Everything about Dragon Quest XI screams that this is an RPG out of its time. DQXI immediately feels archaic, from the bombast of the 1980’s kids TV style opening theme, to the placement of your earliest female companion Gemma as a fearful, worrisome young woman who cowers during combat and needs you, the unspeaking male protagonist, to protect her from all manner of monsters. Things do improve, but while DQXI is an enjoyable RPG romp, it ultimately ends up feeling incredibly safe.
You take control of the Luminary, a fabled hero who, in person, is a voiceless, generic fellow with mid-90s curtains. He’s about as characterless as it’s possible for a central protagonist to be, and while I’m all for the argument that it allows you to instil your own persona on them, Dragon Quest XI doesn’t give you enough opportunity to actually make him your own. Instead you’ll consistently find yourself an emotionless outsider during events that should feel like they’re integral to your story, when instead they become about everyone around you.
In some ways, that’s not the worst thing in the world; Dragon Quest XI surrounds you with an endearing bunch of characters that you’ll grow to love, starting out with the untrusting thief Erik before you begin to meet the rest of your party. Highlights include Veronica, an acerbic mage who’s been returned to childhood, and Sylvando, a ridiculously fun and acrobatic luvvie who’s instantly your best friend, but they’re all worth spending time with, and handy in a fight to boot, while the array of vibrant characters you meet keep things engrossing throughout.
Dragon Quest XI is a great looking game, though its colourful anime stylings aren’t nearly as unique as when VIII arrived on the PlayStation 2. It boasts a great draw distance, and while enemies do pop into existence, it’s far enough away that you won’t be too bothered by it. Some of the locations can look fantastic, and the game does have the ability to wow you, but overall you may well come away feeling a little underwhelmed by it not being anything you haven’t seen before.
The soundtrack is likely to be a sticking point for many players. While it’s true to the series’ heritage, its mix of 80’s bombast and carnival-esque whirlitzer tunes rarely let up and it frankly just becomes exhausting. Barring a few exceptions you’re going to be hearing the same combat music for well over eighty hours and it’s hard going. The music is also really high in the audio mix, though thankfully you can tinker with it to make things more bearable. About half the volume should help.
At least the voice acting is pretty good, and there’s clearly been a major play made for the English voicework to feel high quality and varied. There’s plenty of Ni no Kuni-esque colloquial British accents at play – yes, yes, the Dragon Quest series did it first, but Ni no Kuni still springs to mind – and they’re mostly delivered with some gumption, though Gemma’s Somerset-a-like speech does the voicework an early disservice. It’s great to see this level of effort going into a localisation, but when Dragon Quest XI is such a beloved series and such an important game for Square Enix it’s almost expected.
One of the things I’ve absolutely loved is the summary you’re given when you continue from your save, with a decent explanation of all the most recent events. It’s fantastic if you haven’t played in a while, were starting to nod off when you met that last character or started the next part of the central quest. You can also drop into a brief party chat at any point if you’re still not paying enough attention. Hey, I’m not judging.
It’s not the only quality-of-life improvement, and there’s various things that have been included that just make the traditional RPG experience easier to live with. Whether it’s the inclusion of autosaves alongside the traditional church save points, an autorun option, characters levelling up even when they aren’t in your active party, or the ability to let the rest of your team perform their own actions during battle, Dragon Quest XI seems well aware that you’ve got to live with these systems for a lengthy amount of time and wants to make that as frictionless as possible. Many of the game’s elements are relatively traditional, but they’re pleasingly refined to the point where they’re almost invisible.
The gameplay itself does remain stoically traditional though. This is turn-based combat where you’ll choose to attack, defend, cast a spell or use an item and it’s the same as umpteen other games before it. There might be the odd section here or there to mix things up, whether you’re riding a horse in a race or sailing your ship around the world, but largely you’re exploring, turn-based battling, and progressing the story. You won’t find much solace in side quests either, and of those I played they’re pretty straightforward “fetch this, kill that” efforts, though there are some nice rewards for doing them.
In a world where developers are trying to push the boundaries of RPGs Dragon Quest XI is merrily stuck in the past, but to see it in such a refined form is refreshing in a different way. It’s clear that years of RPG development have led to this point, and there are few games out there that can offer the same level of consistency, even if that’s likely to leave some players disappointed.
Playing into that idea is the fairly gentle grind you’ll find here. If you fight a decent number of enemies in each location you should find yourself able to progress through the story without too much difficulty, though you may find that the often impressive boss characters will put up a serious challenge. Combat is enjoyable enough that it strikes a good balance between wanting to race through areas and have a few fights, which is a godsend when you’ve ultimately got little choice in the matter, and the new and returning enemies have never looked better.
While Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age doesn’t push the boundaries of RPG design in any new way, it is an enjoyable and refined return to the Dragon Quest franchise. Some might decry its lack of ambition, but for fans of the genre and the series, new experiences like this are few and far between.
Version Tested: PS4 – also available on PC