This is one of the best games ever made. Full stop.
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King was already fantastic on the PlayStation 2 way back in 2005. It’s been ported to mobile devices in the last couple years, where it enjoyed a graphical bump but a predictably terrible control scheme. By some miracle of programming, the game is now available on your 3DS and it is absolutely the best, most refined, version of this standout Japanese RPG. For a series that often treads familiar territory, Dragon Quest VIII feels like a breath of fresh air. Every moment is an engaging, interesting experience. I do not hedge my language when I say that this is one of the best games I’ve ever played.
The story seems simple enough—you are the silent hero, the only unchanged survivor of a curse that befell the kingdom of Trodain. Your companions are the diminutive King Trode, who has been turned into a troll, and his daughter, Medea, who has been turned into a horse. Also along for the ride is Yangus, a former ruffian who joined the group after befriending the hero, who he refers to as “the Guv.” You four are on the trail of an evil jester, Dhoulmagus, who cursed Trodain and now goes around killing people. Before too long, your party grows to include Jessica Albert, a spitfire mage looking to avenge her brother’s death, and Angelo, a smooth-talking Templar knight who joins the cause after his superior is targeted by Dhoulmagus. The 3DS version even adds two new playable characters in an organic and fun way.
The story seems straightforward enough, but eventually takes a number of unexpected twists and turns, as your merry band comes across a great many colorful characters in their travels. The story’s depth is absolutely driven home by the game’s impressive voice acting in every cut scene (there are plenty). I enjoyed all the voice acting, especially Yangus and Jessica, who get the best characterizations throughout the game. The writing and localization are similarly impressive. Dragon Quest VIII isn’t as pun-filled as previous games, but when puns occur they stand out due to their rarity.
Dragon Quest VIII was the first in the series to present a fully 3D open world, and every inch of it has been preserved here. Exploration is always rewarded with well-hidden treasure chests, both in the overworld and in dungeons. You eventually earn (and I do mean “earn”) a way to cross open water, an insanely fun way to trek across land quickly, and a very imaginative “airship” towards the end. New discoveries are abounding, and I heartily enjoyed the exploration. I should mention here that the majority of the exploration is voluntary. The plot has a very specific through-line and you’re told exactly where to go almost all the time, often with a clearly marked trail to guide you.. The real discoveries, though, are off the beaten path. Oh, I should mention that, aside from water traversal, random encounters are a thing of the past. Monsters now dot the landscape, allowing you to ignore or engage more or less at your leisure. This is understandably tougher in narrow dungeon hallways, but that’s part of dungeon traversal—they shouldn’t be a cakewalk.
A metric ton of side quests ably distract you from your hunt for Dhoulmagus. You can hunt for Mini Medals to trade for awesome gear from Princess Minnie. You can build an amazing team of monsters and compete in the Monster Arena for fabulous prizes and the growing respect of Morrie, the overly-enthusiastic proprietor of the Arena. You can find and buy awesome gear, then (honestly) go online and look at all the BETTER gear you can make by throwing stuff in the Alchemy Pot. That is, you can go after sick loot and make your team over-powered way earlier than the game probably intended.
The 3DS version adds a brilliant side quest called Cameron’s Codex that I couldn’t get enough of. Cameron Obscura (groan) is a guy who lives in Port Prospect and wants to see the world, but vicariously through you. At any moment, you can press the Start button and bring up a camera menu, then take pictures of things or your party or whatever else with the click of a button. Cameron would like you to take pictures of more than 150 things throughout the world, guided by an ever-expanding list. Giving him pictures earns stamps, and stamps eventually earn you rare items or gear. It got to the point where any time I walked into a new town, the first thing I did was open up Cameron’s Codex to read what pictures to take. It is insanely addictive.
The gameplay is the same as it’s always been: standard turn-based battles. The wrinkle this time is that each character, by gaining levels, earns Skill Points, which can then be sunk into five different categories per character. These categories dictate what special attacks, spells, and damage bonuses your characters get. While it’s very tempting to even out your skill points across all categories, doing that will not allow you access to the best abilities from each category, even by Level 99. So it’s best to pick two or three categories early and stick with them. My Hero, for example, is great with both Spear and Sword-type weapons but can barely throw a Boomerang. Yangus wields a mean Axe and is great in a bare-knuckle brawl, but isn’t so good with Clubs. Jessica is my mage who uses a whip as her primary weapon. My recommendation is to commit to your skill trees early. The game also improves on the PlayStation 2 version by showing you every bonus you’ll earn in each category—although it’s not like you know what, say, “Thin Air” is (it’s really fantastic). That’s what the Internet is for.
Aside from adding Cameron’s Codex and improving (sort of) skill trees, the 3DS version adds a number of quality-of-life improvements that, taken together, improve Dragon Quest VIII to such a degree that you might never touch the PlayStation 2 or mobile versions ever again. First, the bottom screen always features a map. This is a lot handier than you might think given how expansive the world is. Second, you can tap an icon to bring up a list of the most commonly used menu items: Zoom, the Alchemy Pot, Consult, and a couple other movement-related things are just a finger-tap away at all times.
Oh, and about that Alchemy Pot. It was a pain to use in the past, and you might not remember why. The game didn’t tell you what could and could not be mixed, so trial and error dominated the experience. Further, the Pot didn’t produce results right away—you had to keep checking on it, and different items had different prep times. Here, however, the Alchemy menu highlights what can be mixed together to produce a result, the recipes screen shows you what items you do and don’t already have, and you don’t have to wait for items to be made. You simply toss in your selected ingredients, confirm your choice, and two seconds later you have a Liquid Metal Sword. These improvements are so wonderful that I spent literally hours hunting down various items to alchemize.
After all this heaping praise, are there any aspects of this port that I don’t like? Well, sure. The early parts of the game are a little tougher than they should be—even the first dungeon requires a fair amount of grinding to get through alive. Grinding is rarely a thing you are forced to do, though—generally, Dragon Quest VIII ratchets up the difficulty in concert with the amount of experience you probably have through boss fights and dungeon crawls. Some of you may think the world is entirely too large, but, again, exploring it is largely a voluntary act and you are actively rewarded for doing so.
Here’s the thing: almost anything you can levy against Dragon Quest VIII is something that’s optional. Don’t like the giant overworld? Don’t explore it. Don’t want to spend a small fortune on a powerful axe? Craft it instead, pretty much for free. Don’t want to bother taking pictures of Golden Slimes? Just don’t do it. Don’t want to do a bunch of grinding in the field? Go to a place where Metal Slimes or Liquid Metal Slimes frequent and kill a bunch of those. It takes some luck, but you’ll be gaining levels left and right.
I feel comfortable saying that Dragon Quest VIII on 3DS is one of the best games I’ve ever had the privilege of playing. I already loved it back in 2005, but the improvements made to this port have pushed this game firmly into the realm of my favorite games of all time. I’m still not totally done with it. I want to search every nook and cranny, craft the best possible gear, and lay waste to all enemies. Very few games motivate me like this. You should all play Dragon Quest VIII on 3DS. It’s an incredible experience.
Second Opinion by Neal Ronaghan: I regrettably missed Dragon Quest VIII the first time around, but after playing the 3DS port of the PlayStation 2 classic, I’m kind of glad I did. The 3DS version takes what was already a fantastic game and makes it one of the best RPGs I have ever played. A lot of the bothersome aspects of the original are scrubbed away in the jump to the handheld. Random battles are, for the most part, a complete thing of the past. Now, much like other recent Dragon Quest games, you can see enemies appear on the world map and in dungeons, making it easier to seek out specific enemies or avoid them entirely. The Alchemy Pot is vastly improved as well, making it easier and less time intensive to make cool stuff with all of your items. On top of all that are the countless minor improvements, like the helpful shortcuts on the touch screen, and the few major ones, such as the photo-taking Cameron’s Codex side quest and the two rad new characters.
A few things stick out like a sore thumb in the port, though. You can tell it wasn’t designed to have a map always accessible, as dead ends that lead to nothing are prevalent in dungeons, for one. It’s also alarmingly easy to just grind on Metal Slimes with random encounters being a thing of the past. The latter’s not really a bad thing (it’s the best, most efficient way to grind), but it just seems like an oversight. But those minor quibbles are an inconsequential Slime compared to the gigantic Golem of greatness that is the entirety of Dragon Quest VIII. I haven’t been this floored by an RPG in years. The world is expansive and interesting. The characters are charming and entertaining. The tried-and-true turn-based combat actually feels more alive and fresh with a great deal of character customization and specialization. The sheer brilliance of the adventure shines bright, especially in comparison to the entertaining but dated Dragon Quest VII 3DS remake that hit North America and Europe in 2016.
Dragon Quest VIII is a magnificent RPG that is an absolute highlight and showcase of the entire genre. It’s a long journey, but it’s one worth taking, especially if you’ve never played it before. I know that, after getting through this game, I need to reassess my personal favorite RPGs of all time. This game is that damn good.