Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age Review

I don’t think there is a more appropriate title for Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age.

It’s a game that, through all its modernity, pulses with the beating heart of a classic JRPG. It’s a strange time for the genre, to be sure, especially for Dragon Quest’s return. Franchises like Final Fantasy are pushing into new and uncharted territory to the dismay of some of their most hardcore fans while, at the same time, games like I Am Setsuna and Octopath Traveler try to recapture the magic of the past. In between them is Dragon Quest XI – a turn based, old school JRPG helmed by one of the industry’s oldest veterans, series creator Yuji Horii. Like an echo from a long lost age, Dragon Quest is back and it looks better than ever.

Love at first sight

Your first moments in Dragon Quest XI will most likely depend on your own personal relationship with the series. For myself, someone who fell head over heels for a fan-translated version of Dragon Quest V as a kid, the experience was incredible. Sure, Dragon Quest VIII was probably the first time the series ever felt fully realised in 3D, but Dragon Quest XI feels truly special upon your first glance. The sweeping, rolling plains of its expansive environments are breathtaking. Watching the countless blades of grass sway in the wind as classic monster designs, the same ones I’ve doodled in school notebooks countless times before, roam atop of them.

In fact, the notion of finally seeing the countless Dragon Quest tropes return in a fully-fledged modern, mainline title is still quite surreal. I can remember playing through the older games, filling in the gaps that the NES and SNES’ less powerful hardware had left open to the imagination, dreaming of a game just such as this one. To see many of them finally realised as they are in Dragon Quest XI, the feeling was powerful and didn’t leave me for many hours of the game. For someone whose most likely never played a Dragon Quest game before, I can only imagine it being something very different. Yet, undeniably, seeing Akira Toriyama’s art come to life is still a thing of beauty, even if we’ve seen it a few times already this generation in games like Dragon Quest Heroes and Dragon Quest Builders.

A quest to remember

The game opens in the small town of Cobblestone as you take control of the game’s hero, another unnamed avatar who is destined for greatness. This time, in the form of an unassuming sixteen year old farmboy. Although you don’t have the ability to assign your own job class like you could in Dragon Quest IX, out of all the characters that end up in your party, the hero is perhaps the most malleable. Though where the plot is concerned, he is mostly important thanks to his position as the Luminary – the reincarnation of an ancient hero, someone who once fought against someone known simply as The Dark One.

It’s this central conceit that becomes the main thrust of Dragon Quest XI’s narrative. A young hero with a fate more salient than he realises, we’re brought into a battle between the Light (capital L) and Dark (capital D) with little shades of grey in between. Admittedly, when looked at as a whole, Dragon Quest XI can feel fairly unimaginative. It is, of course, the most obvious of genre stereotypes where good and evil are drawn along such cleanly cut lines. Where a hero with the power of destiny is the only one capable of saving the world. With the help of his friends, of course. Yet, between these broad, grandiose brushstrokes is a game with much more to say than simply regurgitating an old genre pastiche that comes to fruition after some twists and turns of the game’s plot.

While the cynic’s perspective on Dragon Quest XI’s story will be one of boredom and disappointment, there is another reading, one that follows the more poignant and emotionally resonant stories within. A story of an ill-fated romance between a mermaid and a fisherman, for example, struck me particularly as one of the stand out moments of the game. It’s a story which I can only imagine will be one I think back to fondly years from now, alongside other classic moments from other JRPGs. Its from this perspective that I’ve found numerous similar stories, ones that pinpoint the intelligence of Dragon Quest’s writing in a way its main narrative simply falls short conveying.

More than just fair-weather friends

Just as important as the story, however, are the many characters of Dragon Quest XI. A cast of characters that all feel memorable and distinct in their own way, you’ll be picking which ones you love and why almost immediately. A motley crew banded together under a common cause, the main party of Dragon Quest XI soon come to form the familial tribe of your grand adventure. Whether it’s Vanessa’s spunky attitude trapped in the body of a child or Salvando’s outgoing flamboyance and persistent optimism, these characters do more than simply back you up in the midst of a fight. They feel like a genuine group of companions, the kind of friends that care about each other beyond vague platitudes and bland admirations of kinship. The bonds these characters share feel honest and earnest, a feat all too difficult to pull of in a game of this scale and grandeur.

A lot of that is due to the game’s tone as a whole, because the same is seen throughout the rest of Dragon Quest XI. You won’t find many story beats or outlier characters that feel disheartening or misplaced. There’s a genuine sincerity that shines through in a way many other contemporaries fail to match. It’s difficult to pinpoint why exactly this is. Maybe it’s because of Dragon Quest’s classical aesthetics. Maybe it’s because of its storybook setting and characters. Maybe it’s simply because the game was given the time and the resources others were not. Whatever the case may be, throughout the 80 to 100 hours it takes to see it through to completion, once all is said and done, this is a game that reverberates with heart. It’s as much a celebration of its past as it is a continuation of it, in the most wholesome way possible.

Pepped and prepped to fight

As to be expected, if you’re trekking across Dragon Quest XI’s massive world, whether by foot or by boat, you’ll probably be spending a lot of your time fighting. Its combat system is rather barebones, an iteration of Dragon Quest’s classic turn-based combat system, but with some small changes here and there.

When battles begin, for instance, you enter a combat arena, identified by a small red ring in the environment. As party members and enemies take turns during the battle, depending on your settings, you’ll either be able to move around freely or be locked in to a more traditional, stationary lineup. You’ll also have the ability, under the right circumstances, to get “pepped up”. As charming as the verbiage may be, and its comparisons to Dragon Ball too obvious to make, it’s a feature I really enjoyed taking advantage of. As different party members have different attributes enhanced while pepped up, it lets you capitalise on what makes each character unique, furthering the benefits of a more thoughtful team dynamic.

That can come in handy when, out of seven party members, you’re only allowed to use four at a time. Luckily, you’re able to swap characters in and out whether you’re in the middle of combat or not. It can give some of the harder fights a second wind, which can be a frequent occurrence if you’re unable to keep up with enemy’s progression. Just as with previous Dragon Quest games, Dragon Quest XI can sometimes require some lengthy sessions of grinding. It’s an aspect the games have become known for at this point, so I won’t belabour the point too much, but make sure that if you’d prefer to avoid any sudden halts of progress in the form of giant, impenetrable enemies, that you make sure you’re fighting frequently.

For as long as it is, Dragon Quest XI will rarely bore you

Perhaps one of the most surprising things I found was how brilliantly Dragon Quest XI flowed from one portion to the next. In a game as massive as this, you may expect to find bits that don’t fit together as nicely as the rest. Eventually, every RPG runs into an unpleasant questline or location that you’ll want to finish quickly, if not even interact with at all. I never had such a moment in Dragon Quest XI. After its relatively short opening hours of setup, the game thrusts you into a familiar flow of moving from story beat to story beat. Before long, you’ll know the standard formula. You’ll enter a new town, meet someone important, and begin a small questline that will culminate in the progression of the main story, before doing it all over again. Somehow, over about 100 hours of the game, Dragon Quest XI is able to constantly feel fresh and inventive through its ability to always show you something charming around each corner.

That’s not to say the entirety of the game is perfect, however. Sidequests in Dragon Quest XI, for instance, unfortunately amount to little more than fetch quests. Most of them are helpful, as they force you to interact with some of the game’s more fringe systems that might otherwise be ignored, like the mini-forge crafting system. However, there’s only so many times you can withstand another random villager asking you to go and get something for them, a task which usually involves you moving on to the next portion of the story, only to trek all the way back to the previous town to obtain whatever measly reward they have in store for you.

Worth a Dragon’s treasure

I love Dragon Quest XI. In many ways, it feels like a game that was made for me. Someone whose transitioned into adulthood only to come out the other end perturbed at time’s ability to make life more complicated and frustrating in every conceivable way. Someone who looks back fondly at their childhood, perhaps unjustly so, and to the games that I often played. Games just like Dragon Quest XI – ones that are as expansive and huge as games can possibly be. The ones you play for weeks and weeks on end, if not months, as the characters slowly transform from digital data to memorable pieces of our own lives.

Yet it’s for that very same reason that, as we all probably expected, Dragon Quest XI will probably not do for the franchise what games like Yakuza 0 and Nier: Automata have done for theirs. There will be no proverbial ceiling that’s broken through as Dragon Quest finally finds monumental success here in the west, despite its attempt at doing so. Sure, its dub is incredible, with almost every town in the game having its own distinct inflection and accent. But I must be honest, the fact of the matter is, you’ve probably played this game before. Or, at least, something much like it. After all, Dragon Quest is responsible for establishing an entire genre of video games, and Dragon Quest XI plays things a bit too safe for a game this deep into its its own series. In doing so, it has unfortunately opened itself up to countless comparisons to other games. Even still, it doesn’t mean what you’ve played is as good as Dragon Quest XI – which I can almost guarantee that it is not.

After all, the gap between the original and its imitation is measured in feet, not inches. For many, the difference between the two is so obvious that you can tell from a distance which is which. Like a Mario game playing opposite your average mascot platformer, there’s plenty of nuance and subtlety lost in the translation from one to the other. The same is true for Dragon Quest, perhaps even more so because of its irregularity. Because, at the end of the day, nothing is ever going to match up against the original that inspired it. In an age where countless games are trying to imitate the past, there’s nothing like having Dragon Quest back where it belongs. It is indeed one of the best games in a series of greats, and a JRPG that is without a doubt an instant classic. One I will undoubtedly cherish for many years to come.

Dragon Quest XI is available on PS4 and PC. We reviewed the PS4 version.