When you first enter combat in “Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age,” you’ll notice you can move your character around the battlefield and make it look like he’s taking cover or circling behind an enemy. You soon find out this is just a cosmetic feature, and the actual outcome of the fight still depends entirely on your choices in the menu. It’s a perfect miniature of what this game has to offer.
The Dragon Quest series has lineage going back to NES games of the 1980s, and its only agenda is to honor that lineage right down to the 8-bit menu sounds. While other Japanese role-playing series such as Final Fantasy have reinvented themselves time after time in kill-your-darlings development hell, Dragon Quest has focused on nostalgia and delivering an expected, basic experience.
The Japanese version of the game had no voice acting, so you will play the game almost entirely through text and menus. Very little of the underlying skeleton has actually been modernized. Normally, a game that wants to send a lot of written messages in 2018 might just let them scroll past in a feed without disrupting gameplay. Here, each text box pauses time and must be manually advanced. So when you try a locked door, you’ll see your character physically try and fail to budge it, but then a text box will pop up — “It’s locked!” — stopping your movement until you click through. And the game does almost nothing without a text box, or much more likely a series of text boxes. It really is an NES game wearing modern conveniences as a very uncomfortable skin.
The strengths of “Dragon Quest XI” start to show through first in the art. Akira Toriyama of “Dragon Ball” fame continues to design memorable, distinctive characters and monsters. The hostile wildlife and evil creatures start out cute, but become appropriately intimidating as the threat level and stakes increase. The map is a very traditional JRPG world, but the beautiful, craggy world design makes it feel natural that there are only a few branching paths to follow. Although the main character is a blank-faced clod, the cast around him makes up for that in variety and strong design.
The story resembles a TV series with mostly standalone episodes early in the season, but continuity-heavy “myth arc” episodes toward the end. It’s not a bad idea, but the game is so long, it suffers for not bringing in the more interesting elements earlier. Stories like this are sometimes justified as being a “slow burn,” but the first several hours of Dragon Quest XI are more of a “no burn.” Your silent protagonist will play out a number of well-worn genre staples such as escaping his burning home, learning he’s a prophesied savior, and escaping from jail mere minutes after being put there. There are plenty of clues that something bigger is going on, but you’ll wait a long time before that other shoe drops.
After many hours of exploration and assembling the party, the plot does eventually make you sit up and take notice. The world is threatened, and you make a number of return visits to places you saw in those earlier chapters — but this time, under much worse circumstances. Now the earlier hours of meandering pay off, as you remember the “before” picture and can really see how things have gone to hell.
As the story continues this upward trajectory, it earns a big payoff, but never quite cashes its check. Most adventure stories build their villains up to be infuriating, so their defeat comes with maximum impact, but DQ11 does the opposite. The villain who gets in your way and exasperates you will receive story-related forgiveness, or some big monster will take his place for the boss fight. You almost never get the catharsis of killing the guy you hate, and it leaves the game less satisfying than it could have been.
Sound is also a weak point. Most voice actors seem to have been told to do the thickest accent they can, with results ranging from fake to unlistenable. The music is a collection of MIDI tunes, mostly taken from earlier Dragon Quest games. They’re not terrible, but you probably won’t want to listen to them for the many sessions it will take to reach the true ending.
The turn-based combat delivers a basic, expected JRPG package with few surprises, but it’s competent. The best innovation is the ability to independently set each character to manual or CPU control. You can direct every attack, auto-battle, or just control your hero and let the others go their own way. It’s a very welcome feature, and the auto characters usually make rational decisions. Shame every battle starts and ends with those text boxes, or you could automate fighting weak monsters altogether.
It’s also a nice touch that characters have alternate builds they can use to play an unexpected role in your party. It’s probably not optimal to have your best healer instead train to use bladed gauntlets and act as a secondary attacker, but each character does have that alternate career option if you want it.
“Dragon Quest XI” shows that the feel-good moments from 1980s NES role-playing games still work if you’re patient. It’s still exciting when you get an upgrade for your ship that lets you reach new cities. It’s still satisfying when you get your defensive spell up right before the boss’ party-wiping attack goes off. It’s still fun when you find the hidden magical town where everyone speaks in rhyme. You’ll still want to go back and vaporize that optional boss that killed you 20 levels ago. It’s too bad the good things from the past are mixed with so many bad things from the past and so few good things from the present.
This game could have had an innovative combat system. It could have had some player choice. The protagonist could have had a personality. The world could have been truly open instead of having loading screens between each map. It could have had the traversal and movement of a modern action-adventure. Instead, it’s left in an uncomfortable position of trying to make the player think it’s a lot more complex than it really is.