Dragon Quest XI review: Ever the same

Square Enix
Square Enix /

Dragon Quest XI provides an arguably overly familiar but still satisfying save the world adventure

Title: Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (version reviewed), PC
Release Date: September 4, 2018

Most long-running series change and innovate over time. They often have to or are left in the dust. There are a few long-running series that embrace their beginnings to the point where, especially from an outsider perspective, it’s hard to see little, if any difference.

Dragon Quest has long been one of those franchises. There have been some visual upgrades (sometimes) as we moved from one console generation to the next, but it’s been a series that is very slow to change from its incredibly old-school JRPG roots. Sticking with those roots has made it incredibly popular in its native land of Japan, but only earned it a small but loyal following elsewhere.

The latest entry, Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age for PlayStation 4 and PC (and, at some point, Nintendo Switch) offers a couple of new innovations and an HD splash of paint but not much that would distinguish from RPGs of older generations. In some ways that’s great; in others, not so much.

Square Enix
Square Enix /

The story is about as standard as it gets, really. The Dark One is rising again (because there’s often a dark something or other rising again that was beaten once before) and you are the chosen “luminary” destined to defeat it. The “twists” and turns you’ll see coming tens of hours before they happen. Some bits of the story are familiar to the point they seemed cribbed from a very well-known SNES RPG that Square made back in its 16-bit RPG heyday.

If the overly familiar story and plot elements don’t hold interest, the characters do. They mostly fill an archetype (old grumbly wizard, sexy martial artist, female healer, kid, definitely gay stereotype who they never say is gay, etc.), but they all fit well within those parameters, grow as characters throughout the journey, and all have pretty interesting and involving stories.

They are all characters I enjoyed spending time with, which is very important in a game where you are spending at least 60 hours with them.

Square Enix
Square Enix /

Dragon Quest XI marks the first time the series has been on an HD-capable platform, and it shows. While it has that exact style you’d expect from Akira Toriyama, best known for the Dragon Ball series, and that doesn’t appeal to everyone, the towns, enemy designs, and dungeons all look incredible with a lot of fun details and animations.

Dragon Quest XI marks the first time the series has been on an HD-capable platform, and it shows.

The biggest downside of this overall presentation, though, is the music. It’s fine, but there’s hardly a memorable track in the small variety that’s available, and it’s MIDI rather than a full orchestral track which is far more common these days. Simply put if you are sending a party of adventurers on an epic quest they should expect some epic music to stir them on and Dragon Quest XI falls notably short in that area.

Square Enix
Square Enix /

There are also a lot of decisions that seem to indicate that while Dragon Quest XI is trying to move the series forward with some modern decisions, a lot of things in the game seem oddly arbitrary; a result of the series’ legacy rather than making any good sense.

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  • For example, while the game has moved away from random encounters whenever you are on land, it’s still completely random when you are sailing on a boat; something you do quite often and for lengthy periods. It’s annoying and tiresome when you want to get to your next destination but are slowed down by tons of encounters.

    The game autosaves, but you can only manually save at churches in town or dedicated statues. You don’t get a group heal spell until pretty much halfway through the game (unless you do a ton of grinding early on). Magic-refilling items are very scarce, and I never found a place to buy them even though you have to use hefty amounts of magic for most battles.

    Item management is incredibly cumbersome. You can’t just use items from your bag whenever, they have to be on specific characters, but your characters have a pretty limited amount of room for items. You can stack items in your item bag, but not on your characters, which seems ridiculous. Honestly, aside from a few magic restorative items I hoarded until the end game, they just weren’t useful enough for the most part when a spell would do the job way better.

    These are just a few examples; I could keep going for another thousand words about how Dragonquest XI really has one foot in the future but the other undeniably, stubbornly anchored in the past with little rhyme or reason.

    Square Enix
    Square Enix /

    How do battles handle in Dragon Quest XI? Pretty much like any turn-based RPG you have ever played. There is indeed a strategy to beating bosses and some late-game enemies, but more often than not your standard enemy requires little more than jamming the attack button.

    There are some cool things like being able to switch out party members in the middle of a battle (which certainly was key for some boss fights) and a “pep” state that jacks up a character’s stats and allows them to do team moves that can buff, heal or do damage. However, the randomness and actual usefulness of “pep moves” was questionable for me in most cases. They were flashy, but I often had standard abilities available to me that did me more good and weren’t so random.

    Square Enix
    Square Enix /

    If it sounds like I had a bad time with Dragon Quest XI, it’s quite the opposite. It’s just that it felt pretty much the same as playing Dragon Quest VIII back on the PlayStation 2. Like, almost exactly the same. There’s some worth in that. A series that knows what it does well and digs into that deeply will usually have an audience. I am one of that audience; I had a fun time with my nearly 60 hours spent and really wish I had time to dive more into the post-game content (maybe someday).

    But for anybody who has never been into the series before, I can’t say this is the one that will change your mind or even the best one in the series to date. For someone who is looking for an RPG that does something different, either giving a modern take on the genre or adding just the right twists to a classic formula,  you won’t find that either.

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    Dragon Quest XI is merely a pretty good Dragon Quest game, and for many, that will probably be fine. However, there are a lot of RPGs out right now that offer something new and different, and this game may have a hard time standing out against those.

    Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age. 7.5. For those looking for a classic RPG adventure that offers dozens of hours of gameplay, Dragon Quest XI will fit the bill quite nicely. For anyone else, it’s weighed down by some weird legacy issues and just a bit too much of a “been there, done that” feel.. Square Enix.

    A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.