Dragon Quest VIII has a special place in my heart, and I'm sure it does for many other Kiwis as well. Originally released for PS2 in 2006, it was the first game in the Dragon Quest series to come out in Europe (and New Zealand, by extension) in any official capacity. It was our first real chance to get a taste of a series that had been bringing joy to folks in America and Japan for 20 years.
Fast forward another 10 years, and Dragon Quest is now a fairly well-known property in our corner of the world. We've seen a number of Dragon Quest games across Nintendo DS, 3DS, and PS4. Every numbered game from I through VI is readily available with excellent mobile ports (VIII is there too, but the mobile version is not great).
All of this makes revisiting Dragon Quest VIII in 2017, courtesy of a 3DS release, a strange experience. It was always a great game, but a whole extra layer opens up when you’re familiar with the franchise. It’s a series that’s had the same core creative team for 30 years: Yuji Horii as the director/game designer/scenario writer, Akira Toriyama on art and character designs, and Koichi Sugiyama on music. That results in remarkable consistency from game to game, in terms of presentation and design, even as each one introduces new ideas and explores new themes.
Playing Dragon Quest VIII again after all these years, I could feel that storied history in a way I never could the first time around. The music isn’t just quaint and catchy, but nostalgic and moving. Slimes, bodkins, golems, and robbin’ hoods aren’t just any old monsters, but memorable ones that I’ve seen seen in game after game. On a more practical note, franchise knowledge meant knowing how to make the most out of the game - like knowing how obscenely strong boomerangs are, or knowing recurring spells well enough to unlock the best ones as early as possible.
All of that said, you don’t need to be familiar with the franchise to enjoy Dragon Quest VIII. It is, I think, the high point of the series – the game where 20 years of growth all came together just right. It’s silly, self-aware fantasy JRPG nonsense, full of strange, interesting characters, but it’s surprisingly deep and moving at the same time. It modernised the Dragon Quest formula with simple, welcome additions like skill points and an alchemy system. Battles are the usual turn-based affair, but the Tension system adds an extra tactical layer by letting you spend a few turns powering up to make your next attack exponentially stronger. If you’ve never played Dragon Quest before, VIII is the best place to jump in.
The 3DS release isn’t a full overhaul like Dragon Quest VII was, but it builds on that base with new content. Red and Morrie, both of whom were NPCs in the original game, can now be recruited to your party. They’re really worthwhile additions too; a Thief and a Fighter archetype respectively, they pack a punch and are a lot hardier than the glass cannons that are Jessica and Angelo. There are also a couple of new dungeons, including a post-game one that’s no joke, new costumes, a photo mode, and a sidequest spanning the length of the game that involves getting pictures of specific things.
There are also some welcome quality-of-life improvements. Random encounters are no more, replaced with enemies that can be seen (and avoided) on the field, and you can dial up the speed of battle animations to 1.5 times the normal rate. You no longer have to spend a character’s skill points immediately upon level up, letting you hoard them and take time to make decisions about builds. The touchscreen shows a convenient map of the area you’re exploring, and has quick access to often-used menu items like the Zoom spell (to teleport to previously-visited towns) and Alchemy Pot. You can quick-save anywhere outside battle, easily sort bag contents, efficiently heal the whole party with a “Heal All” menu option, and see characters’ experience points without having to visit a church.
Despite all these handy improvements, I wouldn’t say that the 3DS version is the definitive one, as was the case for Dragon Quest VII. It’s a huge graphical downgrade from the PS2 version, with simplified textures, a butchered lighting system, and some weird colour correction that gives the whole game a slightly muddy look. There are frame rate issues (on the old 3DS, at least), and the trade off for voice acting is tinny MIDI music rather than a proper orchestral score. These things are all superficial, of course, but they’re significant enough to be a distraction from what is, otherwise, a wonderful game.
The obvious reaction here is “well of course it had to be downgraded, PS2 is much more powerful than 3DS!”, but a quick look at Tales of the Abyss or Metal Gear Solid 3D quickly throws that theory out the window. Rather, it looks like the sub-standard mobile version was used as the base for the 3DS port – for economic reasons, presumably – so many of the problems from that version are carried over. A game as good as Dragon Quest VIII deserves better, especially after seeing how much love was put into Dragon Quest VII’s remake.
Still, presentation issues notwithstanding, Dragon Quest VIII is as good as it’s ever been. The new content and convenience of portability make a great case for this version, and it’s a game that anyone with a 3DS should buy. I do wish that Square Enix would see fit to bring the PS2 version across to PS4 though – not to compete with the handheld, but to complement it.
Matt received a physical copy of Dragon Quest VIII from Nintendo for review.