It has been a long journey for Dragon Quest, with almost twenty years in North America. We saw the first three games on the Nintendo Entertainment System under the Dragon Warrior brand, and then the series eventually transitioned to Sony’s consoles with Dragon Warrior VII and Dragon Quest VIII. That was nearly thirteen years ago, but since then, we’ve seen two mainline titles and a handful of remakes back under the Nintendo banner. Here we are today, though, as there’s been considerably more resources put into the latest installment, creating a game both visually and mechanically modern, while keeping the essence of what made Dragon Quest so great in the first place. While the game was released in Japan over a year ago, Square Enix has been working hard to ensure this is the best possible release in the west, most notably including a fully-voiced cast of characters and a translation that will immerse players within the world. After playing over 100 hours, I can safely say that Dragon Quest XI has all the makings of being one of the best role playing games released in 2018, even though it does come with some setbacks.
The plot of Dragon Quest XI is your typical unlikely savior tale. You play as the Luminary, the rebirth of a line of heroes who are tasked with vanquishing darkness through supernatural means. Granted, the world is filled with fantastical elements, including magic, but the Luminary is said to be the only one who is able to do it. The overall plot in general is serviceable, with a couple of twists and turns, but most of which are fairly predictable. Fortunately, it’s the cast of characters and their stories that are the highlight of the campaign, as each has their own unique and compelling personalities. From the outset they look like a group of random members, but the more you get to know them, the more you realize they play a much bigger role in the world. With that said, I would have liked to see a little more humor thrown in, as the little that comes from the pervy old-man sticks out like a sore thumb. Yes, the world is in potential danger, but almost everyone in the party is overly serious. They have some backstory to justify this, but even the lighthearted thief Erik is less animated than he should be, as is vexing Veronica.
Unfortunately, while the story is traditional and probably will please most fans, it does overstay its welcome. We’re not even talking about the game’s length, as it took us 125 hours to complete everything Dragon Quest XI has to offer, but instead it’s the story progression and how it all unfolds. Trying to tip toe around spoilers, there are certain events that lead to the true ending that enter an unfortunate trope of a lot of anime. Because of this, we’re treated to repetition and an unnecessary extension of the plot that begins to drag. This begins to rear its head around halfway through where the character progression almost starts anew and you’re tasked with retreading the world. Then moving towards the true ending, it’s almost like Square Enix wanted to have a completely happy ending, which takes away from everything that occurred in the last forty hours. They establish a number of unanswered questions throughout the lengthy journey, but I would have respected the narrative more if it left things as they were.
While there are some problems with the plot, there’s one aspect that deserves praise: the translation. This has been magnificently well done and unlike the Japanese release, Dragon Quest XI is almost entirely voice acted. I say almost because, while I don’t expect random characters in the world to have their own voices, there are some peculiar exclusions. For example, there are two or three instances where there’s supposed to be singing in a cutscene, but instead everything goes silent and the lyrics just quietly roll on the screen as everyone’s mouths move in synchronous. There are a couple of other instances like this, including the final boss, but fortunately the vast majority of the campaign is fully voice acted. It’s also impressive what Square Enix has done with the selection of voice acting, as each location feels unique. They could have easily just had everyone have the same accent and reuse a ton of voice actors, but instead, every country you visit has their own way of speaking. The best examples of this are the mermaids and a town called Hotto. Mermaids speak entirely in rhyme, whereas the residents of Hotto almost exclusively talk in Haiku. Then there’s different regions around the world that have various accents, be it a port city that represent Italians or a proper private school who sound distinctly French. It’s this sort of attention to detail that will immerse you within the vast world, as you won’t know what to expect when you first enter a town.
Moving away from the plot, gameplay is one of the best components Dragon Quest XI has to offer. Combat in particular is a mix of old and new. It’s still very much a turn-based system, but you’re instead able to move around the battlefield however you see fit. This doesn’t add a whole lot, but a little bit of control does feel nice. Then there’s the pep system, which allows two to four characters to perform a special attack, be it direct damage to an enemy or buffing characters. There’s no good indicator when someone will become pepped, but because of this, it can result in nice surprises and keep you on your toes. Each character also has the ability to equip two to four different weapons depending on their skill tree, which can lead to strategizing before going into specific battles. I would have liked to have seen costumes tied to something other than equipment, but it does make you question whether or not you want to sacrifice defense for looking good. Speaking of which, there’s also a charm element added to equipment, which can randomly help you in battle, as enemies can become enamored with a character and avoid attacking or turning on their party. As you can see, even though this is a traditional turn-based combat system, it’s still gratifying and engaging that you’ll enjoy each encounter, especially running into a monster that requires a different strategy to beat. It’s not only about hitting enemies as hard as you can.
While more praise can be heaped onto the combat system, there are still elements that could have been modernized, most notably the ability to see turn order. There were a couple boss battles where the creature, who was able to strike three times, was able to somehow go in two consecutive turns, ultimately leading to the death of one or more characters because I was ill prepared to handle an unexpected onslaught. Then there are times when characters will seemingly miss turns and the order of characters will be thrown out of whack. Obviously, this can work to your advantage in some scenarios, but a little heads up would not be a bad thing. This also leads into another aspect that should be addressed: escaping battles. While this isn’t a massive problem because random encounters are almost entirely removed from Dragon Quest XI, outside of when you’re controlling a ship, it’s almost guaranteed you won’t be able to immediately run from a battle. It doesn’t matter what level you are or if you got the jump on the enemies, the success rate of escape is abysmal and is downright frustrating. Lastly, item management is still a bit of a mess. Instead of the group having a stockpile of items to use, you have to individually give items to each character before going into battle, meaning that item that cures paralysis or any other aliment might be out of reach. At least you’re able to swap out character mid-battle, something more RPGs need to take advantage of.
Finally, Side quests are a hit or miss situation. The world is massive so there are a hefty sixty side quests to partake in, not to mention a handful in the late-game tasks that aren’t tracked. This is what’s done right. The game doesn’t hold your hand through these side quests, never directly telling you what to do. Instead, you actually need to talk to the quest giver and others who are linked to the activity to determine where you should be going and where to look. Some even get fairly clever; for example, there’s one side quest where you’re tracking down a lost article, and it’s hinted at that some monster probably put it up on a sign because it was so good. After running through the dungeon-esque area multiple times, the solution was that the article was indeed posted on a sign, but on the back of it where the game normally informs you that you can’t read the sign because you’re looking at the wrong side. Unfortunately, the problem is that of the sixty tasks, they can be broken down into five different mission types. The most popular one of course is a fetch quest, going to a spot and retrieving a lost item. Then there’s finding and slaying a specific monster, killing a monster with a specific pep attack, forging a weapon or accessory, and finding a specific character somewhere in the world. There are one or two side quests that break this mold, such as winning the jackpot at a casino, but more or less you’ll be repeating the same task over and over again.
Graphically, Dragon Quest XI is an absolute delight. Just as he has done since the first Dragon Quest back in the ‘80s, famed artist Akira Toriyama, best known for Chrono Trigger and of course Dragon Ball, was at the helm of character and monster designs. There has never been a better game to properly showcase Toriyama’s talent, as Dragon Quest XI is a visual treat for the eyes as it shines with life thanks to the increased color palette. This might have something to do with being one of the first games from Square Enix utilizing Unreal Engine 4. It helps that this supports a day and night cycle. Sometimes the sun can reflect too brightly off characters, but most of the time the day time brings out the beauty of the world, and the bright stars and moon help create an atmospheric setting even at night. Unfortunately, this is still far from the most consistent of visual experiences. Character models in general are no doubt the highlight and environments from a far are gorgeous, but when you get up close, texture work can be spotty. For example, there was an emotional, character-building scene in the later half of the campaign that was completely ruined because the two characters were laying on what looked like a texture from the ‘90s for the longest time. It’s these moments that take you out of the experience, and it feels like the further into the story, the more you see them. Fortunately, this doesn’t detract from the visual showcase too much; it has its problems, but the art direction is one of the best seen from a video game.
It may have been a long wait, but it was well worth it. Dragon Quest XI is a beautiful, exemplary RPG that has a strong cast of characters and an addicting combat system. The world is brimming with life thanks to the stellar translation efforts and the charismatic voice acting. This is only complimented by the lovely graphical designs, as Akira Toriyama’s work has never looked so good in video game form. Unfortunately, while there’s lots to praise, there are still elements that drag the experience down. While the story is your typical unlikely hero saving the world trope, it drags its feet in the second half of the campaign, not to mention there are ill choices that affect the narrative flow. There are also elements to combat that could have been better implemented and modernized to strengthen the absorbing turn-based system. Regardless, Dragon Quest XI is still one of those 100 hour RPGs that deserve the attention. It may falter in some spots, but it shines brightly in others. There’s no better time to get back into the slime-slaying business.