bearings, scope out hidden treasure, or just watch the moon rise over the ocean. Some of the views are so wild, you'll wish you had a camera.
The impressive character engine is entirely cel-shaded, with design by Akira Toriyama of Dragonball Z fame. Needless to say, it looks phenomenal from top to bottom. Down to the most inconsequential NPC, everyone is immaculately rendered as an expressive cartoon. The new style allows for a great deal of emotion in their faces; talk to someone in the grieving kingdom of Ascantha, and you'll know it's been rough before they say it. The wickedness and depravity in Dhoulmagus" expression during one of your first encounters is as unsettling as it is brief. At many points, the presentation is so clean you'll swear you're playing a cartoon.
But like mom always said, it's what's inside that counts. Yuji Horii, creator of the series and responsible for a little game called Chrono Trigger, brings all his experience to bear on the nuts and bolts of this classic masterwork. Keeping with tradition, you walk around and complete quests to further the story and beef up your party of four. The combat system is fast and cinematic, with wacky enemies both new and old to the Dragon Quest world. Hack, blast, level up, repeat.
Unfortunately, some rather annoying old flaws come with the package, mainly in the form of irritating, unavoidable random battles that pop up out of thin air. It's an old design issue that really could have been resolved, but the combat system is quick enough to keep that from being a deal breaker.
In fact, the ease of commanding your forces along with fluid combat animations and varied enemy A.I. makes all that fighting a blast. While they aren't genius tacticians, an old enemy might suddenly bust out a powerful new attack or spell you've never seen, forcing you to stay strategic and not just attack, attack, attack. Bosses can also be quite rough if your levels aren't up to snuff.
In addition to normal fighting and spellcasting, you're able to "psyche up" your characters to pump up your next move. This is a great feature, as it's not solely based on attacking. Healing and even defending are enhanced by raising your "tension" level, making it a smooth addition to an already slick system.
As you progress, you'll gain skill points to spread across five abilities specific to each character. This grants you a degree of customization, allowing the rough and tumble dwarf Yangus to pick between, say, Humanity, which would grant a healing or support ability, or Scythe skill, which lets him steal items and cause more damage. You can fill them all in eventually, but it'll take a while.
So will getting through this gargantuan outing. With total completion touted at over 100 hours, it's an investment, not a diversion. The pacing of the story will keep you going, as you are literally dropped into its events, getting sepia-tone glimpses of the past as you go. We aren't breaking new ground here, but the plot does a good job at remaining compelling even if you can probably guess what happens next. Various non-plot events also keep things interesting, like betting in the casino or finding special monsters to battle in the Monster Arena.
You'll benefit from the king's company in the form of an "alchemy pot" used to concoct an assortment of useful stuff, from better herbs to fancier armor. In addition to allowing experimentation, various bookshelves in the game hold recipes. King Trode also keeps track of a wealth of statistics to pique your curiosity, like miles traveled, items found, total gold collected and a bestiary organized by monster type and location. There's simply a ton of content here.
Tying it together is the fantastic orchestral backdrop provided by famed composer Koichi Sugiyama. The tunes revisit the classic themes of Dragon Warrior and add enough new numbers to make me wonder why I've had fanfare stuck in my head all week. Whether surging with emotion or making you feel right at home in a tiny village, your ears will love it.
Hell, the rest of you will, too. The core of Dragon Quest VIII is the epitome of elegant design while the aesthetics are nearly unmatched. What it lacks in innovation it makes up for in refinement and delivery, leading to the new king of the old school.