Dragon Quest, as a series, has never felt more popular. The Minecraft-like Dragon Quest Builders was warmly received in 2016, introducing totally new players to the long-running RPG franchise, albeit via bricks and blocks rather than punishing boss battles. But where next for these newcomers, enamored by that game's Slimes and other slithery and scaly scares?
Dragon Quest dates back to 1986, and there is an abundance of titles to choose from compatible with contemporary hardware. There's the Dynasty Warriors-styled Dragon Quest Heroes and its imminent sequel; the multi-platform MMORPG Dragon Quest X; and the DS-exclusive blockbuster Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, the last of the core series of single-player adventures to be released in the West (XI is coming to the Japanese market later in 2017).
Some of these offer tastes of what the series is about, but for those wanting something that's both a fine starting place for Dragon Quest's RPG titles, and substantial like all the best games of its ilk are, you're going to need to trust me and get yourself a 3DS. Or, failing that, a PlayStation 2, or a smartphone. That should cover pretty much everyone reading this site. With such hardware to hand, you, too, can begin playing the amazing, charming, and incredibly accessible Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King.
Originally released on the PS2 in 2004, Android and iOS in 2013, and just this month on the 3DS, Dragon Quest VIII isn't one of those role-players that feels like it's stuffed its boastful running time with pointless distractions and trivial filler. It's not a restricted experience, one that holds your hand too tightly in guiding you through its story, from corridor to corridor, with no reason to deviate from the route laid out for you.
Above: Welcome to 'Dragon Quest VIII' trailer
I understand that these games are big investments, of both time and money. You don't want to be playing something that takes 20 hours to really get going, before effectively wrapping up another 10 hours later, save for a handful of side-quests. Again, Dragon Quest VIII is not like that. It starts off strong, getting straight to the action. There's no big cutscene, no walls of text to memorize, no ponderous preamble that makes you wish you'd put a Mario game on instead.
Rather, you're quickly introduced to the bold Yangus, a cockney hard man who's handy with a club, King Trode and Princess Medea. Trode is the cursed king of the title and he's had a pretty hard time of it. He's been turned into a kind of goblin-toad man with the approximate physical dimensions of Danny DeVito. Medea, on the other hand, has lucked out and been transformed into a gorgeous horse. She gets to live her best life, eating grass and pulling a cart.
Want to know why they've been changed like this? Be patient: the game will tell you in time. Dragon Quest VIII avoids heaping loads of story on you all at once and allows the characters and the world to settle gently into your brain before giving their actions further depth and helping to strengthen your connection to their journey. And what a journey it will be.
Whether you're gazing longingly at the King or admiring the elegant curves of the iconic Slimes, the variety and attention to detail are a constant delight.
Even though the game was originally released over 12 years ago, the world you're going to explore feels and looks as fresh on 3DS as any RPG made for the here and now. The character designs, from famed Dragon Ball artist Akira Toriyama, look timeless and burst with personality, and the move to 3D really makes the most of his talents. Whether you're gazing longingly at the King or admiring the elegant curves of the iconic Slimes, the variety and attention to detail are a constant delight.
All of this would just be so much meat in the butcher's window if it weren't for the real star of the game: the combat. When coming to a game series for the first time, the last thing you want is menu after menu, tutorial after tutorial, telling you how to swing a sword or throw a fireball. What you really want is that sweet spot of fulfilling combat paired with a coherent leveling system. Dragon Quest VIII is as accessible as they come, without ever sacrificing too much depth.
When you get into a bust-up with some burly beasts, you're going to find a combat system that doesn't require you to study the manual until your veins bulge from your forehead—or even resort to an online FAQ. While your basic attack is much like you'll find in almost any role-playing game, it's how you level up that will help change the course of battle. After you pass level four, you unlock skill points used to increase your proficiency with different weapons. This can give you access to magic spells or more powerful attacks, called abilities.
The beauty of the system is that these abilities and spells are bound to the type of weapon that you choose. For example, you might have a big Dragon Slash move you can use when you're carrying a sword, but that won't mean a thing if you're walking about with a boomerang. Deciding what weapons will be suitable in any encounter adds the depth that fans of the genre look for, without leaving newcomers feeling like idiots. For someone like me who gets hives when he thinks about the classic job systems from other RPGs, this simplicity is very, very welcome.
It can be difficult to choose a starting point in any well-established series of games, but Dragon Quest VIII is a very easy recommendation. If you're an old hand at RPGs but fancy something new, you'll love how it doesn't take itself too seriously and avoids the tropes that have begun to weigh down the genre. And if you're new to RPGs in general, what an absolute treat you have in store.
Apparently the hardest part of any journey is the first step. But not if your best pal is a cockney warrior and you're riding on the back of a Princess horse. You dig?
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King is out now for Nintendo 3DS.