Franchise and console wars are something that have been around for ages. As a kid of the 90s, I fondly remember the early Nintendo vs. Sega and Sony vs. Nintendo eras specifically (if you can even call the latter a competition). Were you team Mario or team Sonic? It was a legitimate question during recess amongst the nerds. In the same sense, I can remember talks with my RPG-crazed friends about whether Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest (localized as Dragon Warrior on the NES) was the supreme RPG franchise, as if the two couldn’t easily co-exist or something. But hey, that was just kids being dumb and I can say that, with confidence, because I was one of them.
Really though, was it fair to compare these two properties considering that, by 2000, the West had received seven mainline Final Fantasy titles (spanning multiple consoles, mind you) to Dragon Quest’s four games (all released on the NES)? No, in hindsight it wasn’t fair at all. Although games like Final Fantasy VII set and still maintain some sales records here in the States, Dragon Quest never had that same money-printing DNA. There is a reason why we haven’t received a mainline game localization since 2011’s Dragon Quest VI (that is, until Dragon Quest XI). A niche following don’t necessarily equate to gang-buster sales figures.
I chose to preface my review this way because I wanted to emphasize the importance of the success and/or downfall of Dragon Quest XI in the West. Series creator Yuji Horii has stated on numerous occasions that he will only localize future titles for the Western audience if there is a proven market for it. And given our spotty relationship with the franchise in the past, I can’t say that I blame him for that. It should be known that, before Dragon Quest XI, I had no real pony in the race for the franchise. But believe you me, I’m sure as heck going to do my best to convince you as to why this could possibly be the greatest JRPG to surface in ages and, more importantly, why voting for the future presence of the entire franchise in the West is a necessity. So, as a word of warning, there will be lots of gushing over this game ahead, but I also intend to bring to light some of the issues I had along the way, even if they were only minor nuisances in the grand scheme of things.
To those unfamiliar with the Dragon Quest franchise, it is very much a creature of habit. Whereas the Final Fantasy series is always pushing the envelope of innovation in its systems and underlying technology (whether to its benefit or detriment, I’ll leave up to you to decide), the entree that is Dragon Quest is very much the tried and true methods used throughout the entire line of games. Recurring themes, settings, and mechanics are prevalent throughout its history, and Dragon Quest XI is no different. You play as a young man from Cobblestone, a peaceful village, that finds out he is the re-embodiment of a hero of ancient past, and those that would normally stand shoulder-to-shoulder with such a figure are, oddly enough, doing everything they can to work against you. Labeled as the Darkspawn, powerful leaders of Erdrea believe that you are here to wreak havoc rather than be a shield for righteousness. A powerful being is said to be behind the scenes, though its exact role and intentions are unknown to our hero from the outset. Therefore, not only does he have to combat the impending forces of evil, he must seek a solution to whatever plagues the powerful leaders that once would be considered allies. There is much more to the groundwork laid out above, but you should experience it for yourself rather than letting me spoil it for you.
Fortunately, the task will not be yours to complete alone. Along the way, you will befriend a variety of interesting and unique characters. An ex-convict turned good guy, a tomboyish but skilled mage and her softspoken healing companion, a flamboyant, traveling performer with equal knack for both entertainment and combat prowess are just a few of the people that pack their belongings to journey ahead with our hero. All of these characters, including those not mentioned, are developed in such a way that captivates you and makes you want to know more about them. Luckily for us, the background for most of the cast is explored in adequate detail, and are delivered by way of quality voice actors.
If you’ve followed my work for any amount of time, you’ll know that, often, the first thing I do in most JRPGs is squelch the voiceovers, but Dragon Quest XI may very well serve as the turning point of that habit. As a general rule of thumb, I understand that Japanese-inspired performances of various avenues are often intentionally delivered in an overly-dramatic fashion, and that certainly bleeds over into JRPGs as well. And while I find this a hard thing to stomach most of the time, something about the setting and characters in Dragon Quest XI makes it genuinely entertaining rather than annoying like I find most other JRPGs to be. Yes, over-the-top dialogue execution is plentiful here, but it is so charming at the same time that it’s hard not to like it. In other words, I would have never guessed that I’d be legitimately and thoroughly enjoying the exchanges in dialogue accompanied by English voiceovers in any JRPG ever, but here I am eating my own words.
A “Lived-In” World
But enough about the main characters and plot points, what about the supplementary cast? Fortunately for everyone, Dragon Quest XI is filled to the brim with all sorts of meaningful NPCs. While they all have varying degrees of importance in relation to the primary task at hand, even the most off the wall conversation is typically a pleasure to behold. I believe that this high-tier of performance is supported by three main features:
First would be the aforementioned quality of dialogue. Every conversation, however trivial it might seem in regards to the big picture, still holds weight and has a way of immersing you further into the area, regardless of topic.
Second, the look and feel of each character is vastly different from NPC to NPC. Short people, tall people, fat people, skinny people, old people, and young people of various ethnicities and backgrounds are scattered throughout the world of Erdrea, and it is unlikely that you will ever come across two people that look the same. Really, how many games (JRPGs especially) have you played that just use “pretty” or “normal” looking people?
Last, but not least, would be their animations. In many games I find it easy to converse with NPCs but not necessarily notice what they’re actually doing. More modern games put in routines for certain non-player individuals to follow, but you still might not catch their actions in real time. While the system utilized in Dragon Quest XI isn’t the best or most complicated system out there, it works. In fact, I think its subtle simplicity works more for it than any full-blown routine would in its place. Just the other day I watched a kid so excited that he was almost jumping out of his skin as he overlooked his mother cooking dinner. Upon speaking to him, he used the opportunity to explain what was going to be on the menu that night, in detail. And from his perspective, you could see his mother frying sausages in a pan. It was one of many instances littered about the habitats of Erdrea that encourage you to just stop and take in the moment.
Speaking of taking in the moment, much can be said about the layout and design of the many, many towns in Dragon Quest XI. Not only are individual places widely different from one another architecturally speaking, but the assets, down to the individual placement of chairs, are done in such an organic way that, if it were to be confirmed as a copy-paste job, I would have a hard time believing it. Seriously, the level of detail and variety of the interiors in Dragon Quest XI is on an entire level of its own, making the same feature in a fabled games like The Witcher 3 looks like a joke in comparison. I mentioned this topic in detail in a previous article, so I won’t go knee-deep about it here. Just know that if you are an immersion-craved RPG fan, you have lots of treats ahead of you upon discovering and exploring each and every new village.
The combat in Dragon Quest XI, much like the story structure mentioned earlier, very much sticks to its roots. Battles are executed via a traditional turn-based system. The overall sequence of actions are primarily determined by the Agility stat of every participant, however the actual order is kept under wraps and not exposed via the UI (like in to Final Fantasy X). Every character has an array of attacks and abilities to choose from, which can be customized via the skill panel system. Generally, there are at least two different ways you can build out each character, but you can also go all-out hybrid and get a little bit from each path. You’re encouraged to experiment because your skill selections aren’t permanent, and can be easily reverted should you decided to pursue another avenue instead.
To round out the combat experience are Pep Powers, which essentially turns individual party members into their Super Saiyan counterparts, granting access to bonus stats and unique abilities in the process. These unique and powerful abilities are generally performed in tandem with other party members, and also may require them to be Pepped Up as well. Keep in mind that you will kick yourself, and potentially others, out of Pep upon unleashing one of its exclusive abilities. The occurrence of Pep is rather random, but will naturally build up over the course of multiple battles (but is amplified by moments of heavy combat).
The volatile nature of Pep Powers makes it equally exciting and frustrating to experience at times. More often than not, you will go into this mode while facing the most trivial of enemies, when you could have really used it for the boss just up ahead. You can remain in your Super Saiyan form across multiple battles depending on the actions you perform, but some sort of indicator on-screen as to how close each character was to transforming would have been quite useful (akin to Limit Break bars in Final Fantasy VII).
Dragon Quest XI is fairly easy on the normal difficulty, but you have a few options to tweak BEFORE STARTING A GAME that can make it more difficult. Don’t be like me and want to up the difficulty a few hours in, only to discover that you have to adjust them before committing to a game. That said, the combat does pick up a bit in difficulty as you progress, but your average enemy will almost always be a pushover. Some bosses can prove fairly challenging as well, especially if you avoid excessive grinding sessions.
On the topic of grinding, it is not really necessary to do on the normal difficulty. As long as you’re whacking away at an enemy here and there along the way, you should maintain enough experience to get through most of the content at a decent pace. Although I would have preferred more of a challenge overall, we’re not talking Ni No Kuni 2 levels of easiness here, and being able to look forward to a hardmode playthrough later on the Switch version is nice. Oh yeah, I’m totally double-dipping.
The crafting system in Dragon Quest XI serves as a wonderful supporting tool for the standard leveling system, previously mentioned skill panel system and, of course, your typical RPG gearing system. Although you can buy and/or find most craftable gear, only through the system can you improve the otherwise vanilla equipment. At the forge, you have the option to make new gear from scratch or improve existing pieces of equipment. While you might can buy a Steel Sword from the weapon shop, you cannot buy its +3 iteration. Essentially, every piece of gear can be improved up to three levels (+1, +2, +3 respectively), with +3 being considered a “perfect” craft.
Where most games would leave these improvements simply up to chance, Dragon Quest XI built the crafting system into a full fledged mini-game, which is somewhat similar to the system found in Final Fantasy XIV. Rather than having a percentage chance at improvements with little interaction on your part, you actively have to “strike” the forge to fill in bars (which vary based on the gear in question). These bars all have “sweet spots”, and your accuracy of hitting within these markers determines the final quality of the craft. It is an easy to learn, but hard to master system that will reward patience while punishing the opposite. While some components, particularly early on, can be scarce, the ability to reforge “botched” items is a blessing for sure.
There are some other non-combative things you can participate in during your adventure. A fully functional Casino exists, complete with multiple card and slot machine mini-games. Although they weren’t really my cup of tea, they do provide access to some powerful items and equipment, and have the potential to make you boatloads of cash in the process. Those that search every nook and cranny of each map will likely come across some mini medals, which serve as a currency-based treasure hunt of sorts that can be exchanged for all sorts of goodies. Nature nuts might want to keep their eyes peeled for crossbow targets as well, which grant you rewards after striking all of them in a given area. And what RPG would be complete without side quests?
Dragon Quest XI handles side quests relatively well, though it doesn’t necessarily fire on all cylinders either. While the framework is very much your traditional kill x enemy, find x item, speak to x person, there is always a believable, contextual reason behind the excursion itself. That, and the fact that most of them are quick and easy to complete makes it a short, but refreshing detour to the main campaign…most of the time. There are a few outliers that require you to use specific Pep Powers against a specific enemy, at a specific time. Those with completionist mindsets might become triggered because at least one of these is given before your entire party is available to you (which is arguably the easiest way to line up Pep Powers later on, due to being able to place them in your reserve party while the other party members catch up).
The fast travel system makes it easy to come back to such a task later on, but some people simply won’t want to do that. And even though this particular task can be completed upon receiving it, it can be quite the pain to pull off. It just doesn’t make much sense to me to have literally every other side quest stupid easy to complete, and the only reason the outliers are hard is because of questionable design rather than being behind something like a challenging fight. But that is a minor hiccup in an otherwise wide range of engaging things to do in Dragon Quest XI.
Graphics and Sound
If you’ve paid attention to any Dragon Quest XI media out there, you already know that this game is beautiful. Although the asset and texture work is well done, Akira Toriyama’s hand in the actual design of it all is, hands-down, what makes the package jive. I find it difficult, if not, impossible to look at any aspect of the game from an aesthetic standpoint and conclude that it is anything but exceptional. And before you ask, I am totally aware that Dragon Quest XI doesn’t use the most cutting-edge graphics out there, but that is made irrelevant because of what it offers and offers well despite that being the case.
The soundtrack is iconic Dragon Quest right down to its core. Some may take issue with the presence of a MIDI composition and the absence of an orchestral one, but it really doesn’t take away from the fact that it fits the modern, yet traditional take of the Dragon Quest design presented here. And if you’re just dying for an orchestral soundtrack and are on PC, there are mods that will give you what you seek.
Dragon Quest XI is a modernized vision of everything that makes the traditional JRPG mold great while offering enough modern flair to satisfy most enthusiasts of the sub genre. That said, those looking for heaps of innovation or a cutting-edge combat system might come away disappointed. But for passionate JRPG fans, Dragon Quest XI is a love letter painstakingly written just for you, and that is why I stress the importance of its success here in the States. Solid sales numbers mean a definite possibility of future titles in the series coming as well, and if those are even half as good as Dragon Quest XI, we as RPG fans have lots to look forward to in the future. If you walk away from this review enticed in any way, do us all a favor and vote with your wallet. Support these developers so that we may yet see another masterpiece, like Dragon Quest XI, come to the West in our lifetime.