Dragon Quest XI is the best at what it does, with over 30 years spent perfecting the narrow niche that it now comfortably resides in. But it’s still going to be up to you whether you’re willing to take the plunge into its cosy and comfy world, where easily one hundred hours of your life could be spent.
I’m someone that is fairly experienced with JRPGs at this stage – I understand their quirks and their tropes and their anime-ish aesthetic. I understand the slow burn build-ups that normally take place at the start; how it can feel like it takes ages before the story and combat start getting anyway. Still, Dragon Quest XI was something to come to terms with on those levels.
Within the first few minutes, the following is established – you are a mysterious prince, given up by fate and adopted by a family in a small rural village. You know nothing of your destiny. You have a mark on your hand that is mysterious. When you are a teenager – a voiceless protagonist, it must be said – this mark reveals itself, and you are said to be the reincarnation of the Luminary, a legendary figure of good and righteousness. You set out to find your way, and so on and so forth.
Honestly, I was counting down to see when the Hero’s hometown would be destroyed, making his quest so much more personal, and was pleasantly surprised when this occurred less than an hour in (is this really a spoiler?).
However, I am being a bit unfair. The point I am making is, it’s very easy to give up on Dragon Quest XI as clichéd if you only play the first few hours of it. The battle system doesn’t help, but I’ll get to that now. There is also a painful amount of handholding and cutscenes to explain things, which can easily grate on your nerves. However, about 6-7 hours in, when I had gotten my first full party of 4 characters, something about it all suddenly clicked, and I got completely into the right spirit and mode after that, as the game started to shine.
That’s not the say the game is completely revelatory in the story department – it has some nice twists but I still find the Tales Of series to walk circles around it in terms of such things. What this game does have is a nice variety of party members. By the time you have most of them, it really feels like a little adventure, you get very caught up in their own hopes and dreams and goals. This is helped by the rest areas being campsites, where you can chat with your friends as you go on. It really builds a wonderful feeling of being a team.
The gameplay mostly comprises exploration around the world, a crafting mechanic that is sort of fun, and then battles, where you put it all together. The battles are strictly old-school – turn-based combat system all the way. Everyone takes a turn one at a time and acts immediately with an input you give. You have physical attacks, skills, magic, buffs, debuffs and healing. Every character has three main weapon types they can equip, and three main upgrade paths to choose from, meaning that there is some build diversity, but it’s still pretty clear which are meant to be tanks and which are meant to be healers. You can switch in and out party members during battle, out of your total of 7 main characters. A final combat mechanic comes in the form of Pep Up – sort of a limit break which persists, enhancing your attacks and spells, and which can be used to trigger ultimate attacks. At first, this happens randomly, but over time you learn abilities which let you control when to trigger this happening. Monsters appear on the overworld, so you can avoid them if you want to, or attack them for bonus damage at the start. They all have wonderfully cutesy names and designs, so that may be to your liking or dislike.
The fact is, and this may sound strange, what you are actually meant to do for vast portions of the regular battles is play with the tactics and auto-battle system. Each character can be set to various macro systems of behaviour or set to be controlled by you. This can be changed after every turn. What you are really meant to do is set it up to optimally deal with all the riff-raff by itself, and then you take over for the big battles or when trouble strikes. This may seem like anti-fun, but by the time you get it right in your head, it just feels right. Overall, the system is simple in combat but can get deceptively difficult as you go on. It’s like Pokémon at times – easy to play, but with lots of hidden maths and systems to learn to master it all.
The world itself is large, varied, beautiful, and mostly linear. The areas are stunning to look at, but they have made a good choice to nearly always say “this is where you need to go, so go in this direction now.” It ensures that grinding is never really necessary, the right items are in front of you for crafting recipes and keeps a good pace of play. There are lots of towns, cities and mini-game distractions, but you never feel quite like you are in open-world which is completely overwhelming with icons.
The art design is anime-esque, with designs made by Akira Toriyama, of DragonBall fame. It veers towards the cuter side of his work, with a lot of round happy eyes on most of the protagonists. Toriyama has always struggled a little bit with “same face” syndrome on his characters (see as reference, that meme from Chrono Trigger where the joke is that all the characters, including the dog, have a face that looks like Vegeta), and that indeed is the case here, but I don’t think it hurts the game enormously. As I’ve said, the monsters at least look interesting, albeit not very threatening at times.
The voice acting did grate on me at times – it’s all different varieties of what sounds like people pretending to do exaggerated accents. It’s got a kind of cartoony feeling where all the voices are very over the top, and it wasn’t always to my liking.
Dragon Quest XI has an absurdly huge play time as well, with first playthroughs easily clocking in at 60-70 hours. After you finish the game, what you will discover is a post-game campaign that can easily last another 20 hours, bring you closer to 100 hours of play. It’s something you very rarely see in big releases these days, and it’s almost to the extent where you would ask yourself if you actually want less content for once and just to have it all over with.
In the end though, if you compare this title to say, Octopath Traveller, the battle system might be better and more modern there, but there’s a reason why the old school systems were so beloved, and it’s not just nostalgia talking all the time. Dragon Quest XI has brought together the best parts of its franchise here and delivered a quality game with so much content it almost cannot be believed.
I don’t actually think this game is for children, despite its appearances – the gameplay is certainly not as addictively flashy as the Fortnites of the modern era. It’s for people who want to remember the best parts of their early gaming lives, in a shiny new way. My recommendation is, if you loved the old style of JRPGS, push through at least 10 hours, and then see what you think about carrying on. Give it a fair chance. It may seem mean to ask that of you, but I don’t think you should miss out on this one. < strong>Dragon Quest XI feels like slipping into a warm pair of pyjamas in front of a fire with a cup of hot chocolate on a winter’s evening or splashing outside in the pool with friends on a hot summer’s day. It just brings out the best kind of childhood feelings and is altogether quite wholesome.