When Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King originally released for the PlayStation 2 in Europe back in 2006 (2004 in Japan), the game marked an important milestone for the series. It was the first time a Dragon Quest game was made available to European players, and considering that the series exceeds Final Fantasy in terms of popularity in its native Japan, one might say that it was about time.
Although Square Enix today owns both the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series, the two represent largely different ends of the JRPG spectrum. On one side you'll find the Final Fantasy games, where each new numbered entry is trying to do something fresh and unique. Whether this is successful or not is another matter, but every Final Fantasy game will be perceived as a unique experience. On the other side you'll find Dragon Quest, which aims to keep things as traditional and familiar as possible, and where new inclusions are primarily the result of the changing times more than a desire for extreme innovation. This is perhaps most evident when looking at the series' visual style, which from the start had the unmistakable look of work by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama.
In other words: if you buy a Dragon Quest game, you know largely what you're going to get; that being a classically-inspired Japanese RPG with monsters, turn-based battles, dark caves, and vibrant cities. You get characters where the good guys are very good, and where the baddies are so bad that you can see the evil just by looking at them. All of this is wrapped in a visual style where monsters and characters appear as if they originated from Dragon Ball. Music is also served up by series veteran Koichi Sugiyama (probably the industry's oldest active composer, who at the age of 85 is working on the music for Dragon Quest XI). If any of this sounds repulsive, or not at all interesting, we doubt that this game will change your mind.
With that said, if you're still reading this review and are somewhat curious about the Dragon Quest series or anything resembling a classic JRPG, Dragon Quest VIII is still an excellent place to start. The game might be a decade old, but by and large it has matured well and is an excellent example of an RPG you can take with you on the go.
As is normally the case in Dragon Quest games, you assume the role of a nameless hero. In this game, our hero was originally a guard at the castle Trodaine, and the only one of the servants at the castle that survived when it was attacked by the evil sorcerer, Dhoulmagus. King Trode and Princess Medea survived too, but the king has been transformed into a green monster, and the princess into a horse. Together you embark on a journey to find and defeat Dhoulmagus and break the spell. With you on the team is simple but kindhearted warrior, Yangus, and eventually you recruit new allies who want to see Dhoulmagus gone, such as the rich man's daughter, Jessica.
Dragon Quest VIII never takes itself too seriously, and has a light tone reminiscent of the humour found in films like The Princess Bride and Stardust. That's not to say that the story is not without serious and sad moments, though. The overall narrative is perhaps a little simplistic, but it is told in an such a way that you really don't want to put the game down. The characters are exaggerated, however, which applies to Dhoulmagus in particular; he's one of the most boring JRPG villains we've seen in a while.
Unlike the original, but like remakes of Dragon Quest VII for 3DS, the monsters are visible on the world map and the places you infiltrate. This makes it easier for you to choose when to fight against monsters (or not, as the case may be). Combat is fairly traditional and easy to understand, with the whole thing turn-based, and both characters and monsters are able to attack, use magic, or defend themselves. The uniqueness of Dragon Quest VIII is that one can "Psyche up", which means that you pass up a turn but increase the attack ability of the character in question. Doing this enough times will cause the attack power to multiply, which may come in handy (but beware, the enemy has the same option).
Beyond some practical options for customising the game so as to use the two screens, the 3DS version doesn't have many obvious new features compared to the original, and they mostly involve small adjustments to individual components. A novelty that fans of the original will probably appreciate is that the game now has two additional (and familiar) characters that can join the journey. One of the other new inclusions is a camera function, where you can take photos of specific objects or people. This helps you to be extra aware of your surroundings, and it turned out to be more fun than at first glance.
It has struck us while playing the game over the Christmas holidays, on flights and while waiting around with a few minutes to spare, that Dragon Quest VIII really is a perfect game to take with you on the go. The leisurely pace, the familiar game mechanics, the simple but effective music, and the charming art style all help contribute to a good handheld experience. The calm and leisurely pace is a nice change from some more recent RPGs, which can be a bit more intense, whether you're talking about Second or Final Fantasy XV. Hopefully there are several classics from the same era that can get a similar handheld overhaul, not least for the benefit of those among us who didn't own a PS2 back in the good old days.
With that said, not everything in this remastered version is equally well implemented, particularly on the visual front. Comparing a video clip from the original PS2 version and the 3DS version, it's easy to see that the 3DS version doesn't provide sharper visuals. On the contrary, the 3DS version doesn't look as good as the original, which is a pity, since the original offered beautiful cel-shading. One can of course speculate as to the different reasons why this is the case, but the remastered version of a decade old game should look better, crisper, more polished, not weaker than the original. The fact that the 3DS version doesn't have 3D capabilities at all comes as a surprise as well.
The music in the game has received a nice tune up, but unfortunately the same can't be said of the voice acting. In the latter areas it becomes obvious that this is the first game in the series where voice acting was implemented. For example, while Yangus is so characteristic that we understand why the developers didn't change anything, we would have liked something better to listen to while we played.
Thus one ends up with a port of an old classic which could have been worked on more, but that still doesn't overshadow the game's qualities. Dragon Quest VIII holds up well after a decade, and for our part, it's been a pleasure to rediscover this old adventure. Players who can't stand Japanese RPGs or who want a pacier experience might want to steer clear, but if you're curious about the genre or the series, a recommendation is hereby given.