Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive JRPG Golden Age

Dragon Quest XI is a JRPG developed and published by Square Enix. It released for the PS4 and PC in September 2018 and on the Nintendo Switch in September of 2019. It costs $60. This is my review of the Switch version.

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You could call Dragon Quest XI a coelacanth, or a crocodile, or a shark. It’s a living fossil straight out of the Golden Age of JRPGs, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Those aquatic creatures survived and thrived on Earth for millions of years. They are masters of adaptation. They withstood the millenia of climate changes and competition from others. They went toe-to-toe with Father Time and punched him in the face.

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Dragon Quest XI is no different. It is a turn-based JRPG with a classic coming-of-age story. You are the Luminary, a chosen hero prophesied to stop the resurrection of the Dark Lord Mordegon. You recruit a band of friends and travel across the world, visiting towns, defeating monsters, and witnessing betrayals. Each party member is set to a class with their own sets of spells and abilities — there is a thief, a healer, a mage, a bard, a monk, and yourself.

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On paper, that sounds like the Vanilla Bean of JRPGs. And yet, Dragon Quest XI knows what it is, and it’s 100% confident in the experience that it’s going to give you. It’s the best Vanilla Bean you ever had.

How can a game show confidence? To start, it trusts the player to explore and figure everything out on your own (outside of a brief tutorial). The world is filled with massive open areas where you can pick your battles at your leisure. Collectables, vistas, and crafting recipes are scattered everywhere. It begins easy and approachable, with a perfectly rising difficulty curve. It permits you to learn each combat mechanic on your own terms, yet expects you to learn them eventually. It’s apparent from the beginning that these developers know what they’re doing, and have fine-tuned this experience to be as polished as can be.

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As polished as it is, though, the story’s pacing in Act 1 was still rather slow for me. The best thing about Act 1 was encountering all of the ridiculous monsters. I’ve never seen such creative enemies since playing EarthBound. You fight tiny pigs wearing witch’s hats, walking iron egg mechs, and spear-wielding cucumbers. I’m not kidding. I looked forward to each new area because I knew something goofy was coming my way.

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The game also understands that there’s a better way to level up outside of just fighting monsters. The true way to level up the party is to hunt metal slimes. These creatures offer a lot of experience and money, but are difficult to defeat and require specific strategies. Compared to other JRPGs, this was a much more interesting way to get the party stronger.

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Speaking of the party, while every character fits the archetype for their class — the healer is calm and nice, the mage is spunky and crass, the thief is swift and sly — they all develop into something more, especially once Act 2 begins. During Act 2 the story focuses on each party member and gives masterful backstories for them all. Sylvando was the most fabulous bard I’d ever seen. Eric had an unexpected character arc with a satisfying ending. Serena had a heart-tugging episode and a transformation that took her from my least favorite character to my most favorite.

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Hands-down my favorite city in this game, possibly my favorite in all JRPGs? Everyone here speaks in haikus, even in the cutscenes. The NPC dialogue here is literally poetry.

The presentation is gorgeous. This is the best-looking 3rd Party game I’ve played on the Switch. Where most RPGs give you a “city” with only three to four houses and one place of interest, Dragon Quest XI gives you full-scale metropolises full of NPCs with real things to say. I haven’t explored a world this well-designed since playing the original Xenoblade last year.

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The item forging mini game is almost as fun–if not more fun–than the actual battle system. You use materials and recipes you find while exploring the world, then you bash it into shape until it’s just right, all the while managing its temperature and your focus points. It’s my favorite crafting system in any video game. You seriously earn an entire separate skill tree just for forging. And these forged items are way better than any you could buy in the shops.

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One quality-of-life feature that stands out above the rest, however, appears every time you start a play session. When you boot up the game, Rab will quickly refresh you on what happened in the story since you last played. EVERY RPG NEEDS THIS FEATURE. To be honest, every video game over 20 hours long needs this feature. Dragon Quest XI understands that you have a life and you might have to set the game aside for a bit. I played this game on and off for 6 months and had no problem picking it back up after a long intermission. And even then, if you get lost, you can talk to your party members and they’ll remind you where to go. But they never give you a quest marker to follow, nor an NPC constantly holding your hand. The game is just so confident in itself, I can’t help but admire it.

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Outside of the slow pacing in Act 1, I’m really struggling to find anything to gripe about with this game. Let’s see… some of the smaller story quests are a bit dull. I mean, I’m pretty sure I rescued a kidnapped / lost child at least 4 times in the game. But for every uninteresting quest, there’s also a more flavorful one.

If you’re looking for something experimental, you won’t find it here, but if you’re looking for a superbly-crafted JRPG, Dragon Quest XI is just your thing. If you’ve never played a turn-based JRPG, I’d recommend this as your first one (that is, if you don’t have a way to play Golden Sun). I will probably, in due time, get a copy of Dragon Quest VIII for the 3DS and dive into that one, too. Once I finish this post game, that is.

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