After I wrote an article about why we need more Dragon Quest, Square Enix thankfully fulfilled my (and many other fans') wishes by finally releasing the latest mainline game in North America.
Dragon Quest XI opens with a dramatic scene showing the city of Dundrasil being attacked on a stormy night and a young girl trying to save a baby as they're soon washed away down a river amidst the chaos. Cut to 16 years later and the same baby is now a teenage boy living in a small village with his adoptive family. At this time, he's about to go on a trek up a mountain along with his childhood friend to complete the coming of age trial.
It doesn't take long for our protagonist to get an itch for exploring the world once he makes the climb to the peak and sees what he's missing. The initial goal of his adventure outside of his familiar village is to follow the directions given to him in a letter from his mother that was kept in the basket he was found in and head to the city of Heliodor to speak to the king. The premise of a teenager leaving a small town that they've never left in search for adventure isn't anything unique when it comes to JRPGs but given the exciting opening of the story, you know that you're in for an interesting adventure once he walks through the village gate.
The world of Erdrea is simply beautiful. When the Dragon Quest Heroes games released, I marveled at how stunning the familiar universe looked on a modern console and I got that feeling all over again when playing Dragon Quest XI. It does a great job of keeping to the traditional sights that you're used to from giant castles, colourful port towns, and grand waterfalls to quaint villages with thatched roofs amidst rolling hills. Even beyond the visuals, there's a lot of detail that will bring back memories of the older titles such as the familiar sound that plays when you enter a new area and the ability to smash all the urns and barrels you want.
However, the more dated aspects of the Dragon Quest universe also return such as the annoying menu system that forces you to equip and move items in way too many steps and the soundtrack that never seems to change. I love the Dragon Quest theme and it's still catchy but they seriously need to put more effort into mixing it up every now and then or at least create more tracks so that the same tune isn't used so often that it frequently doesn't match what's happening onscreen. The Final Fantasy series does a fantastic job of remixing traditional tracks and Dragon Quest could learn a lot from this if it wants to keep up with modern JRPGs.
As I mentioned earlier, the delightful overworld is enjoyable to look at and the variety in the map adds to the experience. You won't run through giant empty fields like in some JRPGs; instead, you'll wind your way through cliff corridors, climb hills, explore ruins, and dash through crops of wheat. However, I was disappointed by how little collectibles there are to be found with just the odd treasure chest, sparkling item, and ore location to investigate. I wish there were more rewards when you explore all the nooks and crannies.
Other than simply walking through the overworld, you can also ride a horse in certain sections. This allows you to whip through some areas at high speeds although you acquire the spell Zoom pretty early in the game which allows you to travel to any past location that you've visited automatically so there isn't exactly a need for a fast mode of transportation. If your equestrian skills aren't the greatest, you can actually ride some of the monsters that you find on the map. If you spot a monster glowing in gold and defeat it, you unlock it as a vehicle to get around and reach otherwise unreachable places such as by crawling up vines or flying over a river to an island. This was a surprise to me and helped add more variety to the gameplay whenever you get bored of fighting battle after battle.
The monsters in Erdrea are smarter than in previous Dragon Quest titles or they at least look more natural whether they're trying to or not. What I mean by this is that they tend to gather in groups as if they're chatting at the water cooler and a lot of them actually attempt to hide in your surroundings then jump at you and trigger a surprise battle when you bump into them. This is a very cool touch that adds to the immersion of the game world. I legitimately ran into a cactus once that I had no idea was hiding and was shocked when a battle suddenly started. I also found it cute how the golems lay down next to ruins trying to disguise themselves but of course, the different colour of their bricks makes them stick out like a sore thumb.
For the most part, the battle mechanics are pretty standard for your typical Dragon Quest game as it merely has you pick which spell or ability that you want to use against either a single enemy or a group of similar enemies. Given the engrossing battle systems shown in games such as Bravely Default and Octopath Traveller, I was hoping for a little more. You can optionally move around the battlefield in the middle of a fight but it makes zero difference to your offensive or defensive abilities and is purely cosmetic. It does allow you to watch the battle from different angles but I opted to turn it off and stick to the automatic camera.
Skills are unlocked by spending skill points. It actually takes quite a lot of grinding to amass enough to purchase the next upgrade. You choose skills from a board that focuses on a character's weapon as well as their own unique abilities. I like the way they've handled this but I would have preferred to see a larger skill tree with smaller steps that can be completed more often.
Similar to the Dragon Quest Heroes Coup de Grâce system, your characters can become pepped up after dealing and taking damage for a certain amount of time. While in this mode, they have improved stats and can combine their special pepped up skills with other party members to do massive damage. I particularly enjoyed using an ability that Erik and the hero share where they leave a sigil on the ground under the enemies that causes fire and earth damage every time they take a turn.
I quite enjoyed the different types of gameplay that are dispersed throughout the journey such as competing in horse races and evading guards. Although the side-quests aren't numerous, they're introduced at just the right moments and provide a variety of challenges. I applaud this attempt to shake things up but I still wish they went a little further to freshen up the simplistic battle system.
If you're a fan of JRPGs then you must play Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age whether you've played the earlier games or not. The gorgeous updated visuals mix with all of the classic series staples to deliver a delightful experience. That being said, some may think that the developers didn't go far enough to bring it up to speed with contemporary JRPG adventures.
- + Visually stunning yet familiar game world that features plenty of variety
- + Good mix of gameplay keeps things fresh
- + Stays faithful to the franchise
- - Battle system lacks complexity when compared to most modern JRPGs
- - Soundtrack is starting to feel dated