Dragon Quest VIII: The Soul Stealer

That’s what they should have called it. Sure, there’s a cursed king who journeys the world, so it makes sense that it should be called Journey of the Cursed King, but does that make it right? I don’t want to give anything away about the story, but The Soul Stealer applies well enough to the game events. I think anyone who has played it would agree. But most importantly, and I’m positive people who have played the game will back me on this assertion, if you play the game, the game will steal your soul. Though when I put it that way, it suddenly sounds like the contrived plot of a crappy horror movie…

Since my birthday, on the 18th of January, I’ve been playing DQ8, with a few rounds of Guitar Hero thrown in for good measure. I finally beat DQ8 last night, around midnight. (Barely, I should add. Somehow I managed to let all of my party members die except for the Hero during the last fight. Let me just say I am very thankful for my monster teams.) I have well over 100 hours logged to my save, but many of those hours were just from the game being left on unattended, but still, it has kept me gleefully occupied for a long time. Or perhaps I should say that for a long time it has kept my soul fiendishly imprisoned.

The game is a masterpiece. After such a long drought of quality rpgs on the PS2 (I was thinking Xenosaga 2 was a good game), DQ8 hits with that much more impact. (Well, I did get to play Shadowhearts: Covenant, and that was a really good game.) The story is simple, but engaging enough, and has a few supporting threads that twist around for added depth. The music is…good, but after 100 hours it grows wearisome. The voice acting is for the most part excellent, and when it isn’t, it’s usually campy enough that it doesn’t matter.

The graphics are beautiful. I think the quality of the graphics helps make the game as wonderful as it is. Normally, I tend to think that graphics and eyecandy aren’t really necessary, that they simply make it that much more enjoyable to play, like a pillow-top mattress that makes the bed that much more comfy to lie on. But for this game, the graphics really add an element that I think the game needs in order to keep the player involved. If the developers tried to make the same game with 8-bit graphics, or as a text adventure, it wouldn’t work as-is and would need to become a different game. The reason, I think, is because exploration is such a key part of the gameplay. While the plot plays out linearly, the developers have created a vast world (almost life-size in its scale and detail) for the player to explore and roam. Sure, you can use a spell or item to bamf from one place to the next, but then you would miss the experience of walking out of the trees to the image of the setting sun framed between opposing cliff faces, the red light glittering on the ocean waters in the distance. It is fun just to be in the world of DQ8.

One thing I would like to point out about the graphics before moving on is the incredible animation. The 3d cel-shaded-ish graphics themselves are very nice and highly detailed. But what sells the package is the excellent animation. When stone golems fall, defeated in battle, you visually feel their mass as they crash to the ground. Inertia, mass, detail of movement, all exquisitely captured. (And yes, for all of the twelve year old boys reading this, assuming you’d read this far, the bewb jiggling animation is done with the same attention to detail.)

Of course, the meat of the game is not simply wandering the planet, but kicking a lot of monster butt. The combat system is simple, but allows for a lot of personal preference in how you use your characters. Strategy is key, as even a simple random fight can wipe out your party if you are careless or unprepared. For once, the principle healer is a male character, though he is no slouch in armed combat. The female magic-user can also hold her own in a tussle, which means the player has to decide how best to ply the talents of the team. There are options to allow the computer to control the characters during fights, which brings with it the bonus that the computer cheats, but also that sometimes it’s stupid. There are several ongoing side-quest type activities that provide breaks from the hacking and slashing, and I for one, really like all of the items and equipment there are to collect. I really like that all of the weapons and shields look different. Must. Collect. All.

Anyway, to bring the discussion back to the original topic, after nearly two months without a soul, I finally finished the game last night. Expecting to reclaim my soul and go to bed, I watched the closing credits, only very slightly disappointed from the not-quite-as-exciting-as-I-expected ending. When it came time for John Travolta to hand me the briefcase with the golden object of my desire, it was yanked away by a simple cut-scene unlocking another area in the game. Oh to be so close to freedom, and to have it snatched away so scornfully! So, I shall continue shambling through the nights and days, hungry for brains and quality jelly beans, one of the soulless legions who were foolish enough to invite Dragon Quest VIII into their PS2.

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