A Slime Approaches!
My brief time with Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age was a delight, an airy romp through a vibrant fantasy world crowded with colorful monsters. I led my party on horseback through steep canyons lined with spiraling caches of minerals and littered with towering ruins. Dragon Quest continues to be a friendly RPG series. When I encountered hostile anthropomorphic cacti, they danced and smiled at me even as they tried to poke me to death. Even the most fearsome enemies have a delightfully adorable quality about them, and there’s a sense of whimsy and playfulness that inhabits the design.
The Dragon Quest franchise permeates Japanese popular culture. Its creator Yuji Horii is a national celebrity. The vibrant Dragon Quest monster designs by the legendary Akira Toriyama are universally-recognized icons in Japanese stores and television. Its 30 year old theme music can be heard practically everywhere.
Here in America, it’s a very different story. Dragon Quest has gradually built a cult following in the United States, but it’s never gained traction here as a best selling RPG series. There are a number of reasons for this that extend beyond the scope of this preview, but quality certainly isn’t the problem. Dragon Quest is a series that deserves far greater success in the United States. Every game in the main series that’s made its way to America is a solid-to-superb example of thoughtful and purposeful RPG design, with a complex creative philosophy belied by a simple-looking facade.
By all indications, Dragon Quest XI purposefully embraces its predecessors’ creative direction. It’s a celebration of the series roots, a love letter to everything that’s come before. The clean, simple monster art’s HD imagining practically springs from the screen. The music is rich, the sound effects evocative of Dragon Quest’s 8-bit roots without feeling out of place. But despite its fidelity to tradition, Dragon Quest XI doesn’t feel clunky, rote, or anachronistic. Rather, it feels classical, a period piece hearkening back to the most fundamental of RPG design elements.
Speaking with several of the developers of Dragon Quest XI, I was quickly impressed by their apparent reverence for the gravity of handling Japan’s premiere domestic RPG franchise. The last two Dragon Quest games released in Japan have focused heavily on multiplayer elements, but Dragon Quest XI is a deliberate return to the series’ deep single player roots, a chance to place the player in a satisfying story-driven scenario and allow them to experience the rise of a hero. It’s a template that Dragon Quest helped create, yet its been over a decade since the main series has delved so purposefully into those storytelling roots. The cuteness of Dragon Quest and its optimistic surface sometimes obscure just how satisfying the series’ narrative designs can be: Dragon Quest V in particular is among the most rewarding story-driven RPGs I’ve ever touched. Dragon Quest XI strives to be a return to form in this long and proud tradition.
I started my demo looking for a fight. There are no random encounters in Dragon Quest XI. Groups of foes are represented by colorful animated monsters wandering the main world map, and combat initiated whenever I touched one. I could sneak up on these foes and strike a first blow to gain a small advantage in battle, but once the fighting began, it was a purely turn-based affair, with player-controlled party members battling clusters of frivolously fearsome creatures. I’d almost allowed myself to forget just how good Toriyama’s classic monsters look… character designs are fine, but the bad guys are the real artistic stars of Dragon Quest.
Despite its fidelity to tradition, Dragon Quest XI doesn’t feel clunky, rote, or anachronistic.
There’s an option to free the camera up during combat, but it’s purely aesthetic. This is a classic Dragon Quest battle system with no positioning, timing based attack enhancements, or active-time elements. Fights tended to be swift and strategically rewarding despite the turn based structure. Most of the tension in Dragon Quest’s iconic combat is built on resource management and maximizing each of your party members’ abilities in the face of different enemy types, and Echoes of an Elusive Age doesn’t do anything to shake that up.
Outside of combat, I also had the option to mount my horse and bowl over many enemies on the map when riding at a gallop, whalloping them off into the distance without a fight. The developers explained to me this feature wouldn’t reward me with XP, but was included to allow players to breeze through under-leveled enemies they didn’t feel like fighting during traversal. They also told me that enemies far below my level would flee from me. Though I didn’t gain tangible item or experience rewards for riding down these foes, I did unlock a sort of in-game achievement for choosing to ram 20 bad guys. Also, it was fun.
Character abilities can be customized based on experience, with each individual party member able to select enhancements through a branching series of development paths. The game’s creators emphasized that these choices, while flavorful, are carefully designed not to unbalance the characters, nor to divert them too far from their intended roles in the party.
I chose to play a section of the demo where I had access to a full four-person party. In addition to my hero (named Eleven in the demo) my allies included Erik (a fighter type), Veronica (a glass cannon-style magic user) and Serena (a healer/buffer cleric type). I had the option to hand over my allies to the AI or take direct control of each. I defaulted to direct control out of familiar habit, and was happy to discover that despite the menu-based interface, combat was still very fast playing. My little band of adventurers also included a fifth guest character, a scenario-defined extra who assisted me in combat, but whom I could not directly control.
Party Chat is back, allowing me to check in with allies at will and query them for their individual takes on recent events. The Party Chat system has long been a simple but flavorful part of the Dragon Quest experience, an optional opportunity to draw out more background on companions or find a little extra context for every stage of the game. It’s a nice elective to have, providing a chance to see what my companions think about practically every event without forcing me to get dragged down in unwanted dialogue.
Ready for Another Adventure
I was impressed during my brief time with Dragon Quest: Echoes of an Elusive Age, a game that seemed crafted to highlight everything I love about the series. The demo demonstrated evidence of a relaxing pace, charming art, great music, appreciable depth, sincere fidelity to fan expectations, and an epic journey.
The creators explained to me that part of their goal for Dragon Quest XI is to develop a game of tremendous accessibility, with rewards for players of every skill level, a design philosophy embracing another hallmark of the Dragon Quest series. Historically, Dragon Quest’s penalties for failure are mild and the difficulty curve is forgiving without feeling too easy. It’s possible for determined novices to power their way through practically any section of these games without a frustrating amount of grinding. While my demo wasn’t long enough to demonstrate this principle in action, the design team assured me the tradition exists at the heart of Dragon Quest XI.
This universal accessibility has a lot to do with Dragon Quest’s decades of success as a top-tier franchise in Japan, and in my mind represents one of the most compelling arguments for American players to give it a try. The best Dragon Quest games understand that simplicity and depth are not mutually exclusive, and that it’s possible to create a rewarding RPG that can be enjoyed by players of all ages and experiences.
Dragon Quest XI has been on sale in Japan for some time. The new US release coming later this year includes a comprehensive localization english language voice acting (with no Japanese vocal track available), an added ability to dash when traveling on foot, and a new first-person camera mode.
Jared Petty produces Hop, Blip, and a Jump, Red Dead Radio: The Red Dead Redemption Podcast, and Pockets Full of Soup. He’s a host at Kinda Funny Games and a frequent contributor to IGN. He loves Slime so very very much. Chat with him on Twitter @pettycommajared and on Instagram @pettycommajared.