After the last several Dragon Quest games have either been on 3DS or became an MMO (as was the case in Dragon Quest X), Dragon Quest XI is a return to the large single-player formula the series is known for. This is the first console entry since 2004’s Dragon Quest VIII on PS2 and the first not developed by Level-5 since Dragon Quest VII in 2000. Dragon Quest XI reenters the fray with enough reverence for its roots to be endearing and familiar with enough new content to feel fresh and fun. It can often lean a bit heavy in the direction of nostalgia and might feel overly familiar at times, but it does so with enough charm in its characters and mechanics to make the long trip to the end worthwhile.
If you have never played a Dragon Quest game before—like me—then let’s talk about what you’ll be doing for nearly 100 hours in Dragon Quest XI. It is in many ways a stock standard JRPG with turn-based combat, characters that will fall into one of a few different classes, and a slew of different status conditions, buffs, and debuffs. None of those core concepts are difficult to pick up if you’ve ever played a JRPG of any sort. Where I had the most fun experimenting and playing around in the combat was in choosing how I wanted to focus my character development.
Dragon Quest XI is very good about letting you mess around and try new things until you figure out how you want to play or letting you reallocate skill points if you want to change your playstyle late in the game. Each character can choose between at least two different weapon types, which despite being very simple to change equipment at any time during battle, means you’ll want to spend all of your skill points focusing on that particular branch of their upgrade tree. For instance, I had a character as my primary healer for the majority of the game equipped with wands to facilitate this, but during the late-game I wanted to switch to using the more attack focused spears and it was as simple as praying at a save station and buying out of all the skill points I had put into wands. It never locks you into a path that you can’t get yourself out of if you find yourself regretting it later, and it was incredibly empowering throughout.
The game also does a wonderful job of generally just making everything feel smooth and efficient. With a few notable exceptions, the game was snappy and responsive and the UI and menus were quite smartly designed. It’s little things like being able to rotate the camera while the map is up so you can orient yourself from the map screen, or being able to see when new side quests are available and where to find them. Ease of use was clearly a goal for the development team and it shows.
Now, to set the stage, you play as a silent protagonist who quickly learns of their grand destiny and embarks on a journey to stop the world tree, Yggdrasil, from falling to evil. Whether or not you have played a previous entry in the series, Dragon Quest XI is doing anything but reinventing the wheel in terms of JRPG stories. As a mainline Dragon Quest game it follows a lot of the formulae that they helped develop in the 80s: you are a hero of light who collects a cadre of party members to help vanquish evil from the medieval fantasy land. This being the eleventh game, it has gone beyond being stretched thin and seems to just be an expected template that they must work within. I had little issue yet again playing out this recycled story because its characters are memorable and fleshed out enough to carry the adventure.
The game also spends a lot of time developing each character as you find them and you inevitably learn what makes them tick. And aside from some lesser NPCs, everyone in the game is fully voice acted. The voice acting, along with the writing is spectacular. There can perhaps be a bit too much at times, but I never minded listening to any of the characters during my time with the game.
Where the story fell apart for me was not in its familiar setting or how it drew from past incarnations of Dragon Quest to build the world of Erdrea, but instead in how specifically many of the larger story beats seem to have been lifted directly out of various Final Fantasy games. Without getting into the particulars to avoid spoiling the game, Dragon Quest XI has moments that were taken straight out of (at least) Final Fantasy IV, VI, and VII. In two series as long and storied as these two, you might expect a fair amount of overlap in themes and the occasional story moment, but it felt at times like they were running through a greatest hits compilation of Final Fantasy moments. It was strange at best and uninspired at worst.
Outside of the content of the story, I also took issue with the sheer quantity of story in the game. It’s not that the story wasn’t engaging enough to want to see these characters through to the end nor that the scope of the game didn’t warrant extensive character development and world building, but it’s that there were often long stretches of time where all I was doing was clicking through the (admittedly brilliant writing) and infrequently nudging the player character in the direction of the next cutscene. The people you encounter from the various regions are modeled directly after different real world counterparts. For instance, the northern, snow-covered land of Sniflheim has literal vikings and clear Scandinavian dialect. Likewise for the Spanish influenced town of Puerto Valor or the Japanese town of Hotto, where everyone speaks exclusively in haiku, etc. It makes the world feel livelier and the various characters you meet more unique, but it doesn’t mean that I want to spend an hour talking to them when surely a fraction of that time would have sufficed to get me on my way. With it being as well-written as it is, it can seem a small issue when I’ve already committed to playing through a game of this size, but that scope feels inflated when you add up the time I spent simply reading dialogue versus going on some proper quests.
When the characters do come up for air though, I had a lot of fun with Dragon Quest XI’s dungeons and brilliant boss battles. With no random battles (except in specific areas), you are able to generally only take the battles that you want by interacting with the enemies wandering around. It allows you to run through entire areas unbothered by fodder enemies if you don’t feel they’re worth your time and focus on navigation or searching for valuable treasure chests. These dungeons are tied to lengthy and fun quests as part of the main story, but there are also dozens of side quests that you can tackle during the game. These can sometimes serve as useful tutorials for different mechanics in the game where you might need to use a particular move against a special enemy to teach you how these moves work or how to find these hidden critters, but more often than not, they turned into simple fetch quests. They were only sporadically fun in their own right.
Those moves that the quests insist you use are part of the game’s one twist in its combat mechanics: Pep Powers. During combat, you’ll occasionally enter into a heightened “Pepped” state that bolsters various statistics for that character and allows them to use powerful moves. If multiple characters are pepped up at the same time, they might have moves that can only be used in specific pairings. There are dozens of them that serve essentially as summons that can range from weak magic attacks to devastating combos moves or useful team buffs. My issue with them is that, while it was always cool to see new Pep Powers, entering your pepped up state is based on factors that are ambiguous enough to seem almost completely random. So they served more as bonuses you could use if you happen to find yourself with numerous pepped characters rather than a tactical battle choice you could employ in tougher fights. Fortunately the magic spells and character abilities are diverse and helpful enough to mitigate that frustration. I never really felt at a loss for options in my fights.
As you’ll be spending a lot of time wandering around the world outside of the towns in the game, they did a good job of littering the world with secrets to find and creating a world that feels diverse and interesting to explore. There are even some enemies that sparkle, which means that when you take them out you can mount them and use their different abilities to traverse the environment. You can mount a large bee and then float over the water to a treasure chest on an island or smash that rock blocking your path with a large horned beast. It offered a good way to break up the action when exploring the world and had some of the madcap whimsy of Mario taking control of enemies in Mario Odyssey (albeit to a much lesser extent).
Speaking of whimsy, one of the more important aspects of my time with this game is the wonderful whimsical sense of humor imbued in every aspect of the design from longtime character designer Akira Toriyama. Everything manages to retain his signature style with hard black lines surrounding the cartoonish looking characters while also being rendered in highly detailed 3D models. They look straight out of one of Toriyama’s mangas, but when you get close you’ll see the attention to detail in animation and texture work on clothes and buildings. It lends the openly fantastical setting a groundedness that makes the game feel like a grand story of adventure and peril being told through storybook. The game’s varied environments are all beautiful and range from the aforementioned Japanese-styled city at the foot of a volcano to an underwater kingdom full of mermaids that speak only in rhyme. The game is clearly willing to have fun with its writing and enemy design in a way that is helpful in distinguishing it from the more somber and self-serious Final Fantasy games. I was constantly excited to see what was around every corner.
After you’ve settled into the world and characters of Dragon Quest XI, the game has to fall back on its gameplay, and for the most part it is successful. The combat and exploration, as mentioned earlier, is fun and rewarding, but where I spent far too much time was in the menus. Like any JRPG, you find plenty of healing items to restore HP, MP, or to cure status conditions, but in Dragon Quest XI each character has their own inventory that you must choose to fill with items if they are to use them during battle. This might theoretically lead to interesting choices, but in practice it was such a chore to individually transfer items to a character that I played almost the entire game with no useable items in combat. Inventory management is part of the RPG experience, but this system in particular was needlessly laborious.
You have a similar system for your armor and weapons that makes more sense because you are able to swap out equipment that you have in your character inventory on a whim during battle. It was empowering to know that if you were using a whip that will hit multiple enemies and get down to last one that you can switch to more powerful swords to focus your attack. Considering, though, that you are better off focusing your character abilities towards a specific type of weapon, it was not often very practical to take advantage of that system. I won’t begrudge the game for the choice, but it does contribute to some inventory bloat.
I spent nearly 90 hours to see the end of the game, but Dragon Quest XI offers an impressive amount of content to see and explore post game, in addition to “Draconian Challenges” that are settings to tweak the game for additional playthroughs. If you are inclined to play this game multiple times and see everything there is to see, these challenges can really ramp up the difficulty by simply making the enemies more difficult or by removing the ability to buy weapons from shops, so you must rely exclusively on items from chests or from the game’s forging system—a system to craft or enhance your weapons that can be a fun way to get the most out of your equipment. Now these challenges surely won’t be for everyone, but I appreciated the amount of options the game gives you to play the game how you want while also retaining the spirit of classic JRPGs.
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
Dragon Quest XI is a big game with lots to see and do, and you won’t breeze through the game in a weekend. If you are willing to put in the time and see it to the end, though, the game is highly rewarding as a JRPG with a surprising amount of depth. Some of its larger story moments are enjoyable in their own right even if they can be derivative or are mere shadows of specific moments from classics of the genre, but while the game may not reinvent the JRPG, I had a blast making my way across Erdrea.