Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age Review

I have a long history with the Dragon Quest series. Every entry has this power to transport me back to my parent’s basement, squinting at a Game Boy Color while I play through Dragon Quest 1 and 2. The slimes, swords and music all carry this expansive lore that you can somehow feel with every new iteration. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age has, for better or worse, the whole Dragon Quest franchise on its shoulders.

This series takes a sort of perverse pride in its stubborn adherence to tradition. If everything looks and feels familiar, that’s a deliberate design choice. There are people in Japan who have been playing these games their whole lives. Release dates are practically government holidays. Does it work, however? Yes and no. Hearing that iconic music, fighting your first blue slime, getting that victory tone, all of these things are essential Dragon Quest experiences. The DQ game that opens with some other enemy as your first encounter might actually be cursed. I do wish the character designs were a little different, though. Not all of them! Akira Toriyama’s art is a major component in the series. It’s just hard to get emotionally invested in a dramatic encounter with a monster when they look so goofy. Those wide eyes and lolling tongues really undercut the tension, you know?

That Elusive Dragon Quest Look

Don’t get me wrong, though: Dragon Quest XI looks and sounds amazing. The character models are all incredibly detailed and lovingly crafted. There’s just something timeless about the Dragon Quest design philosophy. The development team has neither time nor tolerance for the trends and movements of the games industry at large. Their only metric for evolution and ascent is their own franchise. To that end, it feels unfair to compare DQXI to other RPGs, but I can’t help it. This game doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Even so, what’s on display is polished and pristine. Although there’s a weird lack of animations for certain actions. Giving people items is something described rather than seen, for example. This is something of a Dragon Quest tradition, but it still stands out in 2018. It’s the same thing with the cutscenes. People don’t emote the way you expect them to. It’s a little bizarre, but not for Dragon Quest.

Dragon Quest XI

As much as I’ve nitpicked this game for refusing to evolve, I absolutely love all the dumb little side quests and content that Dragon Quest XI comes with. Hunting for mini medals, gambling, crafting and scavenging is a blast. Every time I come to a new town, I waste at least fifteen minutes rummaging through every single building looking for loot. Smashing pots, poring through book shelves, raiding wardrobes and cracking treasure chests somehow never gets old. The mini medals in particular are a joy to uncover every time, and I’ve been hunting them down in these games for at least 20 years.

Meanwhile, combat in Dragon Quest XI walks this weird line between old and new. Your attacks and items are all very familiar, yet you have a lot of freedom to experiment. Everyone earns experience from every fight, which means you’re free to change up your party at your leisure. Everyone has several different specialties, and resetting your skill trees is crazy cheap. On top of that, HP and MP recovery is accessible enough that you’re free to get wild using spells and special abilities. The development team has worked to ensure that almost every encounter feels fast and frenetic. Combat never has to be boring unless you want it to be.

An Accessible Combat System

One of the new additions to the combat system are the pep powers. A character gets pepped up, their stats get boosted. If multiple characters are pepped up at once, they can sometimes perform combo moves. While I appreciated the stat boost, I never used the pep moves. Either they only applied to a very specific circumstance or they weren’t worth using up that pep boost. It’s a shame, because the pep system is one of the few new additions to the combat. Otherwise, this is mostly a gradual continuation of the system that’s been in place since the first game. Like any other franchise, Dragon Quest needs to keep changing and growing (however slowly) in order to survive. I want to see the series try new things, but I feel like the pep system either needs work or needs to be discarded.

Dragon Quest games have always had amazing localization. To a certain extent, this remains true with Dragon Quest XI. The English accents and dialects are wonderful stuff. Their version of Italian is a different story, though. Actually, any region where the dialogue is peppered with non-English words feels like a high school play. I was pretty diligent about watching cut-scenes until I got to Gondolia. From that point on there was a lot more frantic button mashing involved.

Seriously, Turn On Draconian Quest

This latest entry in the Dragon Quest series features a hard mode called Draconian Quest, which is something I’ve never seen before in a DQ game. At the beginning of your playthrough, you can choose whether to turn on this ‘hard mode’ of sorts. I elected not to, remembering Dragon Quest games as hard enough, thanks. This was a mistake. The whole game is a tiny bit too easy without Draconian Mode turned on.  At first it felt as difficult as any other DQ game. Then I got lost. This led to a whole lot of battles, which put me above the recommended strength level. It was an advantage the game was unable to reclaim, even in the latter half of the story. Long story short: don’t be afraid of that hard mode.

Dragon Quest XI

I had a blast playing this game. The Dragon Quest series might evolve a bit slowly for some people, but I’m perfectly satisfied with this pace. Every nostalgic note resonates with gorgeous clarity, be it the monsters, the weapons or the aesthetics. While some attempts at growth fall flat, others expertly hit their mark. The character models and the graphics are the perfect expression of Akira Toriyama’s timeless art style. I wasn’t in love with all the writing, but the characters were still flush with charm and personality. My one major grievance, the difficulty level, should serve as guidance for anyone undecided. Don’t be afraid to try that hard mode, in other words. Whether you’re a lifelong fan or new to the series, Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is an easy recommendation.

***A PS4 retail copy of the game was provided by the publisher***