The last mainline Dragon Quest title I played to completion was Dragon Quest VII¸ it came with a demo for the highly anticipated Final Fantasy XII at the time, and I’ll be honest I had a friend provide a hot copy for next to nothing. How could I pass this up? This game also provided me with the spark to return to previous entries and consume their content, and over the years I’ve been able to play each game and many of the spin-offs.
It’s been a bit over three decades since the first game launched in Japan, and since then it’s been a hot commodity in its native land. The series is traditional to a fault with tropes that have survived years of evolution in gaming – you have your silent protagonist, a world-ending threat only you can stop, a band of fighters and tons of dungeons to explore. That isn’t to say this is a knock against the game, it isn’t, in fact, it’s a reminder of how far we’ve come in a few decades and how relevant the past is today.
You are Chosen
You play as the Luminary, a legendary hero who rises when true evil is about to reincarnated, who was abandoned as a baby. Things ramp up from the start and you set off to learn more about your past while recruiting people to your cause, all the while avoiding evil-doers who would see you dead. The Dragon Quest series has always had some of the best-written characters, this is still true in Echoes of an Elusive Age, even though it takes some time warming up to them, more so when you explore their backstories and why they are where they are when you meet them.
See, the characterization in Dragon Quest XI is outstanding due to the brilliant localization and partly due to the characters really being good people who truly want to help. Everyone serves a purpose and has a defined role. Sylvando is easily my favourite character due to his flamboyant but charming personality; all Sylvando wants to do is make people happy and he does just that in spades. His ability in combat surprisingly is adaptable to many combat scenarios I came across, he’s adept and I’m here for it.
Square Enix included several new scenarios for your party members, which allows us to see the story from their perspective. There’s also the new Fun-Size Forge, which is a blast and now you are able to craft items regardless of where you are.
Pep, Pep! Hooray!
This ties into combat and even the menus, as you unlock something called Pep near the beginning and build upon it throughout the game. Essentially Pep beefs up your party by doubling stats and upping defence and from there unison attacks can be unleashed and more depending on the character. These are hidden stats I’m unsure of exactly how they work but after a certain amount of damage, you enter the Pep state, you’ll know when you see it as you are covered in a blue aura similar to another Toriyama property. This mode adds a layer of depth to the combat which is highly traditional turned-based even though it looks like its real-time, it isn’t. Bosses occasionally caused me some grief and I would have to grind out a level or two before jumping back into the fray, but when your system is this much fun to engage with, you won’t notice the time sink.
Of note is the inclusion of the third battle speed option called Ultra-Fast, which is a godsend if you’re replaying Dragon Quest XI on the Nintendo Switch. Battles sometimes drag, and the choice to speedily move past them is a welcome addition.
Classes are not included in this entry, instead, levelling up grants skill points to be used in the Character Builder menu. At first glance, it reminded me of Final Fantasy XII’s License Board, but less liberal with doling out skill points. Your choices will reflect the path your heroes go down in their build menu and will help decide who is useful in battle at any given time. Luckily, if you want to reset your progress all you need to do is head to the nearest church and pray to reset the points you’ve already used.
A Nintendo Switch exclusive feature is the 2D mode, and while it feels unnecessary, being able to change the game from 3D to 2D is neat. Seeing classical 16-bit graphics readily available throughout the entire adventure in retro-inspired graphics reminds me of classic Dragon Quest. Everything is beautifully transported into sprite form, the world map, characters, towns, enemies, and of course, the battle system. For the most part, the transition works but there is a small caveat that requires you to return to the last story beat and repeat it your chosen graphical style. Battles, for example, eschews the on-screen enemies which you run into and changes into random encounters, you don’t see many animations in battle either – it’s much more traditional and old school in that sense.
One huge improvement over the vanilla version is the option to switch between the orchestrated score and the synthesized midi score within the options. To be harsh, the midi music sucks and it’s shameful for the series to keep with tradition on for something as important the score. I eventually had to turn the music off on PlayStation 4 because of how grating it became as time went on. Now, the orchestrated score is a huge reason to consider playing Dragon Quest XI, it really is that good.
Photo Mode is available, too. As is a series of quests that allow you to visit your ancestors and help the, in order to gain some beneficial items in-game. If you require items for crafting, it is now as easy as purchasing those things instead of searching for them. New costumes are available, and no longer are costumes tied to stats. In previous Dragon Quest games, costumes required equipping and came with stats. Now, there is a tab called Outfit which allows you to change only your cosmetic appearance but keep the stats of the better gear.
What a World We Live In
As far as world-building goes, the world of Erdrea is full of colour and life. This is easily one of the best worlds I’ve visited in a JRPG with various towns and cities having a distinct look exuding with personality begging to be explored. With dozens of NPCs readily available to talk while you’re making your way to the next weapon shop or embarking on many of the sidequests being offered by the inhabitants you meet. A lot of these quests are fetched quests and gauging whether the reward is worth the effort s best practice, it feels like filler and I’m not one for fluff in my games these days. Circling back to the localization for this game, I’m really impressed by how marvellous everything ended up being. There are a ton of characters to talk to and many of them have something interesting to say to you when you engage them, one town even has the population speaking entirely in Haiku that blew me away by after realizing the effort put in to get this done and to get it right.
Progress is linear in Dragon Quest XI, even though the world is massive, often you set out for one location and can’t leave until you finish the questline associated with that place. From there you can backtrack but only move onto the next story location to continue with the task at hand, and on and on. For such a large place to explore, I didn’t enjoy being gated into an area until the game felt I was ready to move on.
Every area you explore offers new enemies to defeat and one thing I’ve really enjoyed over the years is the monster designs from Akira Toriyama. Slimes, Sabrecub, or the Bongo Drongo, for example, have never looked better thanks in part to Unreal Engine 4, the textures and models might look cartoonish but the number of animations each enemy has is impressive.
Dragon Quest XI will please newcomers and longtime fans thanks to the colourful cast, detailed world, and engaging NPCs. My grievances with the game have nothing to do with the quality of the game but more with being kept away from truly exploring everything around me at my own pace. The reason this series has made such an impression with gamers around the world is that it hasn’t forgotten the roots that started a generation-spanning genre but consistently put a creative spin on the existing systems to a point where it feels new. If you’re in the mood for a game that respects traditions more than conventions, this is a good place to start and if anything, you’re playing a new Dragon Quest title on PlayStation 4. That is a celebration in itself, and a familiar experience I haven’t had in some time.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]