Dragon Quest XI is the best Dragon Quest game I’ve ever played.
Admittedly, Dragon Quest Builders was my favourite before that, so this is the first time I’ve really connected with a numbered installment in the main series.
But I do know my RPGs and this one is really great. Well paced, beautifully and tightly designed, varied, and just an all-round solid game.
What Dragon Quest XI is not, however, is the best aesthetic representation of a modern RPG. Mechanically, it’s a bit behind its peers and the UI isn’t as slick as you’ll find in a Skyrim or Final Fantasy XV.
But it’s old-fashioned nature and respect of the genre’s traditions is what makes this so special.
Quest for Glory
Contrary to popular belief, I think it’s unfair to say that Dragon Quest has yet to crack the West. There’s a strong fanbase out here in sizeable number who have been waxing lyrical about the games for many years.
The Dragon Quest titles on 3DS, for example, have all sold respectably and received enough critical acclaim that we can no longer call it the forgotten franchise. Yet Dragon Quest XI’s relevance to its brand may end up being as significant as Monster Hunter World has been for Capcom.
It feels like something of a reintroduction but at the same time a fresh take on everything that has come before it. Dragon Quest XI hints at plot points from games of old but spins them in exciting new ways.
Echoes of an Elusive Age takes place in Erdrea, centered around the tree of life, Yggdrasil, which appears to be tied to the fortunes of a young boy from Cobblestone Village. The young man is considered a reincarnated Luminary due to a distinct mark on his hand, one who once saved the world from certain destruction.
While this might appear to be a joyous event which everyone should revere and celebrate, it appears the King and his armies perceive it as a threat, believing the Dark One is set to return, and so lock him away ahead of a death sentence.
Managing to escape thanks to a newfound ally, the boy sets off on a quest to find out more about the legacy of Luminary, how his fortunes once saved the world, and why they may be required one more time.
If it sounds like a typical RPG-fare, that’s because it is. But Dragon Quest XI offers much more in terms of the characters you meet, the way the story is written and presented to the player, but also in its combat which now takes place in free-form, turn-based fashion.
Much like its predecessor, Dragon Quest XI doesn’t feature random encounters. You can only enter battle by colliding with another creature on the battlefield, whether you choose to run into them or sneak attack them for an extra advantage.
Of course, you could circumvent them entirely if you’re in a rush to your next objective, but like all RPGs, some degree of level grinding is required in order to keep up to par with inevitable boss battles. Basically, you can’t run away forever.
Nor should you because the combat works just great. You’ve got your standard melee attacking classes and get some optional allies join to help out from time to time. But there’s also various ranged classes to mix things up as well.
Naturally, you can use all of your characters manually in a way that best suits you, but DQ XI also offers a handy little tactics system which allows your characters to follow a series of conditions, meaning they can be automatically controlled in case you get bored tapping through buttons.
Options include the ability to offer balanced combat that uses MP but also conserves strength and stays mindful of HP. Or you can just go all out and fight tooth and nail until the bitter end. You could even have your main damage dealer focus specifically on healing if you wanted to. If you do that, thouhg, you should probably ask yourself if you should be playing this at all.
As well as changing up your attacking Line-Up, you also have Pep Powers which are similar to systems in previous Dragon Quest games. If the battle is getting quite heated and you’re taking a bit of a beating, your character will randomly receive a flashing blue aura which heightens your stats.
While this has a bearing on your overall damage and defensive output, it becomes more interesting when other characters start flashing blue as well. If you’ve built up some kind of synergy with that character by having them often fight together, you can actually combine your powers to create one devastating action.
Abilities vary between having a defensive focus to adding team buffs, and even delivering one devastating attack to an individual enemy or entire group. This is where the tactics go deeper in Dragon Quest XI over time. As you build up your party, more opportunities become available to you, and so party selection starts to become extremely important.
While it might seem to be the most logical course to have the most experienced fighters in your team always on the front lines, their abilities may not suit a particular fight, meaning your DPS output is limited or you’re taking more damage because your resistance isn’t strong enough. And a combined Pep Attack or Buff might be the thing that actually saves your life or gets you over the line.
After levelling up, you can earn Skill Points which can be used in your character builder. It can sort of be likened to a reduced version of Final Fantasy X’s Grid System but less refined or open-ended. As you grow, you gain access to more abilities but each one is tailor designed to your character’s class and specification.
As the Luminary, for example, you can increase your chance of Pepping up, generate Holy Protection or even Zap your enemies from on high. It’s a fairly basic levelling system, presented in a four-sided grid, but one that lets you learn Multiple Skills at once to increase your output.
The idea of it links back to what I said about the game being dated in many respects, with the majority of it being presented to the player in text and menu form as opposed to using visual cues and providing demonstrations. But in the conjunction with the game being played, it still fits very well.
Something else that players might find dated is tying save states to an entity or building that can only be accessed at camp sites or at churches in towns. Camp sites also let you craft new weapons and armor, as well as refine old ones. Modern games might just allow you to do these things at any point and in any other genre this may not even work, but here, it feels natual and perfectly acceptable.
Despite some of the clunkiness, Erdrea is an extremely beautiful world to behold. Models are smoothly rounded and well-detailed. Hair gently shimmers in the wind and each character has a trademark gesture and taunt that helps to truly distinguish them. And the music running in the background is often a grandios treat, though you’ll often find yourself hearing the same tunes on loop again and again which does become a tad tiresome at times.
To really familiarise you with each character you can jump into Party Talk at any point and ask your crew for hints and tips, as well as get a feel for their motivations during your current quest. Dragon Quest XI really shines in that regard as personalities are so clear and vibrant that they’ll feel like long lost friends within minutes of joining your party. The writing is first class.
Each town you visit throws up some neat side quests which can act a bit like a tutorial to begin with and a way for you to get a better feel for how the game plays, which is a lovely touch rather than bombarding the player with unwelcome pop up menus.
And unlike many RPGs, Dragon Quest XI makes it so easy and fast for you to get around. Between fast travel, horse riding and auto-sprinting, it’s a game designed around convenience for the player. Truly, this has been designed by RPG experts for RPG experts.
Dragon Quest XI is a truly wonderful, spirited adventure that is far more enjoyable to play than I ever expected. Aesthetically pleasing and effortlessly compelling, it kept me hooked to the screen for hours on end and made it very difficult for me to put down.
The mechanics and interface are so well suited to the genre even though some feel a little bit dated. But there are also others offering exactly what every RPG should be providing in 2018. It’s also a massive game that offers well over 100 hours of content, both prior to and after the credits, so you’d best be strapped in for the long haul!
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is a real treat and should be the game that finally solidifies the reputation of the franchise in the West among the very best RPGs ever made.
+ Gripping, compelling narrative and character building
+ Gorgeous aesthetic
+ A true RPG throwback and among the best in the genre
+ Side Quests never feel too overwhelming and aren’t intrusive
– Music can be repetitive
– User Interface and mechanics feel a little dated in places
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
9 out of 10
Tested on PS4
Code provided by the publisher