Old dog, no new tricks
The majority of my gaming time over the past two weeks has been dominated almost entirely by Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age. DQ XI marks the first mainstream console release of a Dragon Quest game for several years and it is a quintessential JRPG that treads so closely in the footsteps of games like Final Fantasy VII that it feels more like a love letter to the genre than an individual creative effort.
Don’t click away just yet though, because whilst DQ XI is stoic and committed in its defense of its traditional roots, it does deliver an authentic, beautiful and enjoyable experience. The game opens with a scene that could come from any of a hundred games. A mother and child flee from a monster attack that results in the child being placed in a basket and left to float downriver whilst the mother is left to her faith. As it turns out, the baby is picked up in a friendly town and later, he becomes a fabled hero known as The Luminary.
What follows over the next ten hours or so is a literal play by play of themes and mechanics that will seem very, very familiar to pretty much any gamer. Untrustworthy tyrannical king? Check. Plucky sidekick becomes lifelong friend? Present. Straightforward, turn based battles that pose no threat whatsoever? Absolutely. The list goes on to the extent that had I not been playing Dragon Quest for review purposes, I would likely have quit.
Dragon Quest feels like a love letter to the JRPG genre
The music doesn’t help unfortunately. Most JRPG’s feature incredible orchestral soundtracks with scores that rise and fall in line with the onscreen action and invoke an appropriate emotional response. Dragon Quest XI has two main tracks (that I can think of) both of which are poor at best, but are nonetheless etched deeply into my mind, thanks largely to having listened to them looping for over sixty hours. At no point do I recall the music making sense in relation to what I was seeing on the screen – which in itself actually looks close to incredible.
During its opening hours, Dragon Quest XI is intensely linear, yet it is still no less beautiful for it. Whilst it doesn’t quite have the visual magnitude of a Xenoblade, there is a lot of scale to the areas in which the players explore. Open spaces are huge (but very easy to navigate) and filled with interesting a beautiful places to explore. From swamps filled with Endor-style treetop villages to cities decorated in a variety of styles (Venetian, Arabian etc) I certainly can’t complain at how Dragon Quest looks.
By the third or fourth rinse and repeat cycle of visiting a city, calling on its leader and learning what would be required of you to proceed, you’ll have at least two new sidekicks and you’ll be bored. The characterization in Dragon Quest isn’t helped by the fact that our Luminary never speaks, so any charm has to come from his comrades. Thankfully, early pals Erik, Veronica and Serena bring enough life to keep things going until we pick up the far more interesting Sylvando. Playable characters come relatively thick and fast from there on and I think this is most noticeable because where the music in this game falls flat, the voice acting soars.
The characters are each voiced with a unique, unusually British accent that is well scripted and generally, quite well fleshed out. Subtitles accompany everything, but most important scenes are voiced as well. I found most of the characters to be interesting in their own way too. Sure, there are irritating moments, but for the most part the writers of Dragon Quest seem to have known when to pull things back from the brink, rather than risk pushing a stupid idea or plot beyond the point where it’s welcome. Many JRPG’s get this wrong and seem to have characters that are designed specifically to upset the balance for a few laughs – you know the kind, characters like Jar Jar Binks.
Certainly by the time you have a full roster of characters, you’ll also have grasped the turn-based combat system and the way that characters develop. Simply put, combat in Dragon Quest is a breeze, most of the time. Defeating the enemies dotted around each area is so easy and so lacking in tactical nuance that it can largely be automated. Every character (including The Luminary) can be given orders and left to deal with the foe on their own if desired. This strategy works well until one of the infrequent boss encounters – some of which are frustratingly hard relative to the rest of the combat.
Characters are upgraded in a very basic but still quite interesting way. With every new level, the character will automatically receive stat upgrades and occasionally, new skills. In addition, they’ll receive a number of points that can be assigned freely between three or four different disciplines – swords, daggers, spears or whips, for example. If you can imagine that the class of each character has been predetermined, then these disciplines effectively determine their specialization. Serena can focus on healing, buffing or debuffing, for example, or of course she can be built to balance all these disciplines.
Although it does nothing new, Dragon Quest XI is a classic JRPG
Some twelve or so hours in, it transpires that Dragon Quest was just playing with you, however. The first few cities and their menial quests were all just a test, because in another leaf torn – literally – from Final Fantasy VII’s book, the player receives a ship. A ridiculous ship (called The Salty Stallion) but a ship all the same. From here on out, Dragon Quest XI becomes The Wind Walker, as the player is able to visit any of a huge number of islands – each with its own secrets and often, with its own side quests and points of interest.
I quite like that despite the newfound freedom that players have from this point in Dragon Quest XI, there’s still a lot of hand holding. These days I don’t have time to search fruitlessly through a worlds worth of dead ends, so the ability to have a “chat” with my party and be reminded of where to go next and what to do. The path to success is always linear, but should you ever fancy wandering off it, there’s always something to see, somewhere to go or someone to meet.
It’s at this point that you’ll probably decide whether you want to continue with Dragon Quest XI or not. On the one hand, by now it’s charm will be shining through and it’s irrepressible nature will be clear to see. On the other, if you’re already feeling frustrated by it, then suddenly having access to a much wider world might feel like too big a leap. Over the course of the rest of the game, I did find that the story got more compelling, but over and above that, it also benefits from the introduction of other distractions. During the early missions, there are only one or two side quests per city and they are mostly restricted to collecting this or killing that. As the game opens up, so do the number of side quests and the variety of their makeup.