Akira Toriyama really gets around these days. If he’s not busy spearheading a new series in the Dragon Ball franchise, he’s doing the character design for one of Japan’s biggest RPG franchises. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age might mark the 11th full instalment in the series, but it’s only the the 10th game to be released internationally due to Dragon Quest X’s policy of taking its ball and going home. Needless to say, Dragon Quest XI is something of a big deal as it’s the first main series game to get a full console release since 2006.
Dragon Quest XI starts out in something of a typical way for JRPGs, right down to the saccharin sweet home town and the plucky best friend. Needless to say, the town is destroyed within the first few hours of gameplay, and our hero finds himself catapulted into the adventure of a lifetime. Just because the plot starts out in such a cliché manner, and in fact is actually pretty riddled with cliché throughout, doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a good story. Cliche is only as bad as you let it be, and honestly, it’s been a while since a game has managed to get away with such a storyline without resorting to the ‘parody’ label.
While the story of Dragon Quest XI has a lot of the high fantasy story beats like you would expect from a classical RPG story, it also manages to pull off a lot of comedic moments. Your characters will go from talking about the fate of the world in one scene to pulling a huge pratfall or hanging in the air like a cartoon. It’s nice to see a game handling serious moments and comedic moments, not relying on one label or the other. Of course, it’s also pretty awesome that the game features a talking cow that follows you around the world and tells you about the weather, so there’s that.
In a way, Dragon Quest XI bears the same philosophy in its gameplay as it does with its story, namely ‘Be the Best Classic JRPG Possible’. While there is little in the way of innovation, everything presented here is polished to a high degree that we haven’t seen before. In an industry where everything is either trying to ape current trends or create new ones, sticking to a classic and underused formula might actually count as an innovation in and of itself.
As we said before, Dragon Quest XI is a classic JRPG through and through. The battle system is turn-based, you spend most of your time in the game exploring an overworld and occasionally you find yourself in a dungeon or fighting a boss monster. The world you explore is bright, colourful and cartoony, much like the other Dragon Quest titles, and is matched perfectly with Akira Toriyama’s character designs. Say what you like about his art style, it does look good, and despite a lack of variety in some of the characters, they lend themselves well to a high adventure setting. This is, of course, assuming that they’re not currently engaging in screaming laser battles through space.
Just like the previous game in the series (from now on, this review will be ignoring the 10th game’s existence), Dragon Quest XI has no random battles. All of the enemies appear on the overworld, and so you can either avoid them or try to attack them, letting you start out battles with an advantage. The actual combat itself is turn-based and menu-driven, just like it used to be in the good old days. By default you start out with your main character taking orders from you directly and the side characters fighting automatically to the best of their ability, but you can change these settings in the tactics menu.
The tactics menu is what gives you direct control over the way your characters fight, as well the place where the all important ‘flee’ option is kept. You automatically open it at the beginning of a fight and can also access it throughout by tapping triangle. As well as using this menu to become the king of character micro-management, you can also turn your own character to auto-pilot as well. This option is super helpful if you end up needing to grind a little between bosses, or if you enjoy having a game play itself while you read a book, watch TV, or hell, why not play a video game?…oh.
While the feature might be useful for grinding you shouldn’t really find yourself needing to do it too much. If you actually take on the foes you find between major settlements you’re usually pretty well equipped to deal with whatever the different boss fights can throw at you. However if you, like me, decide ‘screw that’ and just run past everything then you can at least let the game sort of do it’s own thing while it catches up with all of your terrible choices. Plus you can set them to different fighting styles, like all out or conservative, do there are plenty of options at your disposal.
Dragon Quest XI also gives you access to super moves, like many JRPGs out there. The difference here, however, is that you unlock new moves as you gain new abilities, sometimes gaining a new super move you can use with another person to pull off a variety of different effects. The effects you gain are dependent on the person who you do the attack with. The thief and the main character do a highly damaging combo by attacking enemies at the front and the back at once. The two mages combine forces to heal everyone and provide HP/MP regen for a while. On top of that, this super attack state, called pep, can be kept active for a while before you actually use a special attack, boosting each characters most important stats.
Speaking of stats, your level ups follow a pretty classic formula. When you level up, your stats increase in a pre-determined way to match the role the character takes in battle. You also receive skill points which you can choose to spend on the different abilities or bonuses. These skills are either new combat abilities or sometimes can be a bonus to do with the character’s weapon, such as +5 attack with swords, etc. Choosing these skills carefully is very important too. You get limited SP, and some abilities can take several levels to unlock, and on top of that, you also need to unlock certain abilities to gain access to the more powerful pep moves.
The pep moves themselves have some other benefits, besides packing a hell of a punch and looking cool to boot. Like a lot of power moves, the pep attacks come with a long animation that shows off just how impressive they really are. Usually this would mean that you’d have to either sit through them every time you used them or turn them off in the menu if the game actually includes the option in the first place. Sure, some games offer a ‘cut-down’ version as well, but for the most part, it’s either like it or lump it when it comes to animations. Dragon Quest XI might be the first JRPG to include the option to skip the animations on an individual basis (if we’re wrong, we’re gonna get so many comments about it). When your characters start an attack, you can choose to hold square to skip the animation, so if you get a new attack, you can watch it, and if you’re super fed up with them, just keep holding square and you never have to look at them again. Perfect.
Dragon Quest XI also benefits from some insanely stunning environments. Instead of having a single overworld with oversized characters and specific settlements, you have a persistent world with the same proportions and overall style. The world’s consistent style is pretty impressive. It managed to both show off next gen effects and lighting while retaining the cartoon aesthetic that the series is famous for. The actual environment design is awesome too, filled with wide open grassy planes, dark dungeons and deeply colourful canyons and forests. It’s something that hasn’t really been done before to make a game that looks so ‘next gen’ while still retaining an art style that is anything but realistic.
It isn’t just the battle system and the visuals that keep Dragon Quest XI steeped in that classic JRPG feeling either. The music is another area that has a lot of thought put into it. The soundtrack is all performed using MIDI instruments and has a very heavy focus on strong melodies, something which was the key factor to how memorable the music in older games was. A lot of the music on display wouldn’t seem out of place in an 8 or 16-bit game, but it still manages to perform in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible with older systems.
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PS4, PC, 3DS
Release Date: 4th September 2018