Dragon Quest XI S game review – switching to the definitive edition
The most popular role-playing game series in Japan returns to the Nintendo Switch but what’s new and is it only for hardcore fans?
The release of Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation, instead of the N64, is one of the most important moments in Japanese gaming history. It’s the point at which Nintendo’s stranglehold on the industry, and third party publishers in particular, was broken and no matter how successful they’ve been since there’s never been any going back to the old ways. But just as important, not least because in Japan it’s more popular than Final Fantasy, was Dragon Quest’s defection to PlayStation. Which is why many will see Dragon Quest XI as a case of a franchise returning to its natural home.
There have been Dragon Quest games on Nintendo consoles before, but Dragon Quest X was an MMO and IX was only on DS. Most of the older titles are, or soon will be, available too but this is the first time in decades that a new home console release has been on Nintendo’s primary format, even if it is a year after the PlayStation 4. The graphics have taken a minor hit but in all other ways this fully deserves the title of Definitive Edition.
But if you’re reading this and thinking, ‘I’ve never even heard of Dragon Quest!’ then that’s entirely understandable. It’s not particularly popular anywhere in the West, in part because many of the earlier games were never released outside of Japan but mostly because it’s a deeply conservative role-playing game whose old school approach is a primary part of its appeal. That can make it difficult to appreciate for those who come to the series for the first time, and yet Dragon Quest XI’s uncomplicated charms are still hard to resist.
Dragon Quest VIII (the best-selling PlayStation 2 game ever in Japan) was the first entry in the series to embrace a modern style of presentation and it’s that game which Dragon Quest XI resembles most. Two generations of graphical improvement have made their mark on the visuals but in many ways this new game is even more old-fashioned than its predecessor. The game world is a bucolic paradise that’s so rich in colour it makes Zelda: Breath Of The Wild look like Fallout by comparison, and yet it’s not strictly open world as it’s filled with loading pauses and the story progression is so linear you’re often prevented from visiting areas the game doesn’t want you to.
Although it does a good impression of being a modern role-player Dragon Quest XI is a dungeon crawler at heart, and while exploration is encouraged, and generously rewarded, the game has little time for complex storytelling. The plot is, as ever, almost entirely irrelevant and involves an entirely generic chosen one attempting to defeat an equally cliché ‘Dark One’. There are some later plot twists that prevent the story from being quite as predictable as it sounds but by that time you’ll likely to have lost interest.
More effort is put into the characters though and the script is surprisingly good, with a spirited attempt to translate the pun-filled Japanese dialogue the series is famous for. But the main protagonist is once again mute and the other characters are played so broadly it’s still difficult to be all that invested. The British accents are also an acquired taste, although our major complaint is simply that the voice actors themselves aren’t particularly good. So it’s nice that one of the many additions to the Switch version is the option to use the Japanese voice track.
The turn-based combat is arguably the most archaic element of the game, even though there are no random battles. There is an option to manually move around enemies but they still line up politely opposite your party, as you each take turns trying to attack each other. Unlike other role-players there are no extra rules or complications, and it often seems as if there’s barely any strategy involved. But the amusing monster designs and wide variety of attacks makes it more compelling than it might sound.
In terms of customisation there’s a reasonably involved skill tree for each character but no job system or other wrinkles. The crafting system (which can now be used outside of just camps) is more complex though and helps make use of otherwise worthless inventory items, the rarer example of which are often your reward for exploring the game world or taking part in side quests.
Dragon Quest games are always difficult to review because all the most obvious complaints are things that it’s doing very purposefully to appeal to an audience hungry for exactly what is being offered. But for a franchise so steeped in tradition to retreat even further into itself does seem perverse, and despite the gorgeous visuals we have to say we preferred the last two games.
The Switch version really is the best version though, with a significant amount of new content in terms of new quests – many of which reference older entries in the series – and a new orchestral soundtrack. You can now see all your party members when you’re out in the field, there are more animal mounts, a photo mode, a hard mode, and the option to speed up battles to cut down on the tedium of level grinding (instead of, you know, just not requiring levelling grinding).
The biggest addition though is an old school 2D mode which makes the whole game look like a SNES title. It’s not quite as flexible as you might hope, as switching back to 3D sends you back to the start of a chapter, there’s no voice-acting, and random encounters are suddenly added but it’s a great addition for old school fans and we can only imagine how well the whole package is going to go down in Japan.
How you take to the game though will likely vary depending on your history with the franchise and the genre. And if nothing else it’s a welcome change of pace to play a giant-sized role-player that refuses to take itself seriously. The amusingly cartoonish monster designs and purposefully silly side characters are hard not to love even when the game itself seems so rigidly old-fashioned. Dragon Quest XI isn’t for everyone but for those open to its charms it offers hours of purposefully uncomplicated fun.
Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes Of An Elusive Age – Definitive Edition review summary
In Short: Old school to a fault, but fans of the series – and anyone else that appreciates its honest charms – will find much to love in this simplistic but heart-warming role-player.
Pros: Superb visual design, in terms of both the wonderfully absurd monsters and the gorgeous landscapes. Great script and mountains of content. Definitive Edition tag is entirely justified.
Cons: Combat and customisation are needlessly simplistic and the game world isn’t as open as it first appears. Throwaway plot and very superficial characterisation.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Nintendo/Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: 27th September 2019
Age Rating: 12
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