Dragon Quest XI Review
Another great addition to the storied JRPG series
The only reason I picked up a copy of Dragon Quest VIII back in the PS2 days was because it came bundled with a demo of Final Fantasy XII. Blasphemy, heresy, call it what you will, but little ol’ me wasn’t familiar with franchise because it was, at the time, the only Dragon Quest released in Europe. Over 10 years have passed since then and I’ve played several installments, with the latest, Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age, now in my PS4.
The Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior series has been chugging along since the first game on the NES, so its JRPG chops are right up there with the likes of Final Fantasy. Developed and published by Square Enix, those outside of the series may be familiar with the blue slimes or the fact the design seems heavily influenced by Dragon Ball. The latter because smash-hit artist and creator of Dragon Ball Akira Toriyama became involved in the series from VIII onwards.
First and foremost, Dragon Quest XI is a classic JRPG that inserts itself into an era where the genre seems to be stuck in its awkward teenage phase. Its story is very simple, clichéd even. You are a mute, nameless hero from a small village. As a baby, you were sent down a river in a basket, to be rescued by a kindly old man. You plodded along, until, one day, you discover that you are the Luminary, a force for light that is to banish the evil darkness from the world. It is your mission to travel to the capital of Heliodor, announce yourself, and then get to saving the world.
Along your journey, you’ll collect various warriors who’ll aid you in this quest. There’s the rogue Erik, Veronica the minute mage, Slyvando, the flamboyant knight-cum-circus-performer, and more. The cast is colourful, unique, and have some really memorable designs. Your journeys will take you across continents, towns, cities, in a classic role-playing romp. For some out there, hearing that is simply enough to entice the wallets out of their pockets.
I don’t have a problem with DQ XI’s story per say. It’s perfectly serviceable and fun, but you’re not going into any Dragon Quest game that explores the depths of human misery. For the most part, it’s quite saccharine, which fits with its bright and vibrant designs. However, that’s not to say its characters aren’t well-rounded and explored, though you have to chug away at the campaign for some time before their full backstories are explored.
The world is split up into zones/fields. One might be your home village, other cities and locations, as well as the field areas connecting them. DQ XI’s world spans the gamut of classic environment tropes. You’ll travel across parched deserts, through frostbitten tundra, verdant meadows, and ravaged lands. You can loot chests on your way, battle monsters who wander around, and investigate sparkly points for crafting resources.
One big aspect where DQ XI triumphs over many of the JRPGs I’ve played on current-gen (and even last-gen) consoles is in the design of its overworld. I’m looking at you Final Fantasy XV. The trend has been to ape MMO games: big, open fields with lots of walking and no real character. Thankfully, DQ XI shows them how it should be. Zones that aren’t too big, are visually interesting, and give you a reason to explore with different ways to traverse through these interesting locales. Wandering around the beautifully designed environments, battling monsters and doing a bit of chest hunting makes the game feel like an adventure. Its graphics aren’t straining your console, but everywhere looks so damn pretty. The environments never feel bland and cities/dungeons all look handcrafted and unique. The fact this game was made with real passion and dedication is evident all over the place. The fact that DQ XI gives you access to a quick travel spell somewhat early on in the adventure is very welcome.
The game also has another big positive going for it, which harkens back to classic RPGs - towns. Inspired by different cultures and regions of the world, each place you visit and its surrounding lands has a very memorable feel and its own associated mini-story that do not outstay their welcome. The side story quests are numerous and often more than simply “go here, kill that”. Sometimes you’re forging new items for people, investigating a simple mystery, or showing off new moves in battle. Thankfully, it avoids the frustrating propensity some RPGs have that quantity equals quality.
DQ XI even has an alchemy system that I don’t find completely intolerable like a lot of other games. It reminded me of Tales of Vesperia. Items are plentiful and recorded in your recipe book so you can have fun hunting for the components you need without painful random drops. The smithing mini-game with the forge is also fun: you have a certain number of stamina points and you use them to bash a rough outline of your sword/armor/accessories into a more defined blueprint.
Combat is a classic turn-based affair. You can lay enemies low with a physical attack, crisp or freeze them via various magics, employ different abilities, and throw items around like you’re flinging rice at a wedding. Each character slots into certain battle archetypes. The hero is an all-rounder; Veronica is a black mage, her sister is a white mage; Sylvando is a jack-of-all-trades; and there’s straight up fighters, too. While characters generally level up and earn new abilities and spells that fit into their predominate archetype, players have chance to specialize or expand through the skill board.
When you level up, you earn a certain number of skill points. These can be spent on various skill trees. Someone like Veronica can become more adept at using staffs, or she can focus on other weapons like the whip. She can also strengthen her core skills, which can improve her spellcasting ability and various passive skills.
I think it’s a good theory in practice, and while the ability to switch weapons on the fly is interesting, it all falls a little flat for me. The main issue is that skill points across your first 30 levels can be pretty scarce and to make any decent headway in a skill tree means you have to focus. You can’t afford to pick and choose in different categories. So, it makes sense to focus solely on one weapon path so your team aren’t completely useless.
Another issue with the combat is that I found anyone who did not have an attack (magical or physical) that could target a group of enemies was rather useless outside bosses. The majority of battles you’ll be fighting on the field consist of one or more groups of monsters. Having each character hack away at one foe at a time felt like an eternity. It was much quicker and more efficient to simply utilize group-targeting attacks and just spam magic. Physical attacks that targeted groups were woefully weak or just not available until further down the tree, meaning I barely used characters like Erik and Slyvando until much later in the game.
Combat isn’t the only place DQ XI stumbles. I think the game’s interface is horrendous and one of the worst I’ve sampled in an RPG. If I want to, say, purchase a new skill, I have to pause - no, I can’t even pause the game. You can open menus but can’t pause the game, for reasons I still have not figured out, because this sure ain’t Dark Souls. So, I find a safe spot where an enemy won’t run at me, then open the first menu. From here, I got to another menu, then to my Character Builder, select the character I want, hit “square” to bring up their skill list... and lose the will to live. Even checking where items are in the recipe book is a chore. It’s just so laborious and bland and I hate it.
Ending on a positive, we have DQ XI’s soundtrack. Koichi Sugiyama’s work is memorable and evokes of a sense of medieval adventure, almost Disney-esque in its composure. There’s a feel of childlike wonder that comes across in the game’s music that complements the design elements.
Despite its few niggling points, Dragon Quest XI is an excellent RPG. It’s probably one of the best I’ve played on current-gen consoles. It’s a fantastic nod to classic JRPGs, while focusing on quality over quantity. Its main story has excellent pacing, the exploration elements form a real sense of adventure, while the extra content and fun distractions compliment your quest. Still, its skill system is flawed, unfocused, and a grind, while it’s menus are basic and, at times, frustrating. However, once you push past that, you’ve got a game that can easily eat up dozens of hours of your time. If you’re a JRPG fan, you need Dragon Quest XI.