Developer: Square Enix
Fans of the Dragon Quest series, previously known in North America as Dragon Warrior, have been treated exceptionally well over the past six months with two entries on the Nintendo 3DS. Last September the long-awaited Dragon Quest VII finally made its way to a Nintendo platform. Now we have Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King filling in the last missing piece of the puzzle. With this release, every single game in the mainline numbered franchise is finally available on a Nintendo system. Granted, part X is still only available in Japan, and it unfortunately may never make its way to us, but we do know that part XI is in the works for 3DS and Nintendo Switch. Hopefully one or both versions will see release in North America in 2018.
In some ways Dragon Quest VIII represents a stark contrast to the prior game. Some of the criticisms leveled at part VII seem to be dealt with immediately upon booting up this new one. While the previous entry had a very slow burn and took about two hours before encountering the first enemy, this one practically throws you to the slimes from the outset. Gone are the short vignette stories and squat super-deformed characters. In their places are a vast and overarching story with a big bad guy from the word “go”, and realistically proportioned character models in a fully realized 3D environment. Instead of having to wade through over twenty hours of exposition before unlocking the class system in VII, part VIII almost immediately lets you begin to customize your characters’ skills by assigning points into various categories to give them new abilities. Indeed, the developers made sure to implement many changes from VII to VIII, and it has resulted in a better quality of life experience. But, does that mean it loses its historical Dragon Quest roots in the process? Thankfully, it does not.
If you’re a newcomer to the Dragon Quest series, or perhaps you’ve never been a huge fan, Dragon Quest VIII is in many ways more approachable and engaging than most of the other games in the series. The game’s story is immediately captivating: a King and his daughter have come under attack by an evil jester-turned-sorcerer named Dhoulmagus. He has attacked their castle and transformed the King into a hideous looking green monster and the Princess is now a white horse. It’s up to you (our hero) and his trusty pal, Yangus, to set out on a huge adventure to unravel the mysteries surrounding Dhoulmagus and to find a way to restore the royal family back to their former glory. From the outset the story begins to unfold in a dark manner when the person you’ve gone to visit is found murdered. From here you and your party follows the clues from one location to another, always seemingly one step behind the dastardly jester.
Core staples of the franchise make their return in Dragon Quest VIII. The combat system is nearly identical to prior games in the series, with the typical “Fight”, “Magic”, “Run” commands. New is the Psyche Up tactic. This skips that character’s turn and allows him or her to build up tension. Consecutively choosing this command will continue to add tension, until you decide to unleash a powerful attack that could deal massive damage to the enemy. I found this technique to be especially useful during boss encounters, however there is often risk of the tension being broken if your character has a status effect inflicted upon him or her. It’s often a risk worth taking, since it can be the difference between success and defeat.
In addition to spells, each character will learn new abilities. These are up to the player to decide which abilities are learned by placing skill points into specific trees. For example, your hero will be able to learn new abilities for different weapons like swords and boomerangs. I suggest placing the points into the categories of weapons you enjoy using. You will eventually unlock new abilities, of which some of these are passive, like +10 attack when using a boomerang, whereas others will unlock new moves that can be utilized in combat. These may or may not use Magic Points to execute, but usually the more powerful ones will. This makes each character in your party unique by giving him or her a specific set of skills, which could be completely different from someone else playing the game.
Originally on the PlayStation 2, Dragon Quest VIII was the first game in the series to feature voice acting for key scenes. That is retained here in the 3DS version. For the most part, the acting sounds great and really helps to give the characters unique personalities. I did find myself mashing the “A” button to skip much of the voices because I read much quicker than they talk. Gone are the orchestrated tracks from the PS2 version, but the music is still something very special and is a delight throughout the game. This marks the second time in a row where Japan has received an orchestrated soundtrack for the 3DS games, but the rest of the world does not. It’s an unfortunate decision, but not a deal breaker by any means.
Graphically Dragon Quest VIII looks fantastic. The overworld, caves and towns all look really good on the small screen. Unlike part VII, this one has a much better realized and cohesive world to explore that isn’t cordoned off into small areas. Instead, it actually feels like the world is one vast place, with plenty of places to find secret treasures. The game is now displayed in widescreen thanks to the 3DS screen, however the graphics do take a slight dip in quality when compared to the PS2 version. It’s nothing you’d notice unless comparing them side by side, but Dragon Quest VIII definitely looks like a port instead of a remake. The battle scenes in particular seem a bit less ambitious than those seen in VII. In fact, I enjoyed the animations in the last game over this one, but that’s probably because they were completely revamped for that title and in this one they were merely ported. So in many ways VII is actually newer and thus features improvements over VIII in the graphics department. It’s also important to note that VIII does not support the parallax 3D effect that the 3DS is known for, whereas VII does.
The 3DS version does feature some enhancements not found in the original PS2 game. The biggest additions are two extra playable characters that can join your party. This gives the players even more options to customize their lineup of characters. Extra story has been added to facilitate their inclusion, and even a few new monsters have been thrown in to mix things up. The PS2 game featured purely random enemy encounters, but this time around they appear on the screen. This allows players a chance to try and avoid them instead of having to enter combat every couple of steps. Options to speed up combat are included this time around if you get tired of watching the same animations over and over. There’s also a whole new subquest to take on with the new in-game camera system. Early in the game you’ll come across Cameron, who gives you a book filled with quests for you to take pictures of specific areas and items in the game. After you search out and fulfill the requests you’ll get rewarded with special items. I found this to actually be quite entertaining and it gave me an excuse to really look around the game’s environments.
Dragon Quest VIII is a more streamlined Japanese RPG than its immediate predecessor. The game’s story is easily understood and the action begins almost immediately after starting the adventure. The graphics are pretty good for the 3DS and the voice acting adds a lot to the overall presentation. The game’s world is fun to explore and the main quest will take most people a good 50 hours or more to complete. It’s not as long or padded as Dragon Quest VII, but I think that’s a good thing. It’s the perfect game in the series for beginners to jump in, especially since there isn’t any story continuity between the titles. The whole experience feels more modern than some of the others in the franchise. The 3DS features a quick save option if you need to stop in the middle of a quest, or you can simply close the lid and put the game in sleep mode until you’re ready to continue on your adventure. The story is exciting and fun, plus the characters are very memorable. Dragon Quest VIII is a must-have for JRPG fans and should earn a permanent place on your HOME screen.