Dragon Quest games come few and far between, and that’s especially true for home console owners. With Dragon Quest IX and a few remakes having found a home on Nintendo 3DS, it’s been 12 years since VIII graced the PlayStation 2. Sure, there was the Japan exclusive MMO, a couple of Musou games and the Minecraft-esque Dragon Quest Builders, but however you look at it, it’s been a long time since fans of the series got to enjoy a straight up Dragon Quest RPG.
With that in mind, it makes sense for Square Enix to pitch Dragon Quest XI as a new starting point. It’s not just a culmination of everything that the series is about, but needs to be open enough for series newcomers to be able to dive in an enjoy. As someone that dabbles with JRPGs, that’s only a good thing.
This is a vast JRPG which promises over 100 hours of gameplay if you decide to explore every nook and cranny of the world, completing every side quest along the way. So being dropped into the game early on and then skipped forward a good few hours isn’t exactly ideal for figuring out what’s going on and what’s new. Still, the story isn’t terribly tricky to pick up.
The Hero in this game – you can pick any name, and by his mid-90s curtains haircut, I’d have called him Duncan – comes from a little town called Cobblestone which, weirdly enough, doesn’t have many cobbled streets. At the traditional coming of age ceremony it turns out that he’s no ordinary boy, but rather the reincarnated Luminary that’s destined to fight a reawakened evil threatening the world. The twist in the tale is that Luminaries aren’t necessarily heralded as saviours, but rather despised and suspected of bringing the dark times with them. It’s a slightly darker twist on a hero’s story that’s nicely juxtaposed with the bright and breezy Dragon Quest visuals.
Journeying across the world you’re eventually joined by a rather colourful collection of companions. Erik’s a seasoned traveller, Veronica’s a diminutive young mage, Serena will be your go-to character for support magic, and Sylvando the charismatic travelling performer, whose garb has clearly been inspired by court jesters.
Sylvando gets to spend a little time as your opponent when you first meet him in Gallopolis. It’s a city with a rich history of horse riding, albeit with a prince who can’t ride a horse to save his life and with a race in the Sand National to try and win – yes, there’s lots of puns here. Luckily for him (and you), the Hero is just about the right height and build to stand in as a body double and take part in a little horse riding mini-game. It’s relatively straightforward fare, as you try to hit the boosts, filling up your horse’s stamina and “drift” round corners. Yes, there’s horse drifting, but when Sylvando’s racing around with a giant plume of pink features sprouting from the back of his saddle, I think we can put realism to one side.
Naturally, the heart of the game is actually in exploring the world and battling foes in the series’ traditional turn-based battles. While the series long had random encounters, IX and the 3DS remakes of VII and VIII ditched these in favour of showing enemies meandering around the overworld. What this means for XI is that you can quite easily gallop from one location to another without a care in the world, with your trusty steed knocking creatures flying if you run into them. If you slow down for a second, you can run into them and trigger battles, and you’ll naturally need to do a bit of grinding to level up your party of characters.
Cleaving and blasting your way through these enemies isn’t terribly tricky, using a familiar menu system to pick attacks and spells to cast. Taking some of the chore out of this, you can also leave battles up to the AI, simply setting a behaviour style for them, to go all out, balance attacks, avoid magic and so on. Naturally, if you’re facing a particularly tricky opponent in a boss battle, you can take complete control of your party and micromanage, but by default it’s just the Hero that’s under your control.
What is there to really say about Dragon Quest XI’s looks? It feels very Dragon Quest-y, with the series’ distinctive look as created by Akira Toriyama effectively unchanged. Having been created in Unreal Engine 4 and for the latest hardware, however, it’s gorgeous. There’s a plainness to the design, in some ways, but it absolutely works here giving an animated movie feel to the simplified, cartoonish character designs. One new feature over the Japanese release is the ability to switch to a first person view and turn off the UI for a photo mode.
One of the main hurdles that many Japanese games face is in localisation, and the Dragon Quest series is no stranger to this. For Dragon Quest XI, they’ve gone all out, voicing even more of the game than for the original Japanese release last year, and making sure to pick quaint regional British accents wherever possible – I get the feeling they took a leaf out of Ni no Kuni’s book for that one.
Beyond that they’ve gone back and redesigned the menus and UI, added a new Dash ability so you can run around the world much faster, just in case you forget your horse, and added a more challenging Draconian Quest difficulty mode.
It’s pretty clear that Square aren’t resting on their laurels for this game, going the extra mile to improve and polish what they hope can be a fresh start for the franchise. After such a long time, Dragon Quest XI is a more than welcome return to home console for the series.