Review – Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
I’ve been a fan of the Dragon Quest franchise for over a decade now. During the dark years of RPG’s, Dragon Quest was one of the few series that still gave us that classic JRPG gameplay, with some modern QoL updates, but otherwise unchanged. Dragon Quest XI Echoes of an Elusive Age is still very much that kind of game. An unashamed glimpse into the early history of the genre, featuring by the books turn-based combat, a predictable story that follows all the beats you’d expect and doesn’t interfere with the classic grind loop, alongside a cast of eclectic characters from various classes lead by an always silent protagonist. However, despite my love for the series, I found myself having a complicated relationship with this one. There have been more then a few classically styled JRPG’s in recent years (the phenomenal Octopath Traveler for example), and I can’t help but wonder if DQ’s devotion to the past is enough with others doing the same, but should rather be taking it to the next step.
For starters, story is nothing special at all (excluding an ending that will be a huge wow moment for long-term and I mean LONG term Dragon Quest fans). It’s very predictable and cliche, hitting nearly all of your classic JRPG tropes. You start off as a simple peasant from a backwards village. You are on your home’s traditional coming of age ceremony alongside your closest childhood friend. During the trial, mysterious things start happening and you’re suddenly in unexpected danger. Right in the nick of time, you discover secret magic powers, which you later find come from the fact that you are secretly the Luminary, a reincarnation of a hero who defeated the Dark One, who is obviously the bad guy if you couldn’t guess. So far so JRPG, and this is the way the story continues. Outside of some pacing issues, with an extreme case of your princess being in 6 other castles, there is nothing wrong with the way the story is presented. It is generic sure, but inoffensively so. It may be unengaging at times, but there are some flashes of genius that are short lived and serve to keep you interested.
The main plot of the story is mostly a cycle of traveling from linear town to town, finding out you need to go to a neighboring dungeon for X reason, going through said dungeon which usually feels like a copy paste job of every other dungeon but with another skin, fighting a boss, then returning to town for exposition. Then onto the next area. There are some break-ups in the cycle that can make it feel a lot less momentous then it sounds, but there are also times the cycle goes on for far too long and can make you lose all hope of ever finishing. The beginning of the first act is especially guilty of this. It accomplishes the goal it sets out to complete, providing a reason for you to travel from region to region and partake in the real meat of any JRPG: the battle system.
Sadly though, some of the same kind of issues with the story pop up here. It’s polished to the extreme, contains a generous amount of customization items for your party’s equipment and skills, turns flow with little issue, and is overall inoffensively vanilla in every way. It’s the quintessential JRPG turn-based battle system, which I must stress while not a bad thing of it’s own, the presence of other game’s today who do this with a twist on the system you’ve played through hundreds of times makes it feel more generic then it would otherwise. For those seeking a simpler fare, or just a break from those other titles with additional mechanics and subtleties on top of their systems, it is a perfect fit however.
Fortunately, the state of the companions is much better. They are definitely cliche for the most part, filling all the fantasy RPG stereotypes well, but more in a “cliches exist for a reason” way than as a negative. They may be generic, but they wear it well enough that it’s enjoyable instead of annoying. You have the sarcastic thief, the short-tempered mage, and so on (the exception here being Sylvando the entertainer, who’s an enigma you will either hate or love), but they’re pleasant company. They may not have the weightiest of character development, but they are all strong personalities that interact well with each other, usually in enjoyable ways. At least with each other…
The main character on the other hand, is a different beast completely. I have no problem with silent protagonists usually. Link is basically the poster boy for silent protagonists and he’s one of my favorite video game characters. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good and bad ways to implement them, and DQXI’s is particularly bad. Instead of feeling like a part of the story or outside it, he acts nonchalantly alongside it. He acts dismissive, uncaring, and impassive to events that occur, as well as to the characters and people around him. There’s a difference between presenting a blank slate that the player can imprint onto and yet is still a part of the story and world, than creating a character who actively impediments the story and changes the characters around him BY his decision to not speak (which at certain parts of the story make him out to be a real prick) making a character you wouldn’t want to play.
The best part about the game, which was a main drive for me to continue playing, is the look and feel of the world of Erdrea. The game is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play. The actual level design may be lacking at times with boring dungeons, regional areas that seem both too large to traverse when you want to get somewhere, but too small to convey the scale of the world. You can pass from the middle of a desert to a canal filled coastal city in a minute, but while in the middle of playing you’ll barely even notice this as you take in the beautifully rendered textures, gorgeous backdrops, and all of the work bringing the monsters of the world to life.
DQ XI has one of the best bestiaries I’ve had the opportunity to slay. From their cleverly localized names (I hope you love animal puns), to the animation work, to each monster type ranging from dragons to slimes, in order to make them feel alive and fit within the breadth of the world. There is plenty of variety as well, in spite of recolors forming a fairly reasonable amount of the roster, there are enough unique monster models that it’s irrelevant to your enjoyment. All of the monsters and the world come together to form a beautiful backdrop for your grinding that sucks you right into this animated movie quality world and does not let go easily. Where the story might fail to engage you and the gameplay fails to draw you in through some engaging new mechanic, the world easily sucks you in simply due to how much loving care was poured into making it shine and feel unique.
This was all on a standard PS4 as well, so it will only look better on a Pro with all the increased fidelity. Then there’s of course the PC version which comes with all the attributed bells and whistles, most importantly being that all important 60 FPS boost. The PS4 versions all sadly have a 30 cap which it hits more often then not, but this isn’t really a factor in a turn-based game like this anyway. It’s no doubt the best looking version, but regardless wherever you’re playing it, your eyes are in for a treat.
There still is one big caveat performance wise, regardless of platform, and that is the abundance of loading screens. When a game like Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (running on the Switch of all things) is capable of seamlessly loading across much larger and complex landmasses, and smoothly transitioning to both battle gameplay and town hubs; the constant loading screens you get every time you move to a new area, enter a building, enter a town, enter a battle, save the game, set up camp, or really do anything that’s not just walking can quickly become annoying. They only last a second of black screen sure, but it quickly adds up and makes battles feel just that much longer due to the loading screens in your way.
This is a ginormous game and I’ve only touched on the most fundamental basics. There’s the crafting system mini-game which is fun enough, even if there’s an element of randomness to your forging that can be annoying when working with precious materials. Then there are mini-games and challenges such as horse-racing or the Crossbow Target challenge which can provide some variety in gameplay as well as a reason to explore the world that isn’t just more grinding . There’s the Pepped Up mode during combat which can randomly trigger during combat for a short while, which makes it unpredictable and hard to factor into a strategy, but can be used to activate super moves which can make combat easier and is always fun to experience.
Overall, Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is exactly what it says on the box; no more, no less. It’s a chance to relive the glory days when JRPG’s were still in their infancy, with some more modern trappings. There may be some question of where in the current RPG landscape Dragon Quest’s simplistic and predictable approach to the genre fits in, but regardless you’re in for 80+ hours of one of the most lovingly crafted worlds in gaming today with a rock solid battle system and a charming party, even if the story and some design choices feel like everything you’ve seen before.
The game is one of the most gorgeous I’ve seen. It looks and moves like a nearly flawlessly animated movie. The level of detail is amazing, the monster designs and animations some of the best in gaming, and the vast variety of locations and landscapes are breathtaking. This is not a game you will get tired of looking at or moving through.
This is as by the books as turn-based combat can go. Everything works exactly as you would expect, with years of QoL and tuning to make this one of the most definitive versions of the old-school JRPG battling experience. Exploration is a factor as well, though not nearly to the extent as other open-world games, with Monster Mounts to add some variety to change things up.
The soundtrack is just plain awful. An extremely poor MDI quality version of an already sub par score. For a genre built around it’s grand soundtracks (especially the battle and boss music) this is a huge strike against it. Voice acting is pretty hit and miss too, with some spotty accent work (which is usually more amusing than not), and is far ahead of it’s soundtrack quality.
Your fun level can really vary depending on what you’re here for. Those looking for a simple by the books 1000 hour classic JRPG adventure will feel right at home. Those maybe looking for something more however, will still find something worth sticking around for, but maybe not for long. Possibly not even through the main story, but it is enjoyable while it lasts.
Final Verdict: 7.5
Reviewed on PS4.
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Exclusive Age is available now on Steam and PS4.