The mighty Dragon Quest series releases infrequently when compared to other franchises, but when a new game does appear they are usually something special within the RPG community. Dragon Quest XI comes triumphantly back to consoles on the heels of Dragon Quest X’s lack of western release on last gen systems and after the successful handheld entry that was Dragon Quest IX on Nintendo DS. Having missed out on playing X, the new game can’t help but make a solid impression as the west’s first HD Dragon Quest offering.
Since its inception, Enix and later Square Enix have put an emphasis on the series only appearing on the console that’s the most popular in each generation. The original releases were for the hugely popular NES and SNES before making a hop across to Sony consoles back in the day. It speaks volumes for the video games industry and the demise of console exclusivity that this new title is available across PS4, Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Windows amongst other systems. That said, it has significantly broadened the audience, with the child-friendly visuals of the series sitting perfectly with the usual Nintendo family audience and the adult storytelling suiting the PlayStation crowd.
Visually, this game manages to look crisp and stunning in a way that perfectly captures the distinctive visual style of the series’ lead artist, Akira Toriyama, with the distinctive style that has come to be ingrained into the Dragon Quest identity. Cell shading has come a long way in the last few years and it’s used exceptionally well here, recreating a living cartoon world that walks a line between practical realism and vibrant/abstract forms. Character designs are well thought out and true to the world presented, which as a whole always manages to be delightfully like the pages of a storybook drawn to life. Menus and assorted dialogue boxes are well designed (though thoroughly traditional, which we will touch on later) and the series’ staple pantheon of colourful monsters are all beautifully rendered in 3D.
Audio is great, with some fantastic vocal performances that help to bring the world and its characters to life. There’s an interesting choice early on to add an American accent to the predominantly English voice cast that does clash a little, but it doesn’t break the immersion. Sound effects are throwbacks to an earlier period of gaming but never feel like simple up-sampled sounds, instead being very deliberate in their quality. What lets the package down is its music, which relies on synth that’s particularly noticeable in its combat theme where trumpets are employed liberally. That the domestic release has an orchestral soundtrack and that westerners are forced to take the downgrade as standard (with the series composer having a stranglehold on the rights to his music and making the choice in an effort to boost sales of orchestral and live renditions in future) cheapens an otherwise wonderful package.
As has become the hallmark for the franchise, it’s in its Narrative (designed and written by Yuji Hori) and characters that Dragon Quest XI shines the brightest. You take on the role of a young man on the day of his right of manhood, who through a series of events comes to learn that he’s in fact the Luminary, a reincarnation of a great hero from the past and powerful force for good in the world. Setting out for the local castle to meet with the king and start your quest, the opening feels initially like a deliberate re-tread of Dragon Quest III, until expectations are subverted and you find yourself imprisoned. From here you’ll meet an ally, partake in a daring escape and leap from a waterfall, all before the title card rolls. It’s an excellent and well told narrative that we won’t go into in depth because of heavy spoiler value for all three acts, but well worth the play through for the experience alone. Characters are well written and events unroll in unexpected directions, designed to lull the player into a sense of security and then pull into drastically different directions. Many accuse Dragon Quest of being a fairy tale as if this is a bad thing, however in structure and execution XI shows what a fairy tale can be gripping, involving and walk a fine line between child friendly and adult orientated.
Gameplay in the Dragon Quest series is often the definition of traditional JRPG staples, however Square Enix have pulled the game into the modern era with a number of small fixes that makes it feel at once wonderfully dedicated to the pre-existing template and thoroughly updated. Exploration sees you controlling the character around locations with the added functionality of a jump button for more vertical tasks, and the run button makes a fond return (in the western release only!). Additional exploration methods now include mounts, with a horse available from the outset to cover vast distances at speed, and enemies that can be defeated and used to climb, jump, break objects and fly. Exploration also involves resource gathering for the synth system at play in XI, which takes the form of a puzzle-game that can be accessed from Camps dotted around the landscape to provide free respite. Areas are bigger than ever and the open-world feel of the game coupled with a strong narrative focus meets a perfect balance. Enemies are now visible on the map whilst exploring (unless travelling by boat) and can be lured into combat and quickly attacked with a well times sword swing that deals damage to all monsters before combat begins. Combat itself is still turn based, with the default game setting seeing you control the main character and having the AI manage the party. This is easily flipped on and off between a multitude of settings to allow for full party control or an automated system that suits your grinding needs. The best addition is the ability to switch in and out party members on the fly mid-battle, in a system not unlike Capcom’s ‘Breath of Fire IV’. Characters level up and learn skills as standard, but also earn points to unlock nodes on personal skill trees which amass greater power. Sub quests, mini medal collecting and a casino all make appearances to keep you busy outside of the main story, and adventurers to veer from the beaten path will always be richly rewarded. There are some kinks to the otherwise perfect update however. Jumping is implemented in a manner that only allows it to be useful in specific circumstances, making the player feel like they can leap over a knee-high wall but instead stopping them dead for no apparent reason when the game doesn’t allow it. Some graphical pop-in is also present, with the player being able to outrun loading of textures on limited occasions. Repetition in NPC models outside of specific cases is also rife, though this may be a nod to the traditional style of the series rather than lax design with the world being so fully fleshed out in every other sense.
Overall, Dragon Quest XI is a modern classic that (some musical issues aside) is almost perfect in its execution. Tying into the greater Dragon Quest mythos in pleasing ways and (in Japan only) gifting players with a free copy of the original Dragon Quest as a reward for fully finishing the game, it’s both a gateway drug for new players and a love letter to those who have been with the series for some time. We highly recommend that you purchase this game as soon as possible and add it to your collection.