When Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King originally released for the PlayStation 2 in Europe back in 2006 (2004 in Japan), the game marked an important milestone for the series. It was the first time a Dragon Quest game was made available to European players, and considering that the series exceeds Final Fantasy in terms of popularity in its native Japan, one might say that it was about time.
Although Square Enix today owns both the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series, the two represent largely different ends of the JRPG spectrum. On one side you'll find the Final Fantasy games, where each new numbered entry is trying to do something fresh and unique. Whether this is successful or not is another matter, but every Final Fantasy game will be perceived as a unique experience. On the other side you'll find Dragon Quest, which aims to keep things as traditional and familiar as possible, and where new inclusions are primarily the result of the changing times more than a desire for extreme innovation. This is perhaps most evident when looking at the series' visual style, which from the start had the unmistakable look of work by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama.
In other words: if you buy a Dragon Quest game, you know largely what you're going to get; that being a classically-inspired Japanese RPG with monsters, turn-based battles, dark caves, and vibrant cities. You get characters where the good guys are very good, and where the baddies are so bad that you can see the evil just by looking at them. All of this is wrapped in a visual style where monsters and characters appear as if they originated from Dragon Ball. Music is also served up by series veteran Koichi Sugiyama (probably the industry's oldest active composer, who at the age of 85 is working on the music for Dragon Quest XI). If any of this sounds repulsive, or not at all interesting, we doubt that this game will change your mind.
With that said, if you're still reading this review and are somewhat curious about the Dragon Quest series or anything resembling a classic JRPG, Dragon Quest VIII is still an excellent place to start. The game might be a decade old, but by and large it has matured well and is an excellent example of an RPG you can take with you on the go.
As is normally the case in Dragon Quest games, you assume the role of a nameless hero. In this game, our hero was originally a guard at the castle Trodaine, and the only one of the servants at the castle that survived when it was attacked by the evil sorcerer, Dhoulmagus. King Trode and Princess Medea survived too, but the king has been transformed into a green monster, and the princess into a horse. Together you embark on a journey to find and defeat Dhoulmagus and break the spell. With you on the team is simple but kindhearted warrior, Yangus, and eventually you recruit new allies who want to see Dhoulmagus gone, such as the rich man's daughter, Jessica.
Dragon Quest VIII never takes itself too seriously, and has a light tone reminiscent of the humour found in films like The Princess Bride and Stardust. That's not to say that the story is not without serious and sad moments, though. The overall narrative is perhaps a little simplistic, but it is told in an such a way that you really don't want to put the game down. The characters are exaggerated, however, which applies to Dhoulmagus in particular; he's one of the most boring JRPG villains we've seen in a while.
Unlike the original, but like remakes of Dragon Quest VII for 3DS, the monsters are visible on the world map and the places you infiltrate. This makes it easier for you to choose when to fight against monsters (or not, as the case may be). Combat is fairly traditional and easy to understand, with the whole thing turn-based, and both characters and monsters are able to attack, use magic, or defend themselves. The uniqueness of Dragon Quest VIII is that one can "Psyche up", which means that you pass up a turn but increase the attack ability of the character in question. Doing this enough times will cause the attack power to multiply, which may come in handy (but beware, the enemy has the same option).