Sep 13, 2018

Dragon Quest XI Review (Part 1: First Impressions)

Read my review!
I've played enough of Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (PC) to offer a few initial thoughts. I'll try to strike a balance between my own preferences and a more worldly critique. Quick summaries are just below, followed by a little more detail on the following:


Summary
Dragon Quest XI is a stellar entry into and evolution of the main series, and a pretty good game overall. It does everything series fans want, and attempts to add mass appeal. The result is a very full, refined JRPG in a casual, accessible package. It's probably not enough to grow the franchise's western audience, but loyal fans will love it and hopefully newcomers with appropriate expectations will be pleasantly surprised.

My take is that it's already my favorite entry in my favorite franchise. I have some minor grievances; casual difficulty and whimsical style (common series complaints) aren't among them. Games don't have to be realistic or hard to be immersive and fun. It almost feels like a rich, light-hearted simulator of an massive modern RPG.

It's not bad to look at.
Audiovisual
The environment is full of bright colors and catchy contrast, and the level of detail - especially in towns - is excellent. The characters and creatures lack some of the depth and texture in the surrounding environment and there are a few stiff, unnatural animations. None of these complaints affect the tremendous-looking combat. The symphonic soundtrack is grand and high quality, though the size of the world seems to result in more looping than expected. The voice acting is good (not amazing) in a very stylized way. Like certain character features, some of the sound effects feel relatively flat.

My take is that everything looks and sounds like Dragon Quest, and should be more than good enough to appease newcomers. The concerns frustrate me because they feel fixable (the look and sound of walking through a pumpkin is straight-up uncomfortable). I don't enjoy the soundtrack or voice acting as much as VIII's, but it's a narrow margin. It's easy for me to look past the issues because they're small specks in the massive pail of beautiful, immersive world here.

You ride more than just horses!
Interaction
There's a lot of text, walking around, and basic turn-based battles; like most JRPGs, players love it or hate it. New features like running, jumping, horse-riding, a non-linear upgrade system, the fun-size forge, and scattered campsites are welcome upgrades but not game-altering. The use of a single button for most actions (initiating a lot of the stiff, unnatural animations mentioned above) is a missed opportunity; it's strange to use the action button to jump and grab a ledge, instead of a jump button. Invisible barriers everywhere make it look like more of the world is accessible than what really is. The optional free form combat mode has no functional purpose, but still manages to make them more interesting.

My take is that it plays well, and the upgrades will be mostly liked by most players. Jumping is useless, riding and running cause me to overlook things, and I wish I could destroy things with weapons instead of mediocre animations. Free form won't change any opinions of turn-based combat, but I love combining it with tactics for the most efficient, cinematic grinding. Most of the game works well enough that I don't notice myself working it, a high compliment. Also, I'm not sure why, but I love the fun-size forge.

Pretty run-of-the-mill party, right?
Narrative
The story and setting here are typical high-fantasy RPG fare; you're a special, silent, chosen-one hero off to save the world. A small twist early in the game adds more depth and higher stakes sooner than expected. It all evokes plenty of emotion without overdoing the drama/comedy/action, though some of the cutscenes are clunky and awkward. The protagonist's allies feel imperfect, but are likable as part of a diverse, compelling team. Though it seems like a lot of narrative has unfolded very quickly, there is still plenty of mystery for me to unfold.

My take is that the narrative is the hardest thing to evaluate so soon. It's not ground-breaking, and there are so many things I still need to learn! How will I get to Yggdrasil? Why do I keep seeing this little ghost thing everywhere? What kind of lame magic-stealing curse would also steal Veronica's age, and why is Sylvando good at everything? (I love all the allies, even if I'm unimpressed with how they've come to their present state.) It feels like many of these questions will be answered, but to how complete and satisfactory an extent I'm not sure.

Just like the end of LJN's Jaws on the NES...
Everything Else
Modernizations, features not present even in the Japanese version, ample marketing, and especially a PC (Steam) release combine to give this entry a better chance at Western success than its predecessors. Still, as stated above, it's probably not enough to attract a massive new audience. It feels like an old school JRPG, because that's what series fans want. The length of time between main series releases (like 14 years) probably exaggerates the feel of worldly excitement. At least for longtime fans, this excitement is rewarded; XI strikes a beautiful balance between classic and shiny-new Dragon Quest.

My take is that it feels like a simulator of an RPG because it feels more like I'm guiding my heroes through their world, pushing the buttons that help them take actions, make decisions and move forward (literally and figuratively) in an RPG world, than actually controlling it myself. The whimsy, low difficulty, combat as the core gameplay all contribute to that. While my wife's Sims are building their homes and families, I'm building up my hero and party so they can overcome evil. I don't need hyper-realism, detail and depth to be immersed. I just need something casual but simple, full but not overwhelming, different but not weird, emotional but light-hearted, modern but refined... you know, like this.

I think it's nearly perfect as a Dragon Quest game; the flaws are easy to nit-pick because I find so few. If you've legitimately tried and haven't enjoyed any main-series Dragon Quest games in the past 15 years, it won't change your mind, but if you haven't and are interested, you'll be pleasantly surprised. The concerns above will leave you scratching your head if you're not comfortable with the series, and a JRPG is a JRPG. The updates need refining and the game as a whole might be a hair overrated by myself and other fans alike, but I just... can't... stop... playing...

But wait, there's more!
Additional Stuff
If you can't get enough of the game, but also can't play it at work so you're forced to watch gameplay and read reviews over lunch breaks like I am, I recommend this written review or the following videos from Kotaku's Dragon Quest expert, Tim Rogers. Normally I prefer independent reviewers and writers, but I'm not sure I've ever heard someone combine as much passion and thoroughness for the series. It's worth your time