Dragon Quest XI Review – The King (Slime) Returns to Retake the Throne

It was the old Jamesway store in Bridgeton, NJ. A dingy little retail outlet that, while it would go out of business early in the next decade, was still quite the popular shopping destination for the cash-strapped locals in 1989. In that store, they had a square glass counter-top that showcased all of the new Nintendo games that were in stock. I went there that day with the sole intention to convince my grandmother to get me a new game. I didn’t care what game, just something that would occupy my time and last longer than a weekend to finish.

In that case was the now classic yellow box of Dragon Warrior for the NES. A game that I knew from my Nintendo Fun Club newsletter was a title responsible for most of Japan’s schoolchildren calling in sick just to play it on launch day. If any game would be worth the groveling I had to do in order to get it, then this would be the one.

Dragon Warrior wasn’t my first RPG (that distinction belongs to Ultima Exodus) but it was the first one that became a full-fledged obsession for me. Maybe it was the haunting 8-bit music, or perhaps it could’ve been the unique art style, or “mayhap” it was that odd English accent every NPC spoke in, but whatever it was, Dragon Warrior resonated with me in a way no other game had until that point. It turned me from someone who “just played video games” into a D&D obsessed RPG freak that would turn his nose up at anything without a visible hit point indicator and an experience table.

When I first heard about Dragon Quest 11, I was more than a bit skeptical. After several awkward spinoffs and a slew of portable-only remakes, I wasn’t feeling confident that the JRPG which had introduced me to the sub-genre was capable of earning any kind of relevancy. JRPGs simply weren’t made like Dragon Quest anymore, and those that were came with ugly indie visuals from inexperienced indie developers that played on our collective nostalgia to make a few bucks.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Platform: Windows PC, PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Nintendo Switch
Release Date: September 4th, 2018
Players: 1 Player
Price: $59.99

Matter of fact, it’s been quite some time since we’ve had a new, authentic Dragon Quest game. Sure, Dragon Quest 9 was a new title with quality content, but it was a portable-only title that, in my opinion, suffered due to that fact.

Its shorter quests, easier bosses, and DLC-heavy endgame rubbed me the wrong way and kept me from ever attempting a play-through beyond my initial one. The last “true” Dragon Quest title was 8, and that had been released 13 years ago in 2005.

Imagine that, 13 years without a true single-player Dragon Quest game that wasn’t a portable remake, MMO, or a hackneyed spin-off. This is why I was desperate for Dragon Quest 11 to be the wish-fulfillment fantasy that old school fans like me kept demanding be released. As good as Dragon Quest 8 had been, I was not interested in paying $40 for a 3DS “remake” of a game I had beaten half-a-dozen times before.

I wanted something new, something daring, and yet, something firmly rooted in the series’ past. A game that took facets of modern western RPGs and placed them in a classic JRPG framework. An RPG that didn’t shy away from the genre’s stereotypes and reveled in its 1980s-ness, yet did so without being yet another nostalgia-grab.

Something that, like Project Octopath, paid tribute to the JRPG without becoming a cliché of it. A game that combined the retro sensibilities Octopath embodied with a little bit of modern western style gameplay to round out the rough edges. Essentially, a perfect game.

And damn if I didn’t get that perfect game.

Unlike its contemporaries, Dragon Quest has never strayed too far from the safety of its 1980s gameplay or aesthetics. Sure, the graphics may have improved and the music is handled by a live orchestra, but the core gameplay, in the main series at least, has never changed.

Everything from the familiar ding of weapon attack sounds and menu confirmations to the infectious level-up fanfare have made it into each successive game untouched, creating a style that is wholly “Dragon-Questian” and gleefully plays upon old school gamers’ nostalgia.

Which makes how “modern” Dragon Quest 11 is seem so unbelievable to me.

Before any other changes, you’ll notice the world navigation and its quasi open-world-ness first. With each section of the game world divided into MMO-esque chunks large enough that you have to hop on a horse and gallop around from dungeon to dungeon at full speed, it’s not a stretch to compare DQ11’s overworld to contemporary western RPGs, or even the latest Zelda title.

Granted, it’s still the same walled-off JRPG world you remember from previous entries, but the rolling green hills and waist-high grass that trails off into the distance makes for some truly impressive screenshot fodder.

Very little of the game’s overworld is flat. Most of your time you are running up and down cliff sides, twisting around narrow canyon floors, or winding your way up stone platforms that take you to mountaintop ruins.

While I’m trying my best not to cave in and compare it to the Elder Scrolls, I will say that I successfully tricked a friend of mine into believing I was using an “anime mod” for Skyrim after giving him a screenshot of me playing DQ11.

I still remember reaching the Dundrasil ruins, with that large stone staircase leading up into the castle grounds. I was so enamored with how beautifully it melted into the surrounding landscape and couldn’t resist swiveling my camera around to catch a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside as I climbed up it.

I found myself consistently in awe of DQ11’s massive world and how purposefully everything seemed to be laid out. The little alcoves tucked away off the beaten path, the enemy mobs separate from the main pack that are all engaged in some funny activity as you pass by, the cloud shadows crawling over the ground, the grass brushing aside as you walk through it.. I think I had more fun just running around the game world than I did actually getting into fights, a first for a combat-addicted D&D munchkin like myself.

Ah, but that combat. Say what you will about an RPG, but it lives and dies by its combat, and that goes doubly so for old school games that hearken back to a time when the only reason to play them was for the combat.

Dragon Quest 11’s combat doesn’t deviate much from the previous games, but is instead a sort of “greatest hits compilation”. What I mean to say is that each of the better received aspects of the series’ battle systems have been torn out and sewn together into this new entry to form a new(er) and more solid form of classic turn-based JRPG combat than what we’ve seen before.

Sure, the game still waits for everyone’s turn and has each character attack individually, but it also adds back in a mechanic similar to the “tension” system used in DQ8. The only difference now is that multiple party members can combine their tension and gain access to higher spells by using the built up power together.

Like Phantasy Star 4’s combo spells, the new “pep system”, as its called in DQ11, requires you to get certain characters in their high tension mode simultaneously, and depending on who hits that plateau and when, different high level abilities will become available.

Everything from a Sailor Moon style magical girl transformation by Veronica to a very typical Akira Toriyama super saiyan powerup for Erik are all options that become unlocked with this system, making Dragon Quest’s combat a bit more tactical than it has been known to be.

While on the subject of tactics, It’s worth noting that the game has skill trees too. Yes, that familiar western style RPG staple has now appeared in Dragon Quest. Though I’d normally scoff at such a deviation, it turns out that it’s not so bad as I thought it would be.

Sure, it means no more changing classes at Dharma Temple and min/maxing all your mages into martial artists and your healers into fighters…but it also means that specializing is a lot easier than before and you no longer have to wait until half the game is over before you gain access to it.

The way it works is simple; you have two or three weapon skill sets and one or two “unique” skill sets which signify the class your character “truly” is. Each level up awards you points to divvy up between these skill sets, and how you spend them determines the specific role each party member will fill in battle.

A good example is how I treated my cleric, Serena. Though the game seems to encourage you to give her a one-handed wand and shield, I opted instead to make her more of a tank by only spending points in spears. What this did was open up the passive skills in the spear set that increase your parry rate.

Combine this with me only giving her equipment that increases parry/evade and you have a capable front-line fighter that can competently heal. Granted, her healing spells are a bit weaker since the potency of those all rely upon her equipped wands and the passive skills they are linked to, but it was, to me anyway, far more useful to have her be a more hardy fighter who could last longer in combat than a frail caster who dies after a few attacks.

The skill tree system offers a fair, but comfortably limited, ability to customize your characters. I’ve yet to decide if I want my old style class changes back, but when you compare DQ11 to DQ8 and the fact that as good as that game was it lacked any class customization at all, you have to give DQ11 credit for giving players some freedom. Even if it’s restrained freedom.

One clever and unexpected addition to the skill trees that’s worth mentioning is the dual wield option. Remarkably, a couple of the game’s characters can dual any one-handed weapon they are proficient in, further adding to the available character build options.

Though only Sylvando and Erik have this skill in their trees, once you unlock it, any one-handed weapon they can equip is now able to be held in their offhand. I found this especially useful with these two under-powered characters, and enjoyed seeing flamboyant Sylvando swing around dual swords like some sort of skinny, pale-skinned, cosmopolitan Drizzt.

Overall, combat is fast, simple, and feels just like the way it did in 1989 when I was grinding gold points to buy a broadsword in the first game. JRPGs have always been about quick, fun, simple battles, and although they’ve added some WRPG complexity to it, it’s still as enjoyable as it ever was.

Adding to that enjoyment is the unique way each of the game’s playable party members act out in battle. The little touches, the subtle additions, that’s what really stood out to me.

An example being cursed with the “dancing” affliction, every character has their own goofy little dance they do which embodies their personality. Or how even if someone is using the same weapon as someone else, they hold it and attack with it in an entirely different pose and animation.

If you ask me, the biggest change to the combat wasn’t done to the gameplay mechanics, it’s happened to the presentation instead. Characters have real flavor now with their own stances, idle animations, attack movements, and reactions to being afflicted with status ailments. Sure, it doesn’t affect gameplay even in the slightest, but this was by far the biggest change I noticed in the combat and the one that truly floored me.

While on the subject of your party member’s personality, I should talk about how impressive the roster is this time around.

While Dragon Quest doesn’t properly get appreciated for its long history of unique and engaging characters (Bianca from DQ5, Jessica from DQ8, Ashlynn/Barbara from DQ6), it will most certainly get noticed for it after this latest chapter. Not only have they created some of the most easy-to-cheer-for characters in their entire series, but the realistic way they’ve portrayed them in the game’s cinema scenes rivals that of Final Fantasy.

On the surface, the roster looks rather vanilla. You have each major Dragon Quest class represented by one of the 7 (8 if you count the “hidden” Paladin character) party members. The protagonist is the heal/lightning magic based “Hero” class, Jade is the martial artist, Rab is both a merchant and a sage, Erik is a thief, Sylvando is a Jester/Gadabout, Serena is a cleric, and Veronica is a mage. Fairly basic, correct?

What comes to define these characters is the role they play in the game and how they act to the other party members.

Sylvando is a good example of this, since while he may be overly flamboyant and his Japanese name used a female signifier to play up that…ahem…flamboyancy, he’s actually the most well-adjusted and smartest person in the group.

Sylvando seems to always have the thing they need at the right time to get the party out of a dangerous situation. He oozes confidence and cockiness in just enough of a dose that it inspires respect, but doesn’t become so strong that you want to chuck him over the side of your boat.

Veronica is another great character, with her sometimes childish temper being, well, tempered by the fact that she has a forgiving and compassionate heart.

The best of the bunch could very well be Jade, however, since she is the ultimate so-called “mommy girlfriend” and the scenes that revolve around her, especially the ones involving the main character’s connection to her, are easily the best in the entire game.

This is where I say some things that I never thought I’d say in a review, much less one for an RPG: Dragon Quest 11 has the best cinema scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a video game.

Maybe it’s because they went full Toriyama, but watching the cut scenes play is like watching an unusually funny and entertaining episode of Dragon Ball. The camera angles, the cut-aways, the expressions on character’s faces, the way each scene is framed so perfectly.

I may not be a professional movie critic, but I know what a good scene framing looks like and how to build excitement, and whoever was in charge of making the non-interactive scenes must’ve taken a long course on it, since DQ11 is nothing short of perfection in this regard.

The game starts hitting its high point once all 7 of the main characters are brought together, since it’s at this time that the main villain is mentioned and the protagonist’s past is reconciled through a tear-inducing movie that had me begging the game to stop or else I’d end up going into work crying.

It’s in that scene, and the one after it that had a good two minute long fight between Jade and a certain greatsword-wielding antagonist, where I was sold on the idea that this game’s cinematics are peerless.

While the story does start with the stereotypical “Marked hero of prophecy sets out to save the world” trope, it takes a very sharp and dark turn only a few hours in.

After that, it’s one wild race to get ahead of your enemies, all the while trying to figure out why you’re so important in the first place. Throw in some shifting allegiances, a love interest, and a couple big mysteries revealed, and you’ve got the formula for a surprisingly deep JRPG plotlne.

Yes, I do realize uttering those last three words together is normally cause for laughter.

Without ruining the game’s surprisingly juicy plotline, the entire cast and the way they are drawn into the story is so organic and done so smoothly that I would honestly have never expected as deep a narrative as this from an old school JRPG series that focuses on grindy combat and class min/max’ing.

The story is absolutely phenomenal, and if you’re the type of RPG fan that stayed away from Dragon Quest due to it being a bit weak in the tale-crafting category, now is the time to put those preconceived notions away and dive in.

Beyond the slick presentation, grand cinematic intermissions, and gorgeous character designs, it’s the little touches that make Dragon Quest 11 so delightful to experience. The kind of things that a developer would never waste time putting into a game, but whose inclusion reveals the insane amount of care that went into its development.

Some of these include things like how some enemies are positioned on the field in their own unique ways, such as Golems that appear in pieces strewn about the ground or sleeping tiger men that take naps on the seashore.

You’ll also see how townspeople will act startled whenever you break a barrel or pot too close to them. And how enemies continue to walk in the background after the game cuts to the combat system. Or how you can dress up your characters in special armor sets that change their appearance, such as bunny girl outfits, dancer costumes, or cat suits.

There’s so many amazing little touches like that which show you the kind of love the developers had for this game and how much it mattered to them that they make it as “authentic” as possible. It truly is the very best example of a modern JRPG, without any doubt whatsoever in my mind.

So are there any negatives? And drawbacks? Any cons to add to this lengthy list of pros?

I do wish the class change system from the earlier games was still being used. I also wish item pickups would default to your item bag rather than get sent to your main inventory. I also don’t understand why I can only craft at certain locations and not just open a crafting window to make my gear.

However, none of these are a major problem and it’s just me searching for reasons to not completely salivate over the game like a biased fanboy.

Where does Dragon Quest 11 fit into the series, and the wider JRPG genre as a whole? Especially since so many great examples of the genre (Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Ni no Kuni 2, Octopath Traveler) have been released in the past 12 months? Well, the answer to that is as plain as the number sitting at the bottom of this review.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is not only the best game in this three-plus decade old series, but one of the very best JRPGs I have ever played, putting it right next to such genre stalwarts as Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star 4.

With its modern accoutrements, slick design, heartfelt storyline, lovable party members, long (100+ hours) quest, and ridiculously impressive character animations, I can’t imagine anyone who loves JRPGs not completely adoring this game to the point of mental illness.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to write up some Jade and Sylvando fanfiction.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a review copy provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict: 10


The Good:

  • Classic DQ combat that is as fast as it is addicting
  • Massive world with a 100+ hour main quest
  • Best storyline of the entire series
  • Easily one of the strongest and most lovable casts of any JRPG

The Bad:

  • Some may miss the old class change/Dharma Temple/Alltrade Abbey system
Carl Batchelor

About

Carl is both a JRPG fan and a CRPG'er who especially loves European PC games. Even with more than three decades of gaming under his belt, he feels the best of the hobby is yet to come.