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
Dragon Quest XI’s map superficially resembles Dragon Quest VIII’s huge open world, but in reality each of the game’s territories is relatively small and self-contained. As I wrote when I reviewed the 3DS port of VIII a couple of years back, that game’s wide-open world felt impressive at the time because the concept was still novel. But upon a revisit, so much of that open world is just vast, trackless wilderness intermittently dotted with NPCs and treasure chests. Being able to see monsters on the world map in the remake—and, thus, choose your battles rather than running into them randomly—made exploring faster, but there still just wasn’t much to do most places.
Dragon Quest XI simultaneously shrinks those gigantic areas while populating them with more treasures (mostly crafting ingredients that you can use to make better weapons and armor later on) and rest stops/save points. The haystack is smaller and it has more needles in it, a change that makes the game feel more linear and also more satisfying. The presence of various mounts—a horse plus a variety of special monsters that can climb walls, jump high, or fly—can also speed up exploration, both by boosting your movement speed and sending smaller enemies flying.
You’ll definitely want to dedicate the time to exploring the smaller map and picking up those crafting ingredients and crafting recipes. That’s because the game’s “Fun-Size Forge” crafting minigame is by far the best way to keep all your characters in weapons and armor that keeps pace with the progressively stronger monsters you run into.
The minigame itself is also a reasonably fun cross between strategy and luck. Popping the right ingredients into the forge will always get you a usable item, but by bashing each piece of equipment just the right amount, you can create +1, +2, and +3 versions that provide bigger stat boosts and secondary effects. Crafting new items also nets you “perfectionist pearls,” which can be tossed into the forge with equipment you buy or find to power it up (the pearls can also give you another shot at powering up a forged item that you didn’t get perfect the first time without requiring you to track down all the raw materials again).
The other ways to power up your characters are standard leveling up and the Character Builder skill tree. Leveling will always be your primary source of stat boosts, and each character also learns new spells and skills related to their primary role (Serena primarily learns healing and buffing spells this way, for instance, while Veronica learns new offensive spells and debuffs). But every level also nets you a handful of skill points, and that’s where the Character Builder comes in.
Dragon Quest XI’s skill tree system reminds me the most of Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid, both in that you get to choose which stat boosts and skills to learn and that those decisions (to a certain degree) dictate which skills you can learn next. Each ability on the grid is a hexagonal tile surrounded by other tiles, and you need to use your skill points on abilities and bonuses closer to the center of the grid before you can get the more advanced bonuses at the far corners of the grid. Every character has a unique skill tree with a few different specialties that all intersect in different ways—usually you can choose between two or three different types of weapon proficiencies and a section dedicated to class-related stat boosts and abilities. For instance, Erik the thief’s grid lets you put points into swords, knives, or boomerangs, and there’s a “guile” section related to stealing items and boosting deftness and agility.
Some characters’ base classes and skill sets will always make them better for some roles than for others; no matter how you assign your skill points, your party’s magic users are never going to transform into great physical brawlers. But Serena with all her skill points dumped into wands and magic does play differently from Serena with a heavy investment into spears, and they’re both perfectly valid ways to play.
This sounds less flexible than Dragon Quest IX’s wide-ranging job system, and it is, but the Character Builder still encourages experimentation by allowing you to reset sections on a character’s grid at a cost of 20 gold per recovered skill point. I put a lot of points into Erik’s boomerang skill initially because they can hit all enemies and help with crowd control. As my spellcasters grew more powerful, though, I reset him and redistributed those points to make him a dual-knife-wielding brawler who could do more damage to individual enemies. You may discover that a +10 ability modifier that made a big difference early in the game doesn’t matter as much late in the game, and recover those points for use elsewhere. It adds variety and flexibility while keeping each character’s role unique.
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