Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

The Dragon Quest series, brainchild of writer Yuji Horii, artist Akira Toriyama (creator of the Dragon Ball franchise), and composer Koichi Sugiyama, never enjoyed the popularity in Japan. Early releases of new entries causing enough chaos in the Land of the Rising Sun to cause the Diet to regulate the franchise’s release dates. When the pantheon’s former parent company Enix, merged with Square to form Square-Enix, hope seemed to blossom for the saga in America with the localization of Journey of the Cursed King for the PlayStation 2, which sparked a renaissance for DQ in the U.S. and Canada.

Later sales for new installments would suffer, including the remakes of the Zenithian trilogy (games four through six) for the Nintendo DS. To this point, the first English version of the sixth entry almost experienced cancellation, until the Big N took over translation duties. Although they would localize DQ9 to modest success, thanks to backing by the likes of Seth Green, most spinoffs would remain untranslated, the apparent fate of further rereleases. The seventh title proved an exception, as did the 3DS port of DQ8, which features many changes to make it worth a look from fans and newcomers alike.

One improvement players will glimpse early on is that all enemies, not just those recruitable into two three-member monster teams, are visible to encounter on fields and in dungeons, but regardless of how the player’s visible character contacts them, how the initiated fight actually commences is pretty much random, the player’s party sometimes getting initiative and the enemy party other times gaining the upper hand. Despite this irritant, this makes grinding with specific enemies easier, such as with the ever-elusive metal enemies providing exponential experience for occasional level-ups.

Fights follow the typical structure of traditional turn-based combat, where the player inputs commands for the party of up to four characters (with two sitting on the sidelines if the player recruits the pair of characters new to the rerelease), and they and the enemies execute commands against one another for a round, with turn order mostly depending on agility, although there is frequent randomization, and common occasions where the player intends to heal a dying character, only for the ally to die before healing reaches them. A spell, however, can increase agility for the whole party, oftentimes lessening these situations.

Victory comes when the player vanquishes the enemy party, netting them experience, money, and the occasional drop item, though these in many instances have low rates of doing so. If the enemies kill the player’s active party, however, they revive at the church last saved at with full health and half their money lost, although one can lessen this financial blow by banking money in thousand-coin increments. Whenever characters level up, they gain a handful of points the player can invest into five different skill trees for each character, the remake showing how many points are necessary to obtain a new ability or special benefit such as supplemental attack power with a specific weapon type.

Although players can level their characters up to ninety-nine, which isn’t too big a hassle especially with certain exploitations of metal enemies, they will not acquire enough skill points to max out all their skill trees, with supplemental points acquired only through Seeds of Skill, randomly dropped by specific enemies, with farming, as implied, being somewhat difficulty. Thus, the player will need to be careful in plotting their characters’ skill paths, considering factors such as how often they’ll use magic, which weapon types have the best skills, whether a character will acquire attack-all abilities from innate leveling instead of their skill trees, and so forth.

Even skill trees that seem at first trivial, such as Fistcuffs for barehanded combat, may have at least one useful ability, making skill development a daunting task. Other than using their human characters to fight, the player can have the hero summon one of two three-monster teams to execute random attacks against the enemy for a few rounds, monsters dead by this method revivable only at Morrie’s monster arena. The battle system definitely works, although the tradition of mostly-random turn order is still bothersome, alongside the inability to access vanguard characters during most battles within dungeons, and fights can still drag on even with the fast mode activated, only marginally heightening combat speed. Even so, while there are some hitches, the gameplay helps the eighth entry more than hurts.

The 3DS version negates some of the “improvements” made to the PlayStation 2’s North American version, such as the cumbersome pictorial interface in lieu of the more traditional text-based menu system series enthusiasts are used to. Furthermore, alchemy to produce new items from inferior ones has received significant streamlining, with fusion occurring instantaneously instead of after a certain number of steps the player takes across the overworld and through dungeons. One particularly helpful feature is that after the player selects one item to use in synthesis, the game darkens all items with which they cannot combine the initial ingredient, which saves plentiful time and trouble.

Even shopping for new equipment and items isn’t too much of a hassle, despite common dialogue while doing so, and if the player is lost, they can consult the hero’s allies for advice on how to advance the main storyline. Sometimes advancement depends on careful and thorough exploration of the game’s world, with new frontiers opened respectfully from obtaining a ship and eventually flight. While manual saving at churches can take some time as with other entries, the player can anytime outside combat make quicksaves while still continuing the game, or quit without making another quicksave, which can come in handy when doing things such as gambling at one of the two casinos. Despite a few dated aspects, Dragon Quest VIII generally interfaces well with the player.

The eighth entry still has to date perhaps the strongest narrative of its franchise, focusing on the subtitular cursed king, Trode, bewitched to the form of a small troll alongside his daughter, Princess Medea, vexed to an equine form serving as the party’s chief transportation mode on the overworld. The perpetrator is a jester named Dhoulmagus, who receives additional backstory when the player later returns to the game’s initial town, the only unscathed survivor of his infestation of Castle Trodain with a sealed wand’s vines being the silent protagonist, perhaps one of the most developed of that particular breed of hero, who receives supplemental background in one of the extra dungeons.

A brute named Yangus, a sorceress named Jessica, and an exiled templar named Angelo join the party, with Yangus’s former fling Red recruitable now, alongside monster arena boss Morrie. The cast is generally likeable, and the main plot is initially strong, taking some unique twists partway through the game. There is a bit of resemblance to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past with regards to some of the backstory, although the plot wraps up nicely regardless of which ending the player decides to get, two initially accessible and the other two after finishing part of the postgame content. The story generally holds up well even today.

The original PlayStation 2 release of Journey of the Cursed King initiated a series tradition where the dialogue receives an ethnic flair depending upon the region of the world, with ethnicities such as the Russians receiving representation. The English are the dominant “culture” of the game’s world, with words in dialogue having British spelling such as “honour.” There are some occasional noticeable hiccups in the translation, such as women occasionally being addressed as “sir,” and AI-controlled NPCs that occasionally and temporarily join the player’s party having incorrect names within the battle dialogue. Even so, the localization is definitely commendable, and a lasting tradition among future releases in the Dragon Quest series.

Koichi Sugiyama as usual does a good job with the soundtrack, with plenty of neoclassical pieces such as the overworld theme, although he does dabble in different genres with the casino and bar themes, reused from prior Dragon Quests. The eighth entry is further the first and only mainline title to feature voice acting, with most characters having foreign accents and dialects, and which definitely prove to be a boon to the game, enhancing cutscenes that otherwise would have been bland without voices, such as a banter with a bipolar squid serving as an early boss. The main battle theme doesn’t last for more than a minute, however, and frequently loops if battles drag on, but otherwise, the game is very much easy on the ears.

So, too, is the game easy on the eyes, given its cel-shaded style, although the visuals have received a slight visual downgrade from the PlayStation 2 iteration, and the portable version doesn’t utilize the 3DS’s three-dimensional capabilities at all, a first this reviewer has experienced. The character and enemy models still look nice, with Akira Toriyama as always doing a remarkable job in fleshing out their designs, although the scenery often appears with blurry texturing, and there’s plenty of environmental popup when the player is navigating the overworld. Even so, the eighth entry definitely does a good job visually, so the visual aspect is still a boon to the game.

Finally, the experience is still lengthy, with playtime able to last well beyond to three days total, given the endless array of post-game content and sidequests that can pad the player’s experience infinitely.

In conclusion, Dragon Quest VIII for the Nintendo 3DS is for the most part an enjoyable port, with plenty going for it such as the battle and skill systems, the strong story, the nice soundtrack and voice acting, the pretty graphics, and plentiful content to pad the experience infinitely. There are, however, occasional strikes against it such as the retention of some series traditions in and out of battle (although they aren’t terribly bothersome as with before), the derivative nature of the plot part of the ways in, a few translation incongruities, and the slight visual downgrade, although those that haven’t played the PlayStation 2 version will most likely relish at this experience, so long as they don’t mind its length.

The Good:
+Series traditions aren’t as bothersome as before.
+Probably the best story of the series, with strong localization.
+Great soundtrack and voicework.
+Nice graphics.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Skill point investment irreversible.
-Some traditions are still bothersome.
-Plot is a little derivative later on.
-Some translation incongruities.
-Slight graphical downgrade, with no 3D.

The Bottom Line:
An ideal port.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 8/10
Story: 8/10
Localization: 8/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 3+ Days

Overall: 8.5/10

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