Today marks the launch of Dragon Quest VIII on the Nintendo 3DS - an enhanced port of the original PlayStation 2 masterpiece. We're obviously not here to talk about the handheld reimagining, but we do think that its release gives us a good excuse to look back on the PS2 title. A joint effort from Square Enix and developer Level-5 - of Ni no Kuni fame - Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey of the Cursed King is now over ten years old; it launched in Japan in 2004, North America in 2005, and Europe in 2006. And you know what? It's still one of the best Japanese role-playing games that we've ever played - and we've played a lot of them.
The first main Dragon Quest title to arrive in PAL regions, this eighth instalment was, for many, their first taste of Square Enix's long-running series. The game presented a large step forward for the property in multiple ways; fully 3D environments made for a more immersive fantasy setting, and outside of towns and dungeons, players were given huge, open areas to explore instead of a standard world map. It's no exaggeration to say that the release helped raise the bar for console RPGs in general.
What really allowed Dragon Quest VIII to shine, though, was its overall quality. Graphically, the game looked fantastic in its day, with vibrant colours, detailed environments, and Akira Toriyama's superbly cohesive art style really bringing things to life. The voice acting was also of a high standard for the time, and the localisation is truly masterful, bringing various accents and regional quirks to the writing, as is typical of the series. And, last but not least, a stunning live orchestral score ties the whole experience together.
Gameplay-wise, The Journey of the Cursed King is very much a traditional RPG. Combat is turn based, meaning that there's some degree of strategy involved as you decide the best course of action for your party. Speaking of which, the original PS2 title only boasts a total of four party members, but they're all nicely fleshed out with their own specialities, abilities, and spells. Meanwhile, character progression is simple, with everyone levelling up through experience points, although you can pick and choose between preferred weapon types, which adds a little more depth to the process of forming a formidable party.
In terms of structure, the game's essentially broken up into a multitude of smaller stories which all exist within the shadow of the main plot. Each narrative thread offers its own charm; whether your quest is to reunite two ghostly lovers or you're tasked with finding a legendary pirate's lost treasure, the writing is consistently engaging. With every new location, you're swept up into yet another fairy tale, and the most impressive thing is that the title is able to keep this momentum going throughout the entire 60 hour adventure.
The release is keen to push you beyond that 60 hour mark, however. There are numerous secrets to discover during your journey, with the game's post-credits dungeon and 'perfect' ending being particularly memorable highlights. A fully realised monster-taming and battling side activity is bound to push your playtime up a fair bit, too.
Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey of the Cursed King may not be the most groundbreaking RPG of the PS2 era, but it succeeded in perfecting a traditional formula. Even today, we struggle to think of a more cohesive and effortlessly charming adventure - one that never puts a foot wrong from beginning to end.
Have you played Dragon Quest VIII? How highly do you rate it? Take your cursed king on a grand journey in the comments section below.