As an avid fan of the Dragon Quest franchise, I have my favourites. While the 3DS remake of Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past did a lot to boost my view of the game, it’s still the black sheep of the franchise. It wasn’t until Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King – incidentally the first numbered game that was officially released in Europe – that the series got back on its feet. Some thirteen years later, the 3DS port is a marvel in and of itself, despite a few technical drawbacks.
Possessing one of the more interesting premises, the tale follows a young lad and his eventual entourage attempting to kill an evil mage by the name of Dhoulmagus. They do this at the behest of the cursed King Trode in order to restore him and his princess, turned into a majestic horse, back to their former selves.
Like many other Dragon Quest games, the structure of your quest will see the hero journey from town to town in order to solve a problem or save the town in some way. Dragon Quest VIII can enter some rather dark territory at times, while it opts for a more whimsical approach at others, yet somehow the narrative flows at a steady pace without overstaying its welcome.
One noteworthy thing about the original PS2 version was that the English versions of the game had their own English dub. A subsequent port for mobile removed this feature, but thankfully it has been restored in the 3DS version, albeit at a lower quality. As this is a port rather than a full reworking, the localisation has been largely kept intact, though new dialogue is seamlessly integrated in places.
Other elements of the presentation sadly let the game down. It uses the standard soundtrack as opposed to the wonderful orchestrated soundtrack, while the graphics aren’t nearly as distinctly cel-shaded and appealing as the PS2 version, instead opting for a 90s cartoon look. On the New 3DS, you can control the camera with the nub, but this is just as easily controlled using the L and R buttons. No camera issues flare up as a result, which is refreshing given the lacklustre camera in the Dragon Quest VII remake.
All of these omissions boils down to the sad fact that the 3DS is an ageing platform, not capable of running PS2 quality games at the same level of detail. As such, corners needed to be cut. While I’m not overly bothered by this – after all it’s still a great looking game with an incredible soundtrack – I am more miffed that there is a five second loading interval at a black screen between running into enemies and battles starting. It all adds up, slowing the pace of the game.
Gameplay has seen a few alterations from the PS2 version. For starters, the 3DS version is much more forgiving. Battles are no longer random, so you’ll simply need to avoid running into enemies if you don’t want to fight. Given how one of the major issues with the original was the high encounter rate, this is a godsend. A new quick save also alleviates a lot of the frustration of having to go to church to save, and unlike Dragon Quest VII’s quick save, it doesn’t automatically quit the game.
You can pick and choose what you fight by running into certain monsters, making Metal Slime hunting for grinding purposes a breeze. There is a weird bug where if an enemy that’s far enough away is not shown on camera, it despawns when you turn back around, which can make grinding a little frustrating though getting to a new town with minimal encounters becomes a breeze if you exploit this.
Battles themselves are largely unchanged, in that they’re the standard Dragon Quest battles with the Tension mechanic – a way to sacrifice turns to increase your tension for massive damage. It’s sort of a precursor to Bravely Default’s ‘Brave’ and ‘Default’ mechanics, but nowhere near as effective. It is however the most complex a Dragon Quest game has gotten in battle for quite a while and is fun to play around with.
In the 3DS version, you can recruit two new companions, each with their own moves and a unique weapon class, thus increasing variety in party customisation. As you can only have four members in your party at any given time, the others must hang back at the caravan. In certain battles they can swap in automatically should the party die, meaning you have one last shot at defeating your foe before wiping out completely.
Aside from that, battles can now be sped up, making grinding less of a chore. Levelling up now not only gives you stat increases and skill points to spend in one of five areas – four for weapons and a character specific set of skills – but it now also restores your HP and MP for that character. This means less time spent going back to the inn back in town to rest. It also seems that, for the early game at least, the amount of experience and gold accumulated has been boosted to speed up your progress.
The other two major components of Dragon Quest VIII haven’t changed much, if at all from the PS2 version. Monster Parties involve recruiting by fighting monsters with speech bubbles over their heads in the overworld, then fighting other AI controlled teams in the Monster Arena. With the Alchemy Pot, which is used to combine two or three items to make a better item, I’ve not seen any evidence that there are new recipes to discover. That isn’t to say there aren’t any, just that if there are that it could be tricky to spot.
One new side quest has been added though in the form of photography. What originally sounded like a throwaway gimmick actually includes a quest log where taking pictures nets you stamps. You can save up to 100 photos, decorating them with player characters doing poses and stickers. It’s surprisingly robust as far as photo taking in-game goes, but there is limited appeal to this and you can’t take pictures while fighting.
There’s certainly plenty to sink your teeth into on its own, but Dragon Quest VIII on 3DS also adds a new dungeon as well, increasing the amount of post-game content available for when you’re done with the lengthy main quest. Unlike Dragon Quest VII, none of this feels anywhere near as bloated in comparison.
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King truly stands the test of time. Having this PS2 classic on the 3DS, despite its slightly inferior presentation, is a mind boggling feat. Each new gameplay addition or tweak is smart, not taking anything away from the original vision. It helps that the basis for this version was one of the better instalments of the franchise, but Square Enix could have easily just have ported it over and be done with it. If you don’t mind the slight presentation downgrades, this is the definitive version of a modern classic.