Release Date: September 4, 2018Platform: PS4 (reviewed), PCDeveloper: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixGenre: RPG
For months, Square Enix has been touting Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age as the series’ breakthrough game in North America. Since the MMO Dragon Quest X skipped North America, this is the first mainline title to hit U.S. home consoles in more than a decade (Dragon Quest IX was only on the DS). Thanks to its use of Unreal Engine 4, Dragon Quest looks better than ever in its latest outing. But while several other quality of life improvements and charming characters make this one of the best JRPGs around, the game does little to break the genre conventions that keep Dragon Quest from attracting a larger audience in the west.
The first half of Dragon Quest XI’s 50-hour story feels downright generic at times, as your nameless hero journeys to save the world and collect the six magical doodads. While there is an overarching storyline here, questing is mostly episodic. Every couple of hours, the hero and his party move to a new town, meet someone in trouble, and solve their problems.
Some of these stories, like helping a mermaid find her lost love or unraveling the mystery of a frozen city are quite interesting, while others, like the tale of a cowardly prince, are more annoying. The story actually picks up quite a bit in the second half with a darker tone and more open-ended quests, although at times this half of the game feels a little uneven. There are a few bosses that just seem to get randomly thrown at you for no real reason. There are also number of sidequests scatterered around the world, but they’re mainly fetch quests with unremarkable rewards. If you’re not a completionist, there’s very little reason to do them.
Once the main story is finished, a lengthy post-game quest opens, which amps up the difficulty significantly and may actually the be best part of the game in terms of both gameplay and narrative. Just keep in mind that at least 50 hours stand between you and said post-game.
If you’ve played a Dragon Quest game (or any traditional JRPG) before, you’ll know exactly what to expect. Combat is strictly turn-based. You can move around the battlefield between turns now, but it’s only cosmetic and has no bearing on attacks or defense. Thankfully, enemies are visible on the world map and easily avoided, so there are no random encounters aside from traveling by sea, which only covers a small portion of the game. When you do encounter them, enemies have quite a few different animations in combat, and most make them look like giant toys come to life. Still, Akira Toriyama’s character designs continue to stand the test of time.
The world of Erdrea can be absolutely stunning at times, but it’s worth noting that this is not an open-world title. While maps are large and hold a number of secrets to find, you’re always stuck in a confined area, and will even get chided by party members sometimes if you try to head toward other areas that aren’t on the way to your next objective.
The sound design is something of a mixed bag as well. True to the series’ reputation, Dragon Quest XI doesn’t stray far from its roots. Many of the sound effects here date back to the first game on the NES, for better or worse. Curiously, Square Enix has stuck Dragon Quest XI with a MIDI, rather than orchestral, soundtrack. While the tunes initially fit the game well, they do become grating after a couple dozen hours, and there are remarkably few of them. They also play during important cutscenes, which takes away from the impact of some of the game’s more cinematic moments.
Voice acting is generally pretty high quality, though I’m not personally a fan of the residents of every new town having the most stereotypical European accents you can imagine. While some accents are fitting, others sound like bad community theatre. Then there’s a character who will join you on your quest, the flamboyant actor Sylvando. You’re either going to love or hate his over-the-top Spanish accent by the end of the game.
While never revolutionary, Dragon Quest XI deserves a lot of credit for small quality of life improvements. You’re now able to heal your entire party with just one button between combat scenarios and can also use a fast travel spell to avoid a lot of backtracking. In combat, you have the option of controlling each character’s turn or letting your party members decide what works best. There’s also very little grinding required to progress through the game.
Also new is “pep,” a power up that randomly kicks in every few turns, granting the party access to powerful spells and a higher chance of critical hits. Each party member also has access to a sizable skill tree that lets you choose what spells and weapons they specialize in. Want your main character to focus on using greatswords? Go for it. You could turn him into a spellcasting powerhouse instead, or something in-between.
Either way, Dragon Quest XI is a remarkably easy RPG. My party was only wiped out about a half-dozen times in 50 hours, and half those deaths came at the hands of the final boss, whom just required a little more strategy than everyone else.
Ultimately, the game isn’t going to change your mind about the series or JRPGs in general. The gameplay hews close to what the series has always been known for, and it happily embraces some of the genre’s more peculiar conventions, but it also excels at combat and the story only gets better with time. Needless to say, JRPG fans will be in heaven.
Chris Freiberg is a freelance contributor. You can find all of his work here.