The Dragon Warriors Return
The Dragon Quest franchise has always been a hot commodity in Japan, with each entry selling millions of copies. The series hadn’t been as popular in the West until Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King shipped for the Sony PlayStation 2 in 2005. DQVIII captivated audiences with its beautifully animated 3D world, compelling storyline, and stellar fully-voiced cutscenes. Square Enix went on to re-release most of the mainline entries on modern systems, garnering fans on both sides of the globe. Hot on the heels of the Nintendo 3DS remake of Dragon Quest VII, the company has finally released the 3DS port of DQVIII, bringing the series’ Western renown full circle.
DQVIII’s story follows your silent Hero and his thief-turned-ally Yangus as they seek the evil jester Dhoulmagus, who has transformed Trodain Castle’s Princess Medea and King Trode into a horse and a hideous troll toad. The story starts out fairly simple and grows increasingly complex as you meet others who seek Dhoulmagus’ head, including the sassy mage Jessica and the charming knight Angelo. The characters are likable and ooze charm, whether Angelo hits on Jessica to her dismay, or Yangus freaks out and utters his trademark “Cor blimey!” Voiced cutscenes help sell the characters’ unique personalities.
In typical Dragon Quest fashion, each step in the journey involves a typical loop: the party enters a town, goes through a dungeon, and solves the town’s problems. Unlike other DQ games, most of the vignettes here are important to the overall plot, either giving a character significant development or providing a quest item, like the boat. The world map is vast, and traversal eventually becomes open-ended, creating a truly engaging journey.
Throughout your voyage, you engage with hundreds of enemies in traditional turn-based battle. DQVIII retains almost the exact same battle system as every game before it. You set your party’s commands, such as attacking or casting spells, and watch the fight pan out. An additional “tension” mechanic allows your characters to charge up to deal heavy damage the following turn, in a Dragon Ball Z-esque fashion, which is appropriate considering the artstyle. When used effectively, psyching up for high tension works wonders. However, most bosses can easily take away tension bonuses with a single move, so the mechanic falls flat.
The otherwise familiar battle system lends itself to fun strategic face-offs against tough bosses. During these encounters where bosses can deplete your entire party’s HP in one fell swoop, every move counts. The game is quite difficult, and unless you get lucky, you might have to grind to defeat some foes. This is an unfortunate reality of the series, and it’s tedious to retread familiar ground just to level up. In my case, I only had to grind significantly during several endgame bosses, so at least DQVIII is fair in character progression. In addition, the majority of bouts against weak monsters are quick, and are even faster with the new option that speeds up battle animations. The game’s skill point system helps you appreciate your growth throughout, and each party member has several skill trees that you can deposit points into. Each upgrade goes towards buffed weapon proficiency or unique character abilities. For instance, the Hero can wield swords, spears, or multi-hit boomerangs. Meanwhile, Yangus has an exclusive ability where he can dance with his underpants… Cor blimey!
While battles are unchanged, how you encounter enemies is largely different in the 3DS port. You can now see enemies roaming around on the world map, which is a huge contrast to the original PS2 version’s random battles. This upgrade brings the series into modern times, allowing you to choose your battles and even retreat when times are tough. This makes dungeon traversal a little easier, but if you avoid most battles, you’ll be underleveled and will need to grind anyway. The numerous enemies inhabiting the varied continents brings the world to life, and strong foes will even chase you, forcing you into battle. Likewise, weaker enemies will run away upon seeing you, making the world feel immersive.
Square Enix has added nice bells and whistles to the 3DS version. There are two novel playable party members who were but minor characters in the original game. Although they arrive late, they add variety to the fabulous foursome. You can also now take pictures of your party anywhere in the world. You can give them funny poses and even embellish the photo with stickers and frames. Any of these fun photos can be sent and received online or via StreetPass. However, the highlight is arguably the new picture sidequest, in which you photograph specific areas or enemies to earn prizes. This adds an entertaining scavenger hunt element to exploration and helps you appreciate the intricate world.
There are multiple gameplay enhancements that improve the experience. Aside from the faster fight speeds and removal of random battles, the alchemy system has been upgraded. Alchemy allows you to create items by mixing them together in a pot. In the original version, you had to walk around for a predetermined amount of time just to produce an item. In the 3DS version, alchemy produces instant results. Also, you can no longer fail an experiment by mixing (and wasting) two incompatible items. The game guides you to ensure success in this confusing but high-yield system. Other quality-of-life improvements include health restoration upon level-up, a menu display of how many experience points you need to level up, the ability to withhold skill allocation, and a quick-save that functions like a save-state.
Despite every upgrade, the graphics and music are a distinct downgrade. The 3DS version’s visuals don’t quite live up to the PS2 version’s. There is some pop-in, and the textures aren’t as pretty. To the game’s credit, the graphics still look great, considering it’s a handheld port of a PS2 game with real-time rendered enemies on the world map. Akira Toriyama, of Dragon Ball Z fame, breathes his signature charming artstyle and character design into the game. Likewise, the music is no longer orchestrated in the Western release. Nevertheless, the 3DS’s synthesized soundtrack still sounds amazing, thanks to Koichi Sugiyama’s utterly beautiful score. The overworld theme alone is breathtaking and sells the adventure. The voice acting sounds great as well, with some new rerecorded parts and additional lines to reflect the game’s new cutscenes.
Dragon Quest VIII is a fun RPG that will attract fans looking for that traditional experience. The game is on the lengthy side, and the main story took me roughly 60 hours, not including sidequest completion or the new postgame content. Either way, the game’s rich narrative and polished traditional battle system will keep RPG fans engaged throughout. This is one of the most accessible Dragon Quest titles, offering an epic story with fully-voiced cutscenes and likable characters. While the graphics and music may not be the most ideal, Square Enix makes up for it by removing random battles and improving quality-of-life. New characters, cutscenes, and sidequests may even entice veterans to journey on a second time. With all of its upgrades and additions, the 3DS port of Dragon Quest VIII is the definitive version of the classic RPG.
Note: This review was originally posted on Darkstation in March 2017.