I recently moved, and one of the “features” of the new house is a Frigidaire electric range that was manufactured in 1960. Although this was the futuristic Cadillac of electric ranges, it’s hard to believe that an appliance built in the era of the Kennedy administration is still safely functional. Yet there it is, steel still gleaming, every feature still working and it’s hard not to admire the solid build and post-war obsolescence-proofing that was designed into the oven. Good design is good design.
What does this have to do with Dragon Quest XI? While it only stretches back fourteen years and not nearly sixty, it feels like the Dragon Quest franchise has been around forever, becoming not only a national cultural touchstone in Japan, but exerting a huge influence on RPG design in the west as well. And just like that ancient appliance that sits happily in my kitchen, Dragon Quest XI is like a shiny, well made artifact of an earlier time. Its resolute embrace of traditional JRPG mechanics — which, to be fair, largely came from the Dragon Quest series to begin with — makes it feel out of touch with the times, yet its engaging story and characters, rock-solid gameplay and clean and colorful aesthetic are enjoyable and timeless. Still, Dragon Quest XI’s dogged reliance on almost decades-old mechanics may be too high a bar for entry for some gamers used to such niceties as save-anywhere systems, combat where positioning matters, streamlined inventory management and a host of other modern RPG standards.
With so much history to draw from, Dragon Quest XI includes quite a number of returning characters and loads of fan service, but prior experience in the franchise is not a requirement. Right off the bat, the story suggests a disappointing, cliche collection of weary tropes, from the baby with a mysterious mark sent Moses-like down the river in a basket to the player character being identified as a Luminary and responsible for — wait for it! — saving the world. It isn’t until a dozen or so hours into the game, when the player’s party has become populated by an ever-increasing number of quirky characters, that Dragon Quest XI starts to pick up some real story steam. The sidekicks are some of the most interesting and fully imagined ones in the series, and each has a well-defined backstory and motivation. Some of them might irritate you but by and large, it’s possible to craft a really well-balanced team of fighters, rogues, healers, and mages, each clearly distinctive and occasionally surprising and original. It’s a good thing the gang is likable because you’re going to be spending a lot of time in their company.
Unlike the Japanese version of Dragon Quest XI, the English version has fully voiced cutscenes and the voice acting is mostly excellent, though one may question the specific New Jersey, British or Scottish accent choices made for a character or two. The writing, dialogue and storytelling might not win awards for complexity or poetry, but they are all polished and the localization largely does away with the cross-cultural weirdness that so often characterizes JRPGs in English. Although there are moments of genuine sadness, pathos and drama in Dragon Quest XI, overall the game has a lighthearted, witty tone with a sense of humor that is neither sappy or caustic, and save for a few mild innuendos, the game is definitely inoffensively PG-rated.
Combat is, of course, turn-based and very similar to earlier entries in the franchise or a legion of other JRPGs. Although characters may be repositioned on the battlefield, it has no bearing on the outcome. What does matter is intelligent use of party members, their order in battle and their weapons, armor and special items and consumables. This time around, characters have “pep powers” which are generated in battle and chained between various party members. Finally, there is a relatively simple upgrade grid for each party member, and characters can re-spec (for a price) at any time. The system is neither as subtle or as annoyingly complex as in some other JRPGs. There are quite a few options for control in battle as well, from fully taking charge to letting the game’s AI make every choice.
There are also a very large number of fanciful enemies to fight in Dragon Quest XI and most of them populate the landscape with nothing better to do than attack or be attacked. While some of the enemies and many of the bosses demand some grinding and leveling up to defeat, none of them have much of a sense of real menace and most have clever or at least amusing, pun-based names. While many character models are reused and many of the dungeons are likewise revisited and occasionally lacking in interest, one of Dragon Quest XI’s biggest disappointments is its musical score. Although annoyingly catchy, it’s also extremely repetitive and outside of cutscenes, is rarely used to lend aural character to a region. It is also — with the exception of the title music — synthesized and it lends that aspect of the game a cheapness that is out of sync with the rest of the otherwise impressive presentation.
Exploration in Dragon Quest XI is a highlight of the experience, because the cities are wonderfully diverse and there always secrets to discover and treasures to find along the journey from one place to the next. An amazing amount of well-placed and never fussy detail makes each room, inn and shop come alive with a sense of grounded reality in the world. Although the main story is dozens of hours long, there are many — and too often, disappointingly dull — side quests and a hidden second ending and additional challenges after the main credits roll.
It would be legitimate to complain that Dragon Quest XI and the franchise as a whole has not evolved much, and less patient players may balk at the game’s grind-heavy, deliberate pace and missing features like save-anywhere systems, tactical positioning or even character models that don’t reflect worn armor. It’s important to note that while these design decisions are debatable, their implementation in Dragon Quest XI is deliberate, and the game’s overall polish and presentation is excellent. Taken on its own terms, the good-natured characters, interesting story, colorful visuals and exciting combat add up to a very specific, but immensely enjoyable, experience.