In over three decades of its existence, Dragon Quest has cemented itself as one of the most beloved game series in Japan. Yet globally, it has never matched the success of Square Enix’s other RPG behemoth, Final Fantasy. Why? Because the latter has aimed to court Western tastes, with Final Fantasy XV aiming for photorealistic visuals, ditching turn-based battling for real-time combat, and going open-world.
Nonetheless, with XI being the first Dragon Quest to hit home console’s in the West since 2005’s Dragon Quest VIII, Dragon Quest XI appears to be the one to bring the JRPG up to modern expectations. At least that’s how it would appear.
The opening movie’s rousing score performed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra may sweep you off your feet, while early scenes framed with beautiful vistas of mountains in the distance would have you believe that you too can go there – hell, our hero even gets a horse just like Link or Geralt. But you also quickly realise it’s nothing of the sort. Dragon Quest XI is as traditional as traditional JRPGs can get, right down to the turn-based battles, midi musical accompaniment, and occasional 8-bit sound effects.
It certainly looks pleasing to the eye though. This is the first in the series to go fully-HD, while retaining the series trademore anime aesthetic, drawn by famed character designer Akira Toriyama. Even with a portfolio that includes Chrono Trigger and of course the Dragon Ball series, this is some of his finest work to date. From the archetypal yet distinct characters in your party to the often adorable-looking monsters that wouldn’t look out of place in Pokémon, it’s the colourful palettes and expressive eyes that set them apart from other anime designs.
Yet under the blue skies and general cuteness is an epic story that weaves tragedies and impending doom. The themes and plot points are ones you’ll have encountered from some of the genre’s best – to mention any, in particular, would be to spoil the twists – but it’s nonetheless a timeless tale told very well. Yes, the principal female characters can feel like a case of tropes bingo, from saintly healer to sexualised bad-ass to another who is literally infantilized, but in spite of that, this is a terrifically rootable cast with fun chemistry and backstories that all come together united in their cause, unlike say Octopath Traveler.
Characters are brought to life even more thanks to voice acting for everyone bar your silent protagonist. They may begin with the stereotypically high-fantasy English variety, from the humble Cobblestone’s Cornish-sounding villagers to the kingdom of Heliodor’s cockney guards and RP of royals. But as you travel the world of Edrea, accents vary as much as each new town and kingdo from our own world, whether its the Venetian-inspired Gondolia or the Japanese-themed Hotto (you can tell the localisation team had fun with the wordplay of places). There will probably be a difference of opinion on some of the European accents, but for our money, they stay on just about the right side of caricature.
Visiting each new area is a pretty episodic affair as the story unfolds in a mostly linear fashion. If you’re lost, speaking to an NPC with a pink speech bubble above their head will give a hint on where you’re supposed to go next, while soldiers stand in front of gates for areas further afield until you’ve achieved your current story objective.
There is an attempt to offer something a little different in traversal by way of using enemies as a mode of transport. Occasionally, you’ll see a glowing monster in the overworld or dungeon, and upon beating them you can then ride them, like using a skeletal reptile to climb up walls or a giant bee to fly over water. Sometimes it’s required to make progress in a dungeon, at other times it opens exploration in the otherwise structured environments.
Unfortunately, When it comes to combat, the turn-based battles are so traditional to the point of tedium. You’ve got your basic attacks, spells, abilities, defence or flee options. And that’s it. Over time, your characters also get ‘Pepped Up’, which either makes them more powerful for a limited number of turns or can be spent to unleash a Pep Power attack or buff, but these are rare occurrences. While there’s an option to let you move both your characters and camera around during battle, it actually makes no difference to gameplay that you’re better off setting the camera to ‘classic’ mode just to make battles look more exciting.
Compared to the Active Time Battle of old-school Final Fantasy or the weakness-exploiting mechanics in Persona or Octopath Traveler, there’s simply no compelling hook in Dragon Quest XI’s combat to make it stand out.
At least random encounters are a thing of the past. But even if you can run past enemies – or knock aside the weaker ones with your horse – you’ll still need to grind through them as it’s the only way to gain experience.
One way to alleviate grind is that you can set Tactics to make everyone go auto-pilot. However, when the majority of battles are barely a challenge, it’s all too easy to just set everyone to ‘Fight Wisely’ and switch off. It’s not until the midpoint (i.e. tens of hours later) before you might even have to consider employing a strategy.
Given that you can confirm actions with the L2 trigger as well as the X button, you’re practically encouraged to play with one hand while you check your phone – or anything else more interesting – with the other. If only there was an option to speed up battles just like you can also sprint around the world with the R2 trigger.
Hardcore players can, however, opt for Draconian Quest, which is available at the start. Basically a hard mode, this settin allows you to turn on modifiers that increase enemy levels or even a setting which makes all armour redundant. While you’re free to turn them off later, you can’t put them back on once removed, making it something of a bragging rights goal. While we didn’t experiment with these settings in our playthrough, it sounds more like an artificial way of making the simplistic battle system more annoying rather than adding any mechanical depth.
The most engaging gameplay aspect for us came in the form of upgrading your equipment. Instead of just the typical and expensive route of visiting a new town’s armoury, resting at campsites gives you access to the Fun-Size Forge where you can fashion your own gear.
This fun mini-game has you bashing your item into shape by striking different squares enough times until the relevant gauge reaches the sweet spot, raising its level. Indeed, some of the rarest and most powerful gear can only be forged. You will, however, need to find forging recipes in the world first, sometimes by completing side quests. Even then, the required materials can be hard to come by and once again, require grinding, which is to say, the developers really make you work for these upgrades.
Is Dragon Quest XI any good?
There’s something reassuring about how Dragon Quest XI stays true to its roots. It’s as uncompromisingly consistent as its trio of creators, story and game designer Yuji Horii, artist Akira Toriyama, and composer Koichi Sugiyama, who have all been there since the first game on the Famicom.
However, it’s traditional to a fault. It may look beautiful and the voice acting is a worthwhile addition, but overall Dragon Quest XI does nothing to push the JRPG genre forward. It’s a shame, as despite Square pushing XI as its big Western RPG this is a game that’s incredibly hard to recommend to a new audience. Nonetheless, in the 50-60 hours that the story has you in its spell, it’s undeniably full of charm and character, and if you have the patience to see it through, there’s still tens of hours more in the end-game where it properly bares its hardcore teeth.
Ultimately, our time in Erdrea makes us realise why Dragon Quest is Japan’s national game. It’s not necessarily because it’s the best or the most innovative, but for its generation-spanning fans, familiarity breeds comfort.