“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
I’ve always been a sucker for a story that starts in medias res, a literary device where the author starts the narrative in the middle of events rather than at the beginning. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, which opens with the above quote, is a perfect example of how this tactic can immediately grab the reader’s attention by simply provoking questions they’ll undoubtedly want answered. Who is the man in black? Why is the gunslinger chasing him? What will happen when he does catch him? World building and backstory are revealed in dribs and drabs as the reader joins the protagonist mid-quest and has to play catch-up.
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King similarly opens with our Hero chasing a mysterious ne’er-do-well. He and his crew, comprised of a king-turned-monster, a princess-turned-horse, and a loudmouth bandit (fantastically voiced by Ricky Grover) that acts more like a needy boyfriend than a sidekick, are in dogged pursuit of a murderous jester. That’s certainly a lot to unpack, but more importantly an excellent way to pull you into already-unfolding events.
The Hero’s quest to get his man serves as the main thrust for most of Dragon Quest VIII’s main narrative. Along the way you’ll travel to distant kingdoms, recruit new allies, help a struggling monarch or two, and vanquish dark forces. It’s standard JRPG fare, but it’s well-paced and buoyed by a large and interesting world populated by memorable characters that add depth to the overall setting.
Combat takes place within a basic turn-based system that doesn’t really require much strategy outside of some boss fights. Even then, boss strategies tend to boil down to effectively healing, buffing, and debuffing with a sprinkling of RNG rather than playing off of enemy weaknesses. What keeps the battles interesting is Dragon Quest’s many unique enemy designs and their amusing sets of skills. Some enemies do funky dance moves in battle that may cause your characters to start dancing and render them useless for a few turns. One group of enemies, if given the chance, forms up like Voltron to try to take down your party. There’s even a monster that walks around with puppets on its hands that it uses to perform plays during combat, which may send your party into fits of uncontrollable laughter.
So what makes Dragon Quest VIII so good, if not a fantastic story or spectacular gameplay? Forgive the cliché, but this is truly a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Make no mistake, Dragon Quest VIII is a treasure trove of JRPG tropes and follows the genre formula to a T. Yet, while there’s nothing groundbreaking here, it nails the execution. The solid core structure of the game is supplemented by the details mentioned above, and a range of side quests—like hunting infamous monsters or experimenting with new ingredients in the Alchemy Pot—touch up the edges to round it into an overall experience that is just plain fun. You’re encouraged from the outset of the game to veer off course and explore the expansive overworld even before it opens up completely with various modes of transportation. I frequently had to force myself back on course, because I always wanted to check if there was a treasure chest on the other side of that hill in the distance, or to see if there was an infamous monster on that one mountain. The solid, epic-scale story in combination with the sheer size of the game world make for what legitimately feels like a grand adventure.
However, that’s not to say that Dragon Quest VIII isn’t without it’s flaws, particularly with the 3DS release. It’s unfortunate to see a remake released with poorer visuals than the original, but this version is graphically inferior to the PlayStation 2 version in almost every conceivable way. Fine details and entire objects have been removed from many of the environments, draw distances are worse, the colors are way too saturated, and there are some frame rate issues, to name a few. Inexplicably, even the text is a bit blurry. It’s still a good looking game, although the differences are quite noticeable.
Although the soundtrack remains strong, the overall sound fidelity has been degraded because the fully orchestrated soundtrack was removed from the Western release of the 3DS version. The voice acting is still of a high caliber, though, including the new voice actress for Jessica.
On the positive side, the 3DS version includes some great quality of life improvements. Random encounters have been replaced with (many) visible enemies on the map, a speed feature has been added to quicken battle animations, item creation now completes immediately, the mobile version’s quick save feature has been retained, and the bottom 3DS screen contains a map and a quick access menu for frequently used functions. These are in addition to the larger new features like new playable characters, new dungeons, new story scenes, and a photo side quest that’s as addictive as you’d expect.
Dragon Quest VIII is a JRPG-lover’s JRPG that holds up fantastically more than a decade after its original release on the PlayStation 2. It may do nothing to change your mind if you’re not a fan of the genre’s tried and true formula, but every JRPG fan owes it to themselves to check out this classic.