Review: Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (3DS)

Return of the King

In addition to a steady stream of top-quality games, the 3DS' RPG library is filled with the sort of lifetime achievements most consoles can only dream of: a hat trick of Monster Hunters, two to four Fire Emblems (depending on your perspective), scores of Shin Megami Tensei titles, and enough Etrian Odysseys to field a curling team. Now add to this list the fact that North American and European gamers have had the good fortune to experience not one but two mainline Dragon Quest games in the space of six months, with Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King following hot on the heels of last year's phenomenal Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past. Like its predecessor, this is an absolute classic that's been lovingly reimagined for the 3DS, and is an unmissable treat for RPG fans.

True to its title, Dragon Quest VIII opens with royalty in a pickle. Cursed by the dark magician Dhoulmagus into the bodies of a squat green troll and a horse, respectively, King Trode and Princess Medea are in serious straits at curtain up. Left with these unfortunate new bodies and a castle in ruins, their only hope is to somehow track down Dhoulmagus and break the spell, so with the help of Yangus — a hulking cockney club-wielder — and our fearless, voiceless, nameless Hero, they set off to find the wicked wizard and put a stop to his evil tricks once and for all.

It sounds like a simple setup, but Journey of the Cursed King's story isn't exactly as it initially appears, and a constant succession of intrigue, complications and fresh faces continues to delight and surprise across the entire adventure. It hits on plenty of familiar fairy-tale beats, but always in a new light — European lore filtered through a Japanese perspective — and it certainly helps that the characters are well-drawn and likable. Jessica in particular is one of the more memorable heroines of recent RPGs, and we loved learning more about the whole cast's lives and motivations as the narrative unfolded.

One thing that stands out immediately in Dragon Quest VIII — especially in contrast to its predecessor — is its impressively snappy pace. You'll take control of your character within thirty seconds of the start screen, fight your first battle soon after that, and be well and truly off on the adventure after just a single night's rest. While we genuinely enjoyed the slow-build in Dragon Quest VII, the running start of this sequel is infectious; it also makes it significantly easier to jump in here even if you've only recently wrapped up Fragments of the Forgotten Past, as you won't feel like you're spending ages in low-level limbo before getting to the real deal. Even if you're not coming directly off of that game, it still feels quick — learning fast-travel magic less than two hours in cuts manual backtracking to a minimum, and story beats are chained close together, so you're never left wondering where to go or what to do next.

For the most part, the 'what to do' in Dragon Quest VIII follows the series' trademark formula: you'll lead your party over a fully 3D world map, traveling between towns, outposts, dungeons, and ports, meeting new characters and helping them through trials and tribulations, and defeating all manner of monsters, foes, and bosses in turn-based combat along the way.

Those battles are no longer randomly encountered, as they were in the PS2 original; instead, all enemies are now visible on-field, and you can (usually) avoid them or run headlong into combat as you see fit. It's a welcome change, and — along with the fact that weaker enemies will actively run away from you as you level up — makes traversing already-explored areas much more fun. It's also smartly balanced to avoid under-leveling, with dungeons and other monster-heavy locales usually featuring tight corridors where avoiding battles becomes more difficult.

When you do find yourself facing off against a foe, you'll find a familiar turn-based battle system that's intuitive, quick and fun. You'll pick each of your party members' actions before starting a turn, and can choose between several standard commands: you can Attack, cast magical Spells or Abilities (some of which consume MP), Defend to reduce damage, or use items in your characters' individual inventories. You can also change up your formation to place party members in either the vanguard or rearguard for improved attack or defense, and issue orders for teammates to follow instead of micromanaging their moves — as in many Dragon Quest outings the combat here is enjoyable precisely because of its easy-to-grasp nature, and we love it for that.

Dragon Quest VIII does add one additional wrinkle to that formula in the form of the 'tension' system, which lets your character spend their turn getting 'psyched up' to raise their tension level. You can do this up to four times, and a higher level of tension exponentially increases attack power, so that a single blow after three turns of tension-building can deal five or six times as much damage as a regular attack. It's a fun option that adds some extra strategy to battles, and it's particularly useful in longer boss fights; having a character sit out a few rounds to power up — while protecting them in the meantime — creates a great risk/reward setup that reminded us favourably of Bravely Default's give-and-take battles.

Once you fight enough of these battles to level up, your characters will also earn Skill Points that you can use to customize their growth and Abilities in simple skill trees. You'll get a certain number at each level, and you can distribute them as you see fit; each party member has paths to upgrade their skills in three weapons, as well as bare-handed combat and a character-specific trait, like 'Humanity' for Yangus or 'Courage' for the Hero. These make for a great addition not only because they open up new combat possibilities and the fun of planning long-term team strategies, but also because they're presented with all the charm and whimsy that Dragon Quest does best. Yangus doesn't just get a 'Stun' skill, for instance; instead, he learns the 'Underpants Dance', a beautifully-choreographed, boxers-enhanced performance capable of shocking the sensibilities of puritanical monsters across the land.

In fact, that's a thread that runs throughout Dragon Quest VIII as a whole; mechanically, it's wonderful — polished, refined, and a joy to play — but people love Dragon Quest for more than its gameplay alone, and it's easy to see why when playing through this eighth episode. Part of it is thanks to the palpable sense of scale; the massive but fully-explorable world map means that distances between villages and landmarks feel significant, with the landscape changing subtly from valley to valley.

It also helps that once you reach a new destination each feels appreciably different from the last — every town has its own unique layout and they're all a joy to explore, with covered bridges, pretty central squares, water features and lookout points that seemingly exist just for fun all making appearances in various villages. Even building types across towns are noticeably distinct; instead of cookie-cutter churches, for instance, each hamlet's house of worship is unique, from small stone chapels to soaring cathedrals, while inns, shops and houses are all similarly singular.

Then there are the set pieces — from running tall-sail ships to controlling small woodland creatures and riding some unexpectedly awesome land mounts — which pop up organically and never fail to raise a smile. The entire journey is pervaded by a genuine feeling of adventure and discovery, and there's an infectious confidence in the game's world-building; we were continually excited to see what would pop up next, and there's a real sense that life goes on in-game beyond your party. Dragon Quest VIII manages to feel like a true epic without relying on complicated mechanics, system bloat, or an overly-expansive map — this is perfectly paced, perfectly proportioned RPG gaming at its finest.

It's similarly well-written, with fun, clever dialogue that puts the series' love of wordplay and puns front and centre. Dragon Quest VIII is still old-school enough that most of your way-finding will be done by talking to townsfolk, rather than following a pin on a map, and it's a testament to the localization team that this never becomes tedious — shooting the breeze with NPCs is an enjoyable reward for reaching a new town, rather than a Simon's Quest-style stumbling block to overcome on the way to your next objective.

The other payoff from each new area visited is, of course, getting to see more of the world in Dragon Quest VIII's brilliantly colourful graphical style. Though in many ways it's a step down from the PS2 original — some textures and models seem worse off, and the characteristic cel-shading isn't as apparent here — it still looks fantastic on its own merits, brimming with colour, contrast, and charm. The only disappointment is the total lack of stereoscopic 3D — this is a 2D experience through and through, and that's especially unfortunate after seeing how much the effect added to Dragon Quest VII's recent remake.

That omission aside, however, the presentation shines; Dragon Ball legend Akira Toriyama's character designs give the game a uniquely timeless look that transcends 'anime art', while smooth, characterful animation gives the impression of a Saturday morning cartoon come to life, with plenty of brightness and whimsy throughout. That's especially apparent in the enemy designs, with creatively silly combinations — like the unruly pepper pairs Capsichums, b-boying Dancing Devils, and Robin Hood-like Fencing Foxes — alongside the everblue Slimes making your foes feel straight out of a storybook rather than a Monster Manual.

Dungeons and town are equally thoughtfully designed, indicative of a welcome wider attention to detail. Try to use the fast-travel 'Teleport' skills indoors, for instance, and instead of a simple warning message or a disembodied scolding, your hero will fly confidently skywards, only to smack his head and return to earth unsuccessful. And though many RPGs feature a day/night cycle, we were impressed by the implementation here; you can watch the sun or moon move slowly through the sky in both the overworld and towns, and at the moment of the switch — which determines when shops are open or NPCs are available — a short, seamless cutscene draws your attention to the hand-off between the two. These little touches — alongside many others, like visible equipment on your party and patches of grass swaying in the overworld — make Dragon Quest VIII's world feel so much more believable, inviting and alive.

That said, perhaps the single most memorable part of the presentation is the music. Dragon Quest's signature symphonic style is alive and well here, and this may be one of the strongest scores in the entire series; from the playful capriccio of market town tunes and inspiring overworld airs to the brass-fronted bombast of battle, each piece is memorable and unique, and well-deserving of a listen even outside the game. Several classical reference points — especially Handel and Tchaikovsky — strongly underpin rhythmic and melodic motifs, but taken as a whole, it's a distinctively 'Dragon Quest' sound.

There's also a welcome variety here; not all towns and villages have the same themes, and aside from a few standbys — like overworld exploration and battles — repeated tracks are well spaced out, so that you'll never feel like you're listening to the same three or four tunes on repeat as you travel the globe. Unfortunately — as with Dragon Quest VII — the Western release features (high quality) MIDI arrangements instead of the orchestral recordings present in the Japanese 3DS version. It's a sad loss — especially considering the symphonic nature of the score — but far from a deal-breaker; the synthesized soundtrack still emerges as one of the highlights of the game.

We were equally pleased with the voice acting, which goes a long way towards bringing Dragon Quest VIII's world to life; most important story dialogue is voiced, and it adds an enormous amount of personality to the proceedings. The English dub is excellently delivered, and helps to present a softer take on the series' trademark eye-dialected dialogue, where characters 'speak' in accents through non-standard spellings; there are still several over-the-top continental accents, but various British Isles dialects are done quiet well — especially Yangus' easy cockney cant.

Part of what made last year's Dragon Quest VII release on 3DS such an impressive effort was the sheer gulf between the original and the remastered version — going from a top-down 2D title on the PlayStation to a fully 3D world on Nintendo's handheld made it feel almost like a different game. Since Dragon Quest VIII started life on the already-3D PS2, this remake is admittedly less of a sea change, but its updates are no less noteworthy, and it gives returning players plenty of reasons to dive back in after Dhoulmagus.

Aside from the excellent addition of having two fan-favourite NPCs — Red and Morrie — become playable party members, perhaps the most notable of these changes is a faster pace throughout. A new fast-forward option lets you speed up battles, Bravely Default style, without sacrificing either control or the excellent animations; coupled with the lack of random encounters, that makes backtracking and getting from place to place much less of a chore, and the result is a much snappier game.

Dragon Quest VIII on 3DS also makes plenty of quality-of-life improvements that help it feel right at home on its new portable hardware. There're the usual suspects, like a quick-resume feature and being able to save at any time, but also less obvious tweaks, like characters now fully regaining HP and MP on level-up, which helps cut down on backtracking during commute-sized play sessions. Having the full world map visible on the bottom screen is great for way-finding, and a useful touchscreen quick-menu gives easy access to things like Teleport and party chat — the latter is also an excellent, in-character way to remember where you're supposed to be headed after an extended absence.

The controls are equally well-suited to the 3DS; movement is smooth and responsive, and cursor memory in battle menus — a big upgrade from Dragon Quest VII — makes complex sequences of nested commands much faster to pull off. There are still some frustratingly old-school conventions at play — like having to manually manage individual inventories when buying and equipping weapons, armor, and accessories — but overall, it's a friendly system.

The right-stick camera control of the PS2 original has been well-adapted here too, with the shoulder buttons swinging the view left and right, a short tap of both recentering the camera behind your Hero, a long press of the pair toggling a first-person view, and the D-Pad filling in to adjust up/down alignment. The C stick on New 3DS models also does camera duty, though we played on an old 3DS and had no issues.

Far and away the best reason to replay Dragon Quest VIII on the 3DS, however, is the new camera mode introduced in this remake. By pressing 'Start' at any time during the adventure, you'll pull up a full-screen viewfinder and be able to snap away any way you like. You can rotate the camera 360°, zoom in or out, add or remove characters, and pose your party members before clicking the shutter, with even more options in post-processing, including filters, stickers, borders and captions.

To say we enjoyed our in-game photography time would be an understatement; it was a highlight of the journey, and we wish it was a standard feature in all RPGs. It really adds to the sense of adventure and wonder as you explore; each time we'd spot a new village after cresting a hill, catch a glimpse of a neighbouring continent from the coast, or come across particularly interesting architecture in a dungeon, it felt perfectly natural to pull out the virtual camera and take a snapshot.

Even better, you can take any photo in your album and set it up as a 'postcard' to exchange with other players, over both StreetPass and SpotPass. We loved putting together cards of our best and/or silliest scenes and sending them out into the ether, and getting greetings back in return. There's plenty of incentive to share, too, with new decorating options to unlock as you exchange more cards. There's even a new quest chain that involves filling an album of photo requests for a Mr. Cameron Obscura — a wonderfully enjoyable Pokémon Snap-style challenge that doubles as a scrapbook of your journey.

And while that might sound like a bit of a distraction from the main adventure, it's only one among many; Dragon Quest has developed a penchant for scenic routes and side-quests over the years, and VIII is no exception. Along with seeking out new angles for your photo assignments, you'll be able to comb the continents for hidden Mini Medals, drop some serious time (and cash!) at well-outfitted Casinos, mix and match materials to craft powerful items and equipment in the Alchemy Pot, and recruit teams of monsters to challenge the Monster Arena. There really is a massive amount to do, and while the main journey is more than enough to entertain, we loved how much there was to dive into on the side.

Conclusion

Dragon Quest VIII is something special. It tells a lovely story with memorable characters in a captivatingly colourful style, features fun combat and a beautiful world to explore, and — most importantly — sparks a true sense of adventure and wonder throughout. This isn't just one of the best RPGs on the 3DS, it's one of the best RPGs full stop — and one of the best Dragon Quests to dive into for the uninitiated. Perfectly paced, well written and superbly scored, it's a trip worth taking for any RPG fan, and the updates in this 3DS remake — from faster battles and on-field enemies to a fantastic photography mode — make it a worthwhile return journey for veterans. A true classic.