Dragon Quest: Journey of the Cursed King
Dragon Quest: Journey of the Cursed King is the eighth game in a series better known as Dragon Warrior in America. This, however, is the franchise's first outing on the PlayStation 2 in what has been dubbed its first proper 3D adventure. Often it is the case, that, when games continue to have sequel after sequel, the overall quality peaks early on, while the latter games become formulaic and predictable experiences - not with Dragon Quest, however. This, the latest in the long running series of traditional role playing games excels its previous efforts in nearly every way.
The 'nearly' bit points to perhaps the only below par element in Dragon Quest - its storyline, which repeats a tale that has been told in many a genre, let alone in hundreds of RPGs. You play a young boy (you can christen him with whichever name or, if you prefer, profanity you like) who sets off on a quest to find and destroy an evil wizard called Dhoulmagus. The wicked Dhoulmagus has stolen a legendary scepter from the King's castle from which our hero was a guard. Not only did he curse the castle, causing it to blossom with huge thorny shoots, but he also turned the King into an ugly toad-like creature and the princess into a horse - talk about rubbing it in. The locals are alarmed by the King's ugly appearance and he himself doesn't, understandably, really like being a freak, so the journey to sort matters out begins. Tagging along for the adventure from the off is Yangus, a bulbous cockney gentleman and former bandit. Our protagonist saved his life after an attempted ambush whereupon Yangus nearly fell to his death. Yangus feels that he owes our hero and he enjoys a good bit of fisticuffs too... so it's all good. Two more characters join you later on, Jessica and Angelo, who each have their own particular strengths.
Your adventuring unfolds in typical RPG style. Talking to anyone and everyone is the key to success. It's pretty obvious that finding Dholmagus wasn't just going to be the simple case of following his tracks in the dirt, (especially since he has the ability to float); so progress is instead attained by getting to know the locals and performing various tasks for them which, slowly but surely will lead to where you want to be heading. Each story evolution is split into small, often predictable chunks which climax with a boss battle. The time in between is really just a chance for you to level up your characters by fighting - fighting a lot.
Battles in Dragon Quest are initiated randomly (Final Fantasy-stylee), as you explore the map, and occur rather frequently. Each scrap is fought out in the long-established turn based style, with physical attacks, defensive moves, spells and all manner of tactical decisions being implanted via text-based menus. Ignoring the often frustrating frequency at which they occur, the battling elements are extremely well balanced affairs, providing the opportunity to gain money and experience points, the latter of which can then be used to assign skill points to your character's attributes that include strength, bravery and the ability to perform magic spells, as well as to your weapons which in turn become more powerful. The currency you earn can be used to purchase armour, weapons and other helpful items, but it is the tactical crediting of skill points that will most determine the speed and smoothness at which your heroes develop.
Even if you hate the random fighting to begin with, the imaginative design and personality of the game's enemies might just change your mind. Some enemies call for help from their mates, others forget that they're fighting at all and just stand around, while some increase their tension in visible purple facial straining until they blow their top and land one, sometimes lethal hit. Every attack by them and also, of course by you, is played out in beautifully smooth movements that do a great job in relaying the ferocity of attacks as signified by the amount of life lost in HP.
The gorgeousness of the game's foes is paralleled in every inch of the rest of the game's cel-shaded world - one distinctively designed by Akira Toriyama, artist of the animated anime series, Dragon Ball Z. Textures are bright, bold and detailed in everything from the weeds that climb the sides of castles to little yellow butterflies with tiny patterned wings, fluttering around tufts of grass. Dragon Quest's draw distance is also impressive, giving the player a great sense of scope and continuity between different world locations. The world's map is filled with areas including rolling green hills, luscious waterfalls and arid desert plains. The game's main characters are also brought to life with a wide range of movements and facial expressions, (this reviewer's particular favourite is Yangus' wobble as he attempts to drag about his huge frame). To top this off, every one of the game's cut-scenes is convincingly voiced, really cementing the individual traits and nuances of each character. Additionally, the orchestral soundtrack that accompanies your travels is rich and diverse, changing to match your location whether it be a happy little town or a dingy dungeon.
There's little to pull Dragon Quest up on in terms of faults. Concerning the random battling, it is more a case of individual tolerance towards them that will determine one's continuing enjoyment of the game. When the distance between leveling up each character increases and you're left with no option but to fight continually to build your strength up enough to compete with a waiting boss, admittedly the battles can get tiring. However, the sense of satisfaction afterwards is more than enough to make you forget that you wasted over an hour doing nothing but destroying the same set of enemies over and over again. Then there's the fact that Dragon Quest does nothing in terms of innovation for the RPG genre, very much sticking to a tried and tested formula - one which works very well, nonetheless.
Disregarding its unoriginality, Dragon Quest is one of the most charming games you are ever likely to play. Unlike so many releases with an annoying glitch here and a graphical mess-up there, Dragon Quest feels complete - you'd expect it to after seven tries, but that doesn't matter now, does it? With over fifty hours of gameplay and side questing on top, an engrossing leveling up system including the creation of new items by experimenting in an alchemy pot, and a delightful storyline, Dragon Quest offers too much to be ignored - even if RPGs have never been your bag.