Platforms: PS4 (Review), PC

Dragon Quest as a series has sort of a dual personality. It’s phenomenally popular in its home country of Japan, but has sometimes struggled to break through to a mainstream audience in the rest of the world.

It’s not for lack of trying; Nintendo of America gave away millions of copies of the first game in the series as a promotion through Nintendo Power magazine, and the company has helped publish localized versions of nearly every game in the series in the West. But for some reason the franchise has never caught on in a big way outside Japan, remaining sort of a niche series even though it’s largely responsible for Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGS) as we know them today.

History and tradition

Because of its popularity in Japan, the Dragon Quest series does some things differently than other franchises. The series has a reputation of tradition, and any perceived changes to gameplay are met with a loud outcry from Japanese fans. Dragon Quest games usually don’t begin production until the market leader for a generation has already been established, so as to make the games available to the widest possible audience. Because of this, Dragon Quest games have been almost exclusively handheld titles since 2007, when a remake of Dragon Quest IV was released on the Nintendo DS.

Remakes of Dragon Quest V and VI followed, and Dragon Quest IX was the first title in the series to be programmed primarily for a handheld when it came out in 2010. In between the DS and 3DS, a massively multiplayer online Dragon Quest was released in Japan only for the PC and Wii as Dragon Quest X, which later got a Wii U update. Additional remakes of Dragon Quest VII and VIII continued the tradition, releasing late in the 3DS’ lifespan.  

The upshot of all this is that Dragon Quest games skipped the entire HD console revolution. The last Dragon Quest game released on then-current hardware was Dragon Quest VIII, which launched on the PlayStation 2 in 2004. Players have never had the opportunity to play an HD version of Dragon Quest, and the closest they’ve been able to come were knockoffs like Xbox 360 exclusive Blue Dragon or more recently, spinoffs such as Dragon Quest Builders and Dragon Quest Heroes (a musou game inspired by Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors). Dragon Quest XI: is the first main series game in over a decade to take full advantage of current-generation hardware, and the results are simply stunning.

Graphics have gained a level

Unlike many modern titles, Dragon Quest XI takes full advantage of the entire color palette. The world you explore is absolutely gorgeous, and the visuals are consistently amazing no matter where you go. Character models and enemies have a light cel-shaded look that works well with Akira Toriyama’s designs, but everything else, from clothing to foliage, is rendered as photorealistically as possible. This gives the game a unique look that’s hard to mistake for anything else, and playing it feels like you’re taking control of a living cartoon.

The localization into English is similarly excellent, and even gives the characters mouth movement that roughly matches their spoken dialogue. Series veterans will be pleased to see the large variety of monsters with punny, dad-joke names like “Stark Ravens” and “Rottentails,” bunny rabbits with leather outfits and a bad attitude. The writing on display is remarkable, and I was particularly impressed by a town in the early game where every resident speaks exclusively in Haiku, and a later encounter with a mermaid who has entire discussions in rhyming iambic pentameter. Weird touches like cows who give weather reports made it over intact, and this helps give the world a unique charm.

Most character dialogue has full voice acting, and for the most part it’s quite good. Flamboyant performer Sylvando is a scenery-chewing standout, but the rest of the cast also perform adequately. There’s a bit too much emphasis on cockney accents in the lower-class areas, but this is something the series has done for decades now, so it’s probably a little late to be complaining. The protagonist never says a word, and while this is very traditional in JRPGs, it can be a bit off-putting. I understand the reasoning, that I’m supposed to project myself into this character, but it makes him a little hard to relate to when he never reacts to anything.

Hero... Now that's a job that'll get the girls

The story in Dragon Quest XI is a traditional Hero’s journey, and begins by borrowing from Moses’ origin story in the Bible. Your mother is on the run from monsters, and ends up floating your bassinet down a river to protect you from the encroaching darkness.

There’s a time skip of more than a decade, and the next thing you know you’re off on a journey to prove your ascension to adulthood with your childhood sweetheart. The hero learns over the first hours that he’s the reincarnation of someone called the Luminary, destined to slay a great evil after visiting the world tree, Yggdrasil. He’s told to visit the neighboring kingdom of Heliodor and present himself to the royal family for further instruction.

Upon his arrival however, the king is not pleased to see him. On the contrary, the king calls your character “The Darkspawn” and has him banished to the deepest dungeons. Not only does he blame you for the calamity that destroyed your hometown and killed his daughter, but by the king’s reasoning, the great evil cannot rise if the Luminary isn’t available to meet it. For the rest of the game, you’ll be hounded by Heliodor’s forces and the king’s top lieutenants, loyal knights named Sir Hendrik and Sir Jasper.

Once the story picks up it goes to some really interesting places, including a visit to your ruined hometown, a horse race where you stand in for the spoiled son of the sultan, and an MMA (Masked Martial Arts) championship in a city called Octagonia. Some characters you meet along the way are easier to relate to than others, but all seven have their uses and specialties in combat.

A slime approaches. Command?

Speaking of combat, it’s the bread and butter of any JRPG. Dragon Quest XI’s combat is extremely traditional, borrowing from systems that go all the way back to the original NES game from 1986. You can choose to add a layer of positioning onto the more traditional system, or set it to the more standard point of view where your team and the enemies take turns launching spells and attacks at one another. DQXI does allow you to swap in characters from your bench once you have more than four available, but doing so will cost them a turn.

Another new mechanic is something called “pep,” which activates semi-randomly when your characters take damage or at the beginning of their turns. A character under the effects of pep gains several stat bonuses for the duration, and you can spend it to launch special attacks. Every character has a solo Pep attack, but can also team up with other peppy characters to unleash devastating abilities, sort of like double and triple techs in Chrono Trigger.

Battles aren’t especially difficult in this game. Fortunately, there’s an optional way to increase the difficulty for players who’d like more of a challenge. Players who want an additional degree of difficulty can activate what are called “Draconian Quests” at the beginning of their save file, and the modifiers have a significant impact on gameplay.

It’s a little like activating skulls in a Halo game, and the options range from fairly easy (e.g. not being able to run from battles) to extremely difficult;  (unable to equip any weapons or armor). Completing the game under any of these conditions gives the player a congratulatory message and a sense of accomplishment, but thankfully isn’t tied to any trophies or achievements. If a particular Draconian quest seems too stifling, they can be disabled at any church or save point, but can’t be re-activated once they’re turned off.

Upgrades galore

Several other systems got a minor overhaul, not just combat. Crafting now takes the form of a minigame involving the “Fun-Sized Forge,” which replaces the Alchemy pot found in Dragon Quest VIII and IX. You still need to collect recipes by finding bookshelves and completing quests around the world, and still need to find the appropriate ingredients on the world map or by defeating monsters. But now there’s a timing-based game to play where you can create or upgrade equipment, doing your best to get every bar into a sweet spot without overshooting your mark. It can be challenging, but the sense of accomplishment from crafting a perfect +3 item is accompanied by a fanfare that makes playing the crafting minigame highly addictive.

The world map is pretty similar in its function to the DS and 3DS games. It isn’t a totally open world, and there’s a very minor loading pause each time you move from zone to zone or enter hostilities. Fortunately, DQXI takes a welcome cue from more recent Dragon Quest remakes, and allows the player to sidestep enemies by avoiding wandering monsters. This allows the player to more efficiently make use of their time, targeting a specific monster type for item farming or experience and avoiding unwanted encounters.

Leveling up grants some skill points that can be spent on a hexagonal grid to unlock special abilities, though these come very slowly. The grid is rather similar to the system used in Ratchet and Clank games to level up your weapons, with some hidden abilities that become available once you unlock the ones surrounding them. You can also find some seeds throughout the world that let you boost a certain stat by a few points, though these are rare and hard to come by. As a result, characters in this game aren’t nearly as customizable as they were in Dragon Quest IX.

A personality as rich as mine always sparkles!

Although Dragon Quest XI is rated T for teen, it’s largely appropriate for all audiences. The broad good vs. evil story should appeal to kids, while older players enjoy the more sophisticated writing and jokes. There are some adult situations and humor which may go over the heads of the very young, particularly situations surrounding Sylvando.

I don’t personally have any issue with the character, but recognize that others might. His orientation isn’t handled as tastefully as it might be in games like Mass Effect or Life is Strange. Sylvando is a campy gay stereotype from the first moment you meet him, and even though sex isn’t mentioned overtly it’s pretty clear he prefers the company of men. He calls everyone “Darling,” is the only male character to wear eyeliner, and owns a boat named the Salty Stallion, helmed by a muscleman wearing a pink fetish mask.

Older female characters can be made to wear some pretty revealing clothing as well, though nothing that’d be out of place in a PG movie.

Worth the wait, but too good to pass up

Dragon Quest XI looks fantastic on the PS4, and even better on the PC, but I couldn’t help missing the portability I’d become used to from the DS and 3DS remakes. I’ve always thought RPGs are perfect for handhelds since you can grind out levels or cash while focusing on something else. Even though a 3DS and Switch version are confirmed for Japan, the 3DS game won’t be coming to the West and the Switch version was delayed because of issues relating to the Unreal 4 engine. In other words, if you’re waiting for a portable way to play DQXI, you may be waiting for a year or more.

And waiting would be a shame, because DQXI is one of the most vibrant, well-written, and entertaining games released this year. If you need something to do in between web-slinging and punching cattle, consider giving Dragon Quest XI a shot. Odds are pretty good you’ll find something here to like.