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Review: Dragon Quest XI looks new but feels old

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Enlarge / Dragon Quest XI is a lot of things, but it’s always nice to look at.
Andrew Cunningham

Even more than other long-running Japanese RPG series like Final Fantasy or Pokémon, Square Enix’s Dragon Quest is married to its own conventions. Even as the series’ visual presentation has evolved to take advantage of newer and more powerful game consoles, the series continues to use sound effects and visual cues and monster designs and gameplay mechanics that hearken back to the series’ earliest entries on the NES more than three decades ago.

For longtime fans, this resistance to change is part of the charm. The problem for the series, though, is that it doesn’t have a ton of fans countries outside of Japan. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is aware of that problem, and in some ways it’s a friendly entry point for new players. But the game’s efforts to attract new players doesn’t always mesh well with its efforts to please existing fans. For people with no nostalgic attachment to its well-worn mechanics, it’s hard to explain why it plays so much like a game from the ’80s.

There’s a lot to like about Dragon Quest XI, especially if you’re already in love with the franchise. But even as someone inclined to grade the game on a curve, I’ve got to admit that I wish it offered a little more variety, both within its own 70-ish hour quest (of which I’ve played about 50 as of this writing) and compared to other games in the series.

A gorgeous world and colorful characters

Dragon Quest XI is the most similar in spirit to Dragon Quest VIII, first released in North America for the PlayStation 2 back in 2005. Both XI and VIII are traditional single-player quests released for home consoles that take place in mostly open worlds and built around ready-made characters with established abilities and personalities. By contrast, 2010’s Dragon Quest IX emphasized character customization via a more robust job system, with every character you traveled with as an interchangeable blank slate.

As was also the case with VIII when it came out, Dragon Quest XI is the best the franchise has ever looked. The bright, colorful cel-shaded graphics are a great fit for character designer Akira Toriyama’s distinctive human and monster designs. Typical Unreal Engine texture-pop issues aside, the game is almost always gorgeous, whether you’re in a lush green meadow, an arid desert, a freezing snowfield, or the rocky highlands. I played on a standard PS4—but the graphics will look even nicer if you’re playing on a PS4 Pro (where it will render at near-4K resolution instead of the standard PS4’s 900p) and on well-specced gaming PCs.

The game’s art direction is at its best in the towns and cities of Erdrea, the not-quite-open-world where Dragon Quest XI takes place. Every new location you visit has a totally distinct visual feel, sometimes modeled on real-world locations. Heliodor looks like a typical medieval castle town, while the village of Hotto evokes a Japanese village, snowy Sniflheim is vaguely Russia-flavored, and Gondolia is strongly reminiscent of Venice. The things you do in each town are all pretty much the same—visit the shops, talk to NPCs, bust open pots and barrels looking for loot—but each new locale’s distinct visuals and NPC speech patterns keeps exploration interesting.

And while the game’s plot leaves something to be desired (more on that later), the party members you travel with are more than likable enough to make up for it. Erik is a spiky-haired bandit with heart of gold; Serena and Veronica are magic-wielding twin sisters who don’t look like twins; Sylvando is a flamboyant entertainer with more than a passing resemblance to Bad– or Dangerous-era Michael Jackson; Rab is a mischievous oldster who is more than meets the eye; and Jade is the requisite ass-kicking princess.

Most of these characters perpetuate one or more tropes, and their characterization is occasionally problematic—in particular, Sylvando is often portrayed as a broad gay stereotype, and Jade is objectified and over-sexualized often enough to make things uncomfortable. But generally speaking, they’re all clearly drawn and fun to spend time with. And while their skill sets all have some overlap, they all play differently enough to encourage players to swap them in and out of the active party (all characters gain experience from every battle and you can change them out on-the-fly inside or outside of battle, but only four can be on the battlefield at a time).

Exploring, equipment crafting, and skill-building