No RPG series comes close to competing with Dragon Quest in Japan in terms of popularity and cultural impact. Much of the series' appeal probably stems from the unmistakable art style of Akira Toriyama, the artist behind the hugely popular Dragon Ball series. Still, we believe former Nintendo president Satoru Iwata hit closest to home when describing the secret behind Dragon Quest's popularity is its accessibility; a Dragon Quest game can be picked up and played by anyone regardless of experience and without the need to read heavy manuals and tutorials before playing. The value of this design philosophy shouldn't be underestimated in a medium that often appears too complex and incomprehensible for outsiders.
Outside of Japan, however, the Dragon Quest series has never taken hold to the same degree, but this changed somewhat when Dragon Quest VIII was released on PlayStation 2 in 2005 in the US (and in 2006 in Europe). This was the last time a game in the Dragon Quest main series was released on one of the major consoles outside Japan. Dragon Quest IX was a DS exclusive, and the MMORPG Dragon Quest X never saw a non-Japanese release. This means that with the release of Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age for PlayStation 4 and PC, we are looking at the first release in the series on a major platform in over twelve years.
In many ways, the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series are counterparts to each other. When picking up a new game in the Final Fantasy main series you can always expect something new with some familiar elements living on from previous instalments. When picking up a new game in the Dragon Quest main series, on the other hand, you can expect comfortable familiarity with only the bare minimum of new adjustments to bring the series enough to a current gen standard. Dragon Quest XI confirms this side of the series from the very first minute.
This kind of nostalgic old school doesn't have to be a negative thing. Sometimes, travelling home to your mother's home-cooked Sunday meal is just the thing you want and need. You know exactly how the roast and sauce will taste, and that's exactly why you've come home. Dragon Quest XI conveys that same feeling. If you've played Dragon Quest before, you know exactly what you'll get. If, on the other hand, this is your first time playing a Dragon Quest game, this is also a great place to start your experience with the series.
Let's start with the area where Dragon Quest games have always been at their weakest, namely the main story. In every game you assume the role of the silent hero type, a destined one chosen by fate/divine powers/mysterious forces with the task of saving the world from a generic big baddie who wants to throw the world into chaos and darkness to create a monster's paradise. Good and bad are unshakable categories where every character usually belongs to one of the two, and the really mean ones can be spotted a mile away due to their sinister looks. Unsurprisingly, all of this applies to Dragon Quest XI as well. You assume the role of the Luminary, chosen by the World Tree, Yggdrasil, born with a mark on your left hand which identifies you as the reincarnated hero from the Age of Heroes. Since your birth marks the impending doom of the world's dark forces, they decide to attack your home country as soon as you're born to thwart fate. You still manage to survive the attack, and many years later you're finally ready to begin your adventure and fulfil your calling.
There are no great surprises in the main story, and even though your companions have a lot of charm they never stand out as the most unique bunch. Despite this, the game still manages to surprise you every now and again. At the point where you start to glide into a JRPG haze where everything seems to run on autopilot, the game serves a sub-plot which manages to give you an emotional gut punch. After the sub-plot is done you're left emotional as you ponder: "This is what Dragon Quest is all about." Because that's just it. The overarching main plot in the Dragon Quest games is always about a chosen one fighting a lord of darkness, which never turns out to be that interesting. What the games excel at are the excellent sub-plots and singular storylines which stick with you when the game's done. Even though the sub-plots don't always have a large impact on the main story, they make the experience way more memorable.
Not surprisingly, the graphics in Dragon Quest XI look amazing. The clear and distinct style of Akira Toriyama has never been better brought to life, and it's truly impressive how much energy Square Enix has pumped into the project to create this beautiful vision. Even more than 50 hours into the game it still manages to take your breath away with its visual quality, and old fans will probably rejoice when seeing their old beloved series come to life in such grand style. The excellent presentation also makes it easier for the characters and monsters to charm you with their charisma and/or personality.
The gameplay mechanics are pretty straightforward and easy to learn, making Dragon Quest XI a nice entry point to the series for newcomers. You have a huge world to explore with main and side quests, and upon your journey you can help people in need, complete a crossbow challenge, participate in horse racing, gamble at the casino, and fight monsters, just to mention a few. The monsters wander around freely on the world map and in the dungeons and castles, making random encounters a thing of the past and allowing you to avoid them if you wish. The combat is completely turn-based, and you may choose to give each order manually or set each character to a predefined combat style (show no mercy, don't use MP, fight wisely etc.).
A new element in Dragon Quest XI is called Pep Power, which turns your character into a glowing powerhouse, Dragon Ball style, allowing them to perform special attacks. This was also possible to an extent in Dragon Quest VIII, where bracing yourself against attacks built up strength and unleashed the character's special powers, but this time Pep triggers automatically in combat after certain conditions have been met. The skill tree where you improve your characters is also a new addition to the series, and whenever setting up camp you can bring out your portable forge and make new equipment (which is more fun than it sounds). Another new feature is the possibility of walking around freely in a circular area during combat, not unlike the combat systems in recent Tales games and Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. In Dragon Quest XI the free-ranging is purely cosmetic, however, as the positioning of your characters has zero impact on combat efficiency or evasion, making you question why they've included such a feature in the first place before switching your combat camera to Classic Mode.
Which brings us to the core of the problem with Dragon Quest XI, namely innovation. Or to be more specific, the lack thereof. Every attempt to do something new is either on a scale where you don't see the benefit (like the open combat camera system) or where the series just tag along with whatever is considered standard for the genre these days. Beyond that, the game aims more at creating the nostalgic feeling players may have from playing earlier games in the series like Dragon Quest VIII. Problem is, one of the reasons Dragon Quest VIII became so popular in its time was because it renewed the series and the genre instead of just tagging along with other games of the era.
Since the release of Dragon Quest VIII in Europe in 2006, JRPG fans have had a blast with masterpieces like Final Fantasy XII, Bravely Default, The Last Story, Xenoblade Chronicles, Lost Odyssey, Tales of Xillia, Persona 4 and Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, just to name a few. Not to mention that last year was a tremendous year for the genre with games like Tales of Berseria, the unique and highly memorable Nier: Automata, and finally Persona 5, the new king of turn-based JRPGs. So far this year gamers have been able to enjoy Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, which sets a new standard for how to bring a certain art style to life digitally, and Octopath Traveler, which succeeds rather well in combing the old with the new for a current generation.
We could go on, but by now our point has been made; a lot has happened on the JRPG front since 2006, but aside from the improved graphics, Dragon Quest XI doesn't appear to accept this fact. The game feels too old, too slow and too cumbersome to be competitive within the genre circa 2018. The game serves up nothing you don't get in other games with at least the same quality if not better, and that's not good enough for a game aiming to claim at least 50 hours of your time.
Part of the blame can be found in some of the series' old conventions which sorely need to be revised and/or replaced. Let us name a few examples; choices where you're forced into the same dialogue loop until you choose the "right" answer; long and insufficient menus, for example whenever you want to save (true to its roots, this game forces you to go to a church or a saint statue every time you wish to save, upon which you need to click past several lines of dialogue and choices); services that don't serve a real function because the series has introduced a more efficient system for the exact same feature (why ask a priest how much experience you need to level up when you can just look in the menus?); cutscenes that end and let you control your character for two meters before triggering another cutscene; and let us not forget how the special attack patterns for several female characters focuses on gender, body and sensuality, even though this is a complete character breach for said party member. When a lot of these small annoyances build up, the sum is not insignificant.
It might also be time to consider passing on the musical torch from Koichi Sugiyama, the Ennio Morricone of video game music who still handles the Dragon Quest score at the age of 87. There are certainly many enjoyable tunes here and there, but a lot of the score sounds like it was recorded on a cheap synthesizer. That might have done the trick in 2006, but it's sad to hear how the potential of more powerful hardware and data capacity isn't used to create a better and more memorable music.
Despite the lack of innovation, it's still easy to enjoy yourself when playing Dragon Quest XI, especially if you're an older fan. If you're unsure whether to spend time and money on this game right now, it may be wise to ask yourself two questions: have I played Dragon Quest before, and did I enjoy it? If both answers are "yes", this is a no-brainer. You'll find lots of content to enjoy this time around (if you keep in mind other games in the genre do everything just as well, if not better). There's entertainment value to be found here even though the game's flaws are obvious, and quite frankly, Square Enix has a job to do if they ever plan to release a twelfth instalment of the series.