In Europe, we’ve had to wait a long time to play a Dragon Quest. Those of us who really started playing these things with Final Fantasy VII have long wondered what it would be like to play Japan’s other big RPG, but without a detailed knowledge of the language we’ve been left out in the cold. As a result, the release of Dragon Quest VIII – the first entry seen over here and the first on PS2 – couldn’t have been any more anticipated.
So it’s somehow fitting that, with Dragon Quest: The Journey of the Cursed King as it’s known over here, patience is a necessary virtue. To be totally honest, the first three hours are a bind. The action moves at a painfully slow pace and your two-strong starting party can be wiped out with ease, sending you straight back to the nearby town and forcing you to redo whole dungeons from the start.
To make things worse, the game hits you immediately with ludicrous numbers of that old Japanese RPG horror: the wandering monster. Even the simplest journey seems stretched to the point of misery. In effect, you’re made to feel like Dragon Quest’s whipping boy, and it’s at this point that the negative thoughts keep coming: “Haven’t RPGs got a lot further on than this? Shouldn’t I be having fun by now?” you’ll ask. From the simple turn-based combat to the basic character progression system, Dragon Quest feels like a Japanese RPG of early nineties vintage. It’s certainly less complex and more accessible than the Final Fantasy series has become, yet it’s oddly hardcore in its own way. It feels like it should be able to reach an audience that doesn’t usually play RPGs, yet it would lose most casual gamers within thirty minutes of the off.
The fact that the game survives this slow start comes down to one thing: charm. For a start, Dragon Quest looks beautiful. Anyone can do cel-shaded cartoon graphics, but this is one of those rare games – Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker being another – where thought and imagination make the difference between dull technique and bold artistic choice. Again, there’s something retro at work here. As anyone who has played the masterful Chrono Trigger – which shared the same artist, Akira Toriyama – will note, Dragon Quest brings the bright, colourful worlds of the classic Super Nintendo RPGs to vivid 3D life, and the change from the gothic sci-fantasy gloom of most PS2 RPGs could not be any more pronounced. The result is a storybook fantasy world you will want to explore, with its forests, trees, rivers, castles, beaches, caves and villages just waiting for your party to discover them.