Available On: PC, PlayStation 4
It’s easy to get jaded about the RPG genre, specifically Japanese RPGs. Every trope has been well-worn, every character archetype has been fully exploited. Dating back to the 1980s the Dragon Quest series is one of the most egregious examples of many tiresome gameplay elements and story beats.
Yet each new Dragon Quest game proves why the series remains beloved and resilient. With an irresistible charm, modern design conveniences, and excellent writing, Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is a wonderful RPG for newcomers and a delightful return for series veterans.
A Tale of Several Cities
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. You’re the long-lost chosen one, the Luminary. There’s a quaint village, an evil monarch, and a puckish rogue. And it wouldn’t be a Dragon Quest game without Yggdrasil the world tree playing a central role.
Within these seemingly tiresome constraints, Dragon Quest shines with an earnestness that somehow feels wholly fresh. There’s an overarching story but much of the tale revolves around smaller localized vignettes. Discover the fate of the missing fighters in an MMA tournament. Help a cowardly prince win a horse race in Gollopolis. Reel from the tragedy of a mermaid’s unrequited love of a fisherman.
These story arcs come to life thanks to the incredibly bright, colorful character designs of Akira Toriyama. The always likable art is accompanied by some of the most impressive full voice acting I’ve heard in a JRPG, including all the many over-the-top accents that reflect each region.
The party members are the perfect reflection of the game’s undeniable charm. I thought I would be annoyed with the eccentric and flamboyant Sylvando. But his optimistic attitude, unassailable bravery, and useful skillset instantly warmed me over. Everyone has important parts to play and multiple skill trees to explore.
Many RPGs are only as good as their party members, and Dragon Quest 11’s allies make for wonderful traveling companions throughout the lengthy adventure.
Dragon Quest 11’s battle system is as traditional as you can get, yet takes full advantage of many welcoming modern improvements. Enemies are clearly visible while exploring the many caves, forests, and dungeons of Erdrea, and avoiding a fight is almost too easy. I vastly appreciated being able to choose to hunt for items or grind for experience, or quickly zoom through areas when I wasn’t in the mood for a fight.
Party members all gain experience at the same rate, and you can swap them into the active party at any time – even in the midst of battle. This encouraged me to constantly alter my line-up and explore the neat synergies between party members.
Pep is a super-powered state that everyone reaches after dealing or taking a certain threshold of damage. While in Pep their stats are increased for several turns, and they can unleash special Pep Powers. These can be combined with different character combinations resulting in a wide variety of lavish moves, from Jade kicking a whirlwind of fire, to Sylvando, Jade, and Erik participating in a mini-game show to transform enemies.
It’s a fun system without being mechanically complex, and it’s the perfect metaphor for Dragon Quest 11’s entire design philosophy.
Dragon Quest 11 is rated T for Teen. The kid-friendly art style, frequent voice acting, bombastic orchestra, and classic hero’s journey would make for an excellent starter RPG for kids, but it’s held back by some unfortunate immature references to ‘puff-puff’, several pieces of suggestive clothing and dialogue, and even one skill that has the resident attractive female character shoving her butt at enemies. A casino is also available where players can life-like slot machines and blackjack tables. All of these elements bump the rating up to Teen.
Dragon Quest 11 is a nearly perfect RPG, with just the right amount of classic features and modern improvements. For RPG veterans it errs on the easy side, but includes an optional Draconian mode to make the game more challenging. The twists and turns in the story are genuinely surprising and enjoyable, and DQ11 features one of the most effective and fun crafting mini-games I’ve ever encountered. Every design decision is smart and intuitive, elevating an archaic gameplay structure into one of the most memorable RPGs of this generation.