Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King Review — A Timeless Tale
The beloved RPG classic gets the portable treatment on 3DS, with our review looking at how Dragon Quest VIII has transitioned (mostly) well to handheld.
When it comes to RPGs, Dragon Quest is certainly among the old guard of JRPGs’ classics. Since the days of the NES, the Dragon Quest series has held on to a legacy that’s lasted decades, and while the series hasn’t quite found the same level of attention from Western audiences, the passionate fanbase has allowed for the series to still thrive outside of its vast popularity with Japanese audiences.
Thanks to a steady stream of remakes, re-releases, and several new spinoffs and releases on the part of Square Enix over the past decade, the Dragon Quest series has enjoyed a bit of a second chance to shine with Western audiences in the past few years. New releases like last year’s Dragon Quest Builders and the upcoming Dragon Quest Heroes II draw on the charming visuals and color of the series while bringing it into new and unexpected genres. Meanwhile, a majority of the classic Dragon Quest installments have seen re-releases (in some form or another) on mobile and handhelds, with one of the series’ best installments, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, finally available to Western audiences on 3DS.
Originally released on PS2 for North American audiences in 2005 (followed by a mobile port in 2014 on iOS and Android), the 3DS version of Dragon Quest VIII presents a new opportunity for both first-time players to experience a timeless RPG, while players returning to the game after years away will find many new tweaks and updates to enjoy alongside the game’s portable presentation. Despite the game’s large scope and expansive length (with playthroughs that can easily come in at 80+ hours the first time through), the 3DS version is a faithful presentation of a PS2 classic that can be enjoyed on the go, with only a few compromises holding it back.
As its title implies, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King follows the player’s character, the Hero, alongside a party of several other characters as they seek to take down the evil jester Dhoulmagus and restore order to the kingdom of Trodain. Compared to the notoriously slow-burn that is the recent re-release of Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past, Journey of the Cursed King is a well-paced adventure that — while somewhat predictable by RPG standards — keeps players on a story filled with action, drama, and more than a fair share of laughs and charm.
“Charm” is an important aspect of Journey of the Cursed King when it comes to the game’s story and, especially, its band of playable characters and the rotating cast of NPCs and new faces you’ll meet along the way. Aside from the player’s Hero being a silent protagonist with little in the way of “proper” character development, the rest of the player’s party are all varied in their abilities and in their personalities, thanks to their great designs and even better voice acting. While each of the characters’ roles fall into traditional RPG archetypes like tanks, healers, and more, the odd little quirks and charms each of them has – such as Yangus’ Cockney accent, Jessica’s fiery nature, and King Trode’s Yoda-like appearance – all make them fun and memorable characters to journey along with.
On a technical level, the 3DS version of Dragon Quest VIII does make some sacrifices to pack in the 80-hour adventure onto a 3DS game cart, and it definitely shows in some cases. Compared to the sharp, crisp, and colorful world that players were able to explore originally on the PS2, the 3DS version comes with the burden of a much lower draw distance, jagged, low-res textures, and the inability to play the game (at all) in 3D.
While the game, thankfully, doesn’t suffer in any way when it comes to framerate and can be played across the entire family of 3DS systems (New 3DS or otherwise), the game’s technical shortcomings are very easy to discern and are only slight impairments to an otherwise excellent recreation of the title. New Nintendo 3DS owners won’t see any added benefits graphically or performance-wise from the game, other than being able to control the in-game camera with the analog nub (as opposed to the D-Pad on a normal 3DS system).
Despite the limitations of the 3DS hardware when it comes to the game’s graphical performance, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King still manages to hold up surprisingly well from a design perspective, even after 12+ years since its release. Thanks to the series’ trademark color and vibrancy, the art direction and design of the characters make all of them pop on the screen, alongside the numerous monsters you’ll fight (yes, the series’ trademarked Slimes included), making for an experience that pulses with life and warmth.
The game’s rousing soundtrack also makes for an excellent companion to the journey and aids the sense of grandeur and fun that players will experience. While this release is limited to MIDI renditions of the tracks instead of the amazing orchestral score from the game’s PS2 release in North America, the soundtrack still manages to evoke a sense of wonder and scale that makes it a joy to listen to while exploring or fighting monsters.
Though the 3DS version keeps the main game (mostly) intact from the original PS2 release, Square Enix has also put in several new features that should entice those that played the title the first time around to jump back in to Dragon Quest VIII with plenty of new elements to look forward to. One of the biggest additions comes from the game’s new Photo Mode feature, along with an accompanying quest that players can take on relatively early in the game designed specifically around it. By pressing the Start button, players can activate an in-game camera and are tasked with taking photos in front of specific landmarks or areas to complete the quest, making for a nice diversion from the main quest for something a bit sillier, but no less fun.
Whether you’re using it for the quest or your own enjoyment, Photo Mode is made even better by the surprisingly robust set of features that players can toy around with. From being able to add/remove party members in the shot, reposition and zoom in/out the camera, use different character poses, add filters, stickers, or captions, and more, the game’s Photo Mode is unexpectedly fun and one that serves as an excellent way to interact with the fun, vibrant characters and world.
The Photo Mode is also made a part of Dragon Quest VIII‘s StreetPass functionality by allowing players to select their favorite shots that they can share to other StreetPass users and, in turn, players will receive “postcards” from other players they come across. While it’s not an entirely necessary feature you would expect from a massive JRPG, the Photo Mode in Dragon Quest VIII is unexpectedly delightful and adds a refreshing new element to the game, whether for first-time players or veterans, by encouraging exploration and letting players take on challenges outside of the game’s normal quests and storyline.
The other major addition to the title’s 3DS version comes from the inclusion of two brand new playable character, the fan favorite NPCs Red and Morrie. Though they don’t show up until the later stages of the game and don’t come with much in the way of backstory, the inclusion of new characters to play as is still an enticing treat for fans of the original game and both characters add some variety to the player’s party.
Along with the Photo Mode and new characters, Dragon Quest VIII on 3DS also adds a number of gameplay tweaks and enhancements that largely improve the experience: or, at least take out some of the tedium when it comes to its more monotonous elements. Combat speed can now be tweaked for much faster-paced battles during hours-long grinding sessions, while enemy monsters are now visible on the world map instead of random encounters, allowing players the choice to opt in or out of battles.
The once vague leveling up system and distribution of skill points has been streamlined with a closer look at the abilities and moves that players can unlock in the game’s skill tree, giving players a much clearer indication of when they will get a new ability and what it will do. Finally, a new Quick Save feature allows players to (temporarily) suspend the game from any point, making for a nice alternative to save your progress without having to hunt down one of the game’s chapels to do a proper save (though that feature is still very much integral to the game and preserved here).
Though the 3DS version falls short in a number of ways from being the definitive way to play Dragon Quest VIII, the newly-portable version of the title is still, nevertheless, an excellent way to experience an excellent RPG despite its few technical shortcomings. More than anything the pros far outweigh the cons when it comes to a title that, even after a decade after its release, still plays remarkably well and manages to put a smile on my face. Dragon Quest VIII was charmingly old-school even back when it released in 2005, but like the best and timeless stories, the 3DS version shows that this story has only gotten better with age.