Dragon Quest games have always been ludicrously popular in Japan, but their popularity elsewhere has been inconsistent at best. Western gamers have heard Japanese gamers, media, and developers praise the series, but all but a select few Dragon Quest titles have been met with indifference by Western gamers at large. The series legacy has long been as a Japanese gaming phenomenon.
If that is your perception of the Dragon Quest series, it’s best to not think of Dragon Quest XI as Dragon Quest XI at all. Instead, let’s just refer to it as Dragon Quest for the time being. Why? Well, that’s because the game represents Square Enix’s most sincere effort yet to reimagine the series for global audiences.
Dragon Quest XI begins with the coming of age ceremony of a young boy in a tiny village. Due to events not fully disclosed in the brief hands-off demo of the game’s Western release displayed at PAX East, that young boy soon learns that he is the resurrection of an ancient hero of destiny who will one day be responsible for saving the world. So, he sets off to meet the king and begin his destiny.
Yes, yes…you’ve heard that spiel before. Small village, hero of destiny, blah, blah, blah. We’re tired of it, you’re tired of it, and, apparently, Dragon Quest’s developers are tired of it as well.
See, not long after you learn of your destiny, you are granted an audience with the king. After what seems to be a celebration of your arrival, you quickly realize that the king has no intentions of letting you leave. It seems that the kingdom is tired of heroes of destiny because heroes of destiny always attract great evils. This time, the kingdom wants to try a different approach.
That shocking introduction is just one of many ways that Dragon Quest blends the old and the new. Indeed, Dragon Quest XI’s entire goal in life seems to be to play with the expectations of those most determined to remain indifferent to it.
For instance, there’s the game’s combat system. It’s a turn-based affair that will be instantly familiar to the Dragon Quest fateful, but it’s livened up a bit by elements like a free-flowing camera option that lets you remove the static view of previous turn-based battles. You’re also now able to initiate combat in the open world by attacking monsters you can physically see along the way rather than by randomly encountering them out of nowhere. You can even just run them down with your horse and avoid combat entirely.
It’s not a dramatic reimagining of Dragon Quest’s combat, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be. After all, traditional JRPG combat still holds a special place in the hearts of many. It’s not broken, but it could benefit from minor changes such as the one this game introduces.
The game’s quest system enjoys a similar reimagining. Different NPCs in the world have different dialogue bubbles above their head. Some are marked as basic NPCs (white bubbles), some are able to point you in the right direction of the main story (pink bubbles), and some are able to provide side quests (purple bubbles). This makes it so that every NPC has a role in the world, but those who wish to take a more streamlined approach through the game will be able to do so without having to talk to everyone.
Then you have the skill grid. Skills are now unlocked by spending points on a grid full of visible and hidden abilities. Every ability you unlock allows you to purchase an adjacent ability with subsequent skill points. It’s reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s sphere system, but isn’t quite as punishing to those who wish to try different options.
Dragon Quest XI’s most telling feature, though, is its localization alterations. The Western version of Dragon Quest XI will feature full voice acting whereas the Japanese version of the game featured none. It also allows for quicker movements and features even more difficult challenge modes. In other words, this is a game that Square Enix wants the Western market to not only buy into, but love.
It remains to be seen whether the title will accomplish that lofty goal, but there’s no doubt that Square Enix has positioned Dragon Quest XI to be more than a footnote amongst those fascinated by the love that the series’ most adamant fans shower upon it.