Monday 4 February 2013

Dragon Quest: Journey of the Cursed King Review (PS2)

Dragon Quest was Enix's signature series before they merged with Squaresoft some time ago. This is the first Dragon Quest game after that merger and sticks with the theme of having funky anime style character design with a Dragon Ball Z twist to it. At the time, Dragon Quest games had never made it to the UK before - even though it rivals the Final Fantasy series in Japan for popularity - and so we were a little surprised to see this one being heavily promoted with television spots and poster and magazine adverts.

The distinct graphical style will be immediately apparent and if you're opposed to all things brightly-coloured, it may not be for you. Both the game world and the characters are 3D, but their cel-shading hides this somewhat, There is plenty of treasure to be found around corners and under shadows with the landscapes being well thought out to capitalise of the art style. In contrast, Towns all look very similar and there aren't too many locations in the game that stand out as different. Whereas Final Fantasy sends you to many locations with their own distinct look, these do not really have that charm.

The protagonist of this RPG, surprisingly, does not have spiky hair; he also never speaks throughout the game. Simply put, the hero of the piece is meant to be the player. Our unnamed Hero is a knight to the king and is helping him on his quest to return himself and his daughter back in humans (they have had a curse put on them, transforming the king into a strange Yoda look-alike and the Princess into a horse). To start with, Hero is joined by Yangus, a short, fat, straight-to-the-point cockney, who follows Hero wherever he goes... for reasons we find out later in the game.

The plot starts fairly simply, and through flashbacks you see what has brought us to this point and that our travelling band are searching for an evil Jester named Dhoulmagus. The basic premise is that our group must travel around the world looking for people who can help them in locating the said evil jester, who can then be swiftly dispatched so the King and Princess can return to normal. Later in your travels, two other companions will join you. Of course, this being an RPG, things are never exactly as they first appear.

Plot exposition and dialogue do not dominate as heavily as some may fear and Dragon Quest is not a game that will bore you to death with 30 minute cut scenes. It quickly swings into action by giving you a good hard slap in the face as soon as you try to fight anything. In battle, the initial learning curve is quite steep; though there are not too many level-up 'walls' in the game (i.e. difficulty barriers requiring extra training to pass). Unfortunately, the first one appears right at the start and you'll just have to brave the few hours needed to progress. Furthermore, whenever you die, you are returned to the nearest village with any experience points you earned still intact - meaning, if you are willing to put some time into the title, anyone can finish it.

The battle system is quite simple - you have a standard attack, a power up, magic and items. Power up uses that turn to empower your character by tensing them up with the pay off being in the next turn they can unleash this tension and send the enemy flying! Do this quite a few times and they will get super-charged and hit insanely hard. You can win quite easily by repeatedly pressing X and remembering to heal occasionally, so battles can be a bit boring. Boss battles aren't that much different either. If you get stuck, it's often more effective to just level-up than it is to try a different fighting strategy.

The customisation aspect of your characters affects what weapon they specialise in. When characters level-up, they gain points that can be spent on a specialist skill. For example, if one character specialises in swords, they will do more damage with swords, hit more often, critical hit more often and learn special sword-only abilities.

The music is absolutely mad, and we have never heard anything so happy and constantly upbeat throughout a game before. It is so ludicrously joyful, prepare to be rolling around in happy fits of laughter. There are virtually no serious tones in the game, apart from big boss battles. While you would think that being battered with tunes that make the Sound of Music look miserable would be some kind of hell, somehow it all just manages to stay on the right side of horribly cute.

In terms of longevity, Dragon Quest is a decent-sized adventure. It will probably take you forty hours for a basic run through, though the side quests will add another ten or so on top. Then, when you have completed the game, you get the option to start from the point right before you kill the last boss. Doing this unlocks a new dungeon which allows players to find out more about Hero as well as allowing you to find all the weapons you missed out on, master your weapon skills and complete the monster arena - an arena where you can capture monsters from the world and then pit them against other monsters.

Dragon Quest is good fun and a well put together game, although it seems to have a slightly mixed target audience. The team have gone to the trouble to include 'teleport' spells and spells that clear areas of monsters to stop frustrating back tracking and exploration of areas you have already visited which encourages newcomers. However, there are those level-up 'walls' where the only thing you can do is go and get experience points for a few hours in order to proceed. Luckily, these only pop up on two or three occasions and rarely spoil things. The best way to sum it up would be to say that Dragon Quest is a casual RPG for the hardcore gamer. If that sounds like you, or you've enjoyed other Dragon Quest games, then chances are you'll love it.


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