Old man alert: I played the original Dragon Quest when I was a little kid who had to visit a friend’s house to play Nintendo. And although I’ve missed several entries over the years, my adoration for the series hasn’t diminished in nearly three decades. Yikes. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the long-awaited arrival of Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age in the West has rekindled my love affair with the franchise, and as long as you don’t expect Square Enix to reinvent the slime-coated wheel with the eleventh installment, chances are that you’ll have a blast with it.
That said, if you’re looking for Dragon Quest to blaze a bold trail into brave new territories, you’re in for some crushing disappointment. This is a Dragon Quest experience from top to bottom, from metal slimes to corny puns and copious dad jokes (the kingdom set in the wintry north goes by the name Sniflheim) — and, of course, puff-puffs. If nothing else, the latest addition to the franchise serves as a great gateway drug to the wonderful world of JRPGs, as it’s fairly easy, simplistic, and easy to manage — almost to a fault.
If you’re sick to death of generic and played-out JRPG tropes, then you’ll immediately roll your eyes at the very thought of Dragon Quest XI’s plot. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A young man without a past discovers he’s actually the reincarnation of a heroic warrior that once stopped an impossibly evil being from destroying the entire world. With the help of some friends, he sets out to do it again. Sound familiar?
That’s DQ 11’s story in a nutshell, and I promise I’m not simplifying matters too much. And, not surprisingly, the tale unfolds like most party-based JRPGs. During each chapter, you’ll add an invaluable member to your squadron until you have enough people to properly take on the nefarious forces that are threatening mankind. And, of course, each member of the group has his or her own unique skills that separate them from their cohorts. It unfolds exactly like you think it would, which, again, isn’t necessarily an issue if you know what’s coming. After all, Dragon Quest doesn’t really have a history of shaking things up or retooling the formula it’s used since the early days of console RPGs.
It may sound as though I’m just a fanboy breathlessly defending a stale formula used by one of his favorite JRPGs, but, for me, the familiarity of Dragon Quest XI’s gameplay, story, and characters are simply part of its overall charm. While I’d probably smack around another game because of what I’d view as lazy game design (Shining Resonance Refrain comes to mind), it’s very clear that Square Enix has put a lot of time and effort into XI.
This isn’t a title that was hastily slapped together to make some money from fans who have stood behind the franchise over the years. No, this almost feels like a loving homage to everything that made the previous entries so fantastic — right down to the inclusion of some familiar monsters and gameplay mechanics. It’s almost a lose-lose situation, I’m afraid; if you change things too drastically (ahem, Final Fantasy XV), fans won’t hesitate to crucify you. Then again, if you stick to what works and simply rehash everything that’s come before, you run the risk of people claiming you’re resting on your laurels to avoid upsetting the status quo. Fans can be ruthless.
Dragon Quest XI walks a fine line between keeping the fans happy and pushing the franchise into new territory — but not unfamiliar territory. One of the biggest changes I noticed right from the start was the ability to move the heroes around the battlefield during their skirmishes with the world’s adorable (albeit deadly) inhabitants. Instead of simply standing in a line and watching as each character bashes his or her opponent until none remain, you can position them precisely where you want for the duration of the confrontation — but it’s purely for aesthetics. Surrounding one poor slime with four heroes won’t make a difference in how much damage you inflict or receive; it’s there to give you something to do other than select your attacks and watch how the round plays out. Is it a drastic change? No. In fact, you can opt for the “classic” version of battles if you don’t want to bother moving your heroes around for no good reason. However, it’s nice that the option is there, as it gives you a chance to play around with the characters you’ll spend a great deal of time with during the game.
The same rings true for the story, as well. Sure, it’s a standard by-the-numbers JRPG tale of a young man and his journey to become a hero, but there are enough interesting twists and turns along the way to keep you engaged throughout. For instance, having the majority of the population believe that our hero is the so-called “Darkspawn” — which is the evil-doer he’s actually on a quest to destroy — is a nice turn of events, and it adds a sense of urgency to the tale, as you always feel as though your enemies (in this case, a legion of heroic knights) are nipping at your heels.
The game’s episodic nature can occasionally make you feel like you’re binge-watching a deliriously predictable anime, but it helps break up a story that’s easily 70 to 80 hours in length — and that’s before you take side quests and post-game content into account. Slowing down, taking in the sights, fighting monsters, and exploring the world also adds a few unique layers to the tale, as it gives you a chance to talk to NPCs and your party members, all of whom bring Dragon Quest XI’s world to life. The surface is brutally familiar, but if you dig enough, you’ll find plenty of stuff that’s unique in its own way — and that’s not including the pervy bits.
And what a world it is. DQ XI looks and feels absolutely fantastic, and each town and region you visit feels vibrant, distinct, colorful, and alive. In one region, for example, you’ll find a sprawling all-girls school devoted to the complex art of locating and collecting mini-medals, while another area features a strange, mysterious desert monument worshipped by dozens of creepy robed magic-users.
What’s more, these sizeable areas are teeming with multiple side quests, secret doors, hidden areas, ingredients, and a plethora of treasure chests; if you want content, Dragon Quest XI has more than enough to keep you busy for well over 100 hours, depending on how you choose to play. If you’re a completist, prepare to devote a large section of your free time tracking down all the things this game has to offer. As someone who loves to squeeze as much content as possible from RPGs, I know I’ll head back to XI to finish out the things I had to leave behind in order to complete the story before the end of the year. I suppose there are worse things to complain about when critiquing games.
Unsurprisingly, you’ll find yourself on the battlefield more often than not, squaring off against a plethora of familiar monsters who almost look too cute to destroy. Tackling these creatures unfolds in typical turn-based combat, though the game’s so-called “Pep” system gives each character a number of powerful attacks to use when certain conditions are met, which alone or with their fellow warriors. However, if you spend a lot of time doing side quests early on or grinding levels whenever you hit a new area, these Pep powers become pretty worthless. It’s very, very easy to become grossly overpowered in Dragon Quest XI, almost to the point that you feel you’ve completely broken the game.
For instance, when I stumbled across my first stone golem near some ruins, I prepared myself for utter annihilation. To my surprise, my party managed to take it down with just a few basic attacks — all because I’d spent some time leveling them up before heading out to sea. It doesn’t make the game any less fun to play, mind you, but it can get a little boring when you know the outcome of almost every battle as soon as it begins. Not every game needs to dwell in the same world as Bloodborne and Dark Souls, but a little challenge never hurts.
And if you really want to feel like you’ve broken the game, spend some time crafting +3 versions of your weapons and armor using the game’s weirdly addictive crafting system. Instead of throwing the ingredients into a pot and letting the game sort out the details, you can access a portable forge whenever you decide to set up camp. Doing so triggers a minigame where you have to fashion armor, weapons, and accessories using hammer strikes to fill a meter. When you hit the sweet spot on these gauges, you’ll create an incredibly powerful version of the item you wanted to make, which can definitely help out when you’re getting ready to square off against a boss.
Of course, if you’re overzealous or just not paying careful attention, you can really screw things up. Thankfully, if you mess up but still manage to craft a salvageable piece, or you just want to apply a stat boost to an item you purchased from a vendor, you can choose to rework the item using perfectionist’s pearls, which you receive whenever you successfully forge an object. Trust me: It’s a lot more fun than I’m making it sound.
The only area where Dragon Quest XI falls short is the audio, which forces players to listen to the English dub. While the game syncs with the dialogue, listening to English actors (talented and well-cast English actors, I might add), it’s still not the way I enjoy playing JRPGs. Even offering the Japanese-language track as a downloadable option would have been fantastic, but as of this review, players aren’t able to select this option.
To make matters worse, some of the post-battle dialogue repeats to the point of absolute annoyance; I can only listen to Erik say “Another one bites the dust!” so many times before Queen’s classic tune starts playing endlessly in my head. To add insult to injury, you can’t turn off battle dialogue, so you’re forced to listen to them repeat these lines over and over again. Erik is perhaps the game’s worst offender, as you’re stuck with him alone for quite some time. Get to know his favorite catchphrases well — you’ll hear them a lot.
Although it’s beyond predictable if you’ve spent any amount of time playing JRPGs over the years, I kind of love knowing that when I pick up a new Dragon Quest game, I’m getting a tried-and-true experience; for me, it’s the JRPG equivalent of comfort food. And while Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age definitely tastes great, it’s not nearly as filling as other modern JRPGs from this generation. The cheeky, frequently daft humor might rub some the wrong way (particularly Dragon Quest purists), but it adds to a tale that, for the most part, doesn’t take itself too seriously.
For gamers who want to explore the genre but aren’t looking to get into anything overly complicated, Dragon Quest XI works as a great introduction to the franchise and JRPGs as a whole. It might be a little too simplistic and easy for hardcore players who devote large chunks of their time to this kind of experience, but the game’s colorful presentation, whimsical nature, and laid-back approach should keep you busy in-between harder titles. It’s not a perfect JRPG by any stretch of the imagination, it’s still a damn good Dragon Quest title.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A review copy was provided to us by Square Enix.
This isn't the end-all, be-all of JRPGs, but it's still a damn fine Dragon Quest game, not to mention a great introduction to the genre for newcomers. Think of it as JRPG comfort food and you'll have no trouble whatsoever.