Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (Review)

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Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is among the best games that I’ve ever played. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I can’t remember the last time a video game made me the feel the way this one has. I’m 26 years old, but playing through Dragon Quest made me feel like a child again. It reawakened that sense of awe and wonder I felt while playing through the likes of The Legend of Zelda, Pokemon and Final Fantasy when I was between 7-10 years old. Anything that can bring that feeling of childlike joy is special, which is why I love this game so much.

Dragon Quest XI is my first real foray into the franchise – I don’t really count the few opening hours of Dragon Quest VIII that I played years ago – and I’m absolutely in love with everything it does. Although some might find its story cliched, I found it to be a great blueprint to build everything else around.

You play as the reincarnation of the Luminary, a legendary figure who once stood against the greatest force of evil and vanquished it, bringing light back to the world. Unfortunately, you’re mistaken as the Darkspawn, the reincarnation of the evil being who ravaged the world many generations ago. With the kingdom hunting you down and the rise of the true reincarnated evil just around the corner, it’s up to you to go on a quest to clear your name and save the world.

One of the first things that stands out in this game is the wonderful cast of companions you encounter. While there’s definitely some criticism to raise towards your main character being a silent protagonist, the rest of your party is wonderful. From the cool thief Erik, the magical sisters Veronica and Serena, and the flamboyant and boisterous circus performer Sylvando, the friends you make in this game are all varied and interesting. They all have their own reasons for joining with the hero on his quest and for behaving the way they do, making all of them stand out as unique individuals with their own personalities, goals, strengths, and flaws.

The voice acting in this game has been a hot topic of discussion, but I haven’t personally noticed anything too egregious. The voices primarily consist of strong English accents, but some of the far flung areas of the map have different accents and speech patterns depending on the location. For example, there’s a Scottish sorcerer (who’s actually a party member), mermaids who only sing in high-pitched rhyme, and a desert civilization who, well, actually sound like bad Middle Eastern stereotypes. Okay, I guess there are a few weaknesses in this area.

Potentially racist stereotyping aside, there are very few voices in this game that come across as bad. I loved that the characters all sounded different depending on where in the world you are (a feature I wish more RPGs would consider) and thought some of the speech patterns different locales and races had was a nice touch. I will say that the voice acting is a little slow, leading to me typically reading the entire dialogue box before a character finished speaking. If this sounds like a problem to you, you can simply go into the settings and turn off the voice acting entirely and just read the text.

The core gameplay of this game is centered around exploration and combat. I’ll get to the exploration aspect in a bit, but I really want to dig into the combat mechanics, because I thought they were absolutely wonderful. Dragon Quest is the longest running turn-based combat series to date, with the first game releasing in 1986. It’s easy to assume that a series that’s gone on for this long would feel stale, but Dragon Quest XI might just be one of the most refined and polished JRPGs that I’ve played in the past decade.

The combat comes in two modes, Free-form and classic. Classic is exactly what it sounds like, with your lineup of party members directly across from the lineup of enemies for turn-based combat. Free-form is turn based as well, but it allows you to position your characters anywhere around the enemy. There’s no benefit to this mode (enemies don’t take more damage depending on placement and it doesn’t give you access to any new abilities), it just allows you to visually spread out your characters if you think it looks cooler. In fact, free-form is still turn based, so there really isn’t anything that special about it in the first place. I would highly recommend just keeping it set on classic.

Each character in your party has access to a different set of weapons, abilities, and spells, so it’s important to experiment with all of them to determine what your favorite team composition is. On each turn, you can decide to do a basic attack with your equipped weapon, activate a special ability you’ve learned, or cast a spell. It’s a simple to grasp combat system, but everything about it seems so polished. Menus are elegant and easy to navigate, all abilities and spells have a short description that pop up to remind you of what they do, and the pace of combat moves along nicely, never making fights feel like they’re lasting too long.

One of the mechanics that adds some extra personality is known as “Pep Up”. You can occasionally (and randomly) enter this state of increased attack power, defense, and ability to unleash special Pep Powers. These powers activate special moves with unique (and often humorous) animations that deal damage or buff/debuff your foes. While each character has their own Pep Powers which they can unlock and use by themselves, they can also work with other Pepped Up team members to unleash a more powerful combined attack.

As you defeat enemies in combat, gain experience and level up, you unlock points which can be spent on skill trees to buy new skills or bonus stat increases for your characters. These skill trees branch into skills for different weapon types and a special branch for each individual character that increases their special skills unique to their class. For example, all characters who can wield swords can learn the same sword techniques, but only the sorceress Veronica can unlock certain spells and magical increases. Your characters also occasionally learn new abilities and spells automatically as they level up, but the majority of their best moves are earned via the skill trees.

The difficulty of the game is pretty well balanced. Most fights against standard enemies shouldn’t pose too much of a problem, but boss fights can be tricky and require a strong assessment of your characters and their combat prowess. Those looking for a stronger challenge can turn on a “Stronger Monsters” mode, but if you turn it back off then you are locked out of turning it back on for the rest of your playthrough, which is a baffling design decision. I played with the default difficulty and never felt like it was too hard or too easy, so unless you’re looking to be absolutely punished, I wouldn’t recommend using the harder setting.

One of the nice things about Dragon Quest XI is that if you’re just simply exhausted from fights, you can avoid most of them. There’s no random encounters, so you can see every enemy in the field before you actually fight them. This allows you to pick and choose when you enter combat, which is a godsend when you’re low on health and have multiple teammates on deaths door.

The absolute best thing about Dragon Quest XI is its gorgeous and charming world. I’ve always been somebody who loves exploring in video games, and this might be the most fun I’ve had doing so in years. This world is massive and full of so many things to do, places to see, and activities to take part in. I scoured every last inch of this game and saw everything it has to offer, which is partially why I spent 140 hours with it.

One of the first things that jumps to mind is how special and different each and every town feels. Each town has its own culture, traditions, and vibe. Heliodor is a massive trade district centered around the kings castle. Puerto Valor is a seaside town boasting a luxurious casino and a training facility for the best knights in the kingdom. Gallopolis is home to a desert tribe that makes great sport of horseback racing. I loved entering each new area and marveling at what all it had to offer and comparing it to the previous locations I had visited.

While it might seem tedious to some, I absolutely implore you to talk to every single NPC you encounter. Most of the people in a town give great insight into its history or further explanation on how their society works. Sure, none of this information is necessary to follow the main plot, but it gives such a wider sense of knowledge and understanding to this world that makes it worth it.

Aside from the many towns in the game, there are a ton of smaller locations that are just as unique and fun to explore. One of the locations that stood out to me the most was a school for female treasure hunters, with female versions of some of the monsters you fight attending to learn how to be “more lady like”. Regardless of if you’re visiting a sprawling town, exploring one of these smaller locations, or simply roaming the massive hubs between areas (such as forests, deserts, and open country fields) there’s just an overwhelming sense of happiness you get while doing so. So much of this game is cute, inviting, and full of wonderful puns that if I had to describe the tone of this game in one word I would say “charming”.

 FINAL VERDICT

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is easily my favorite game of 2018. Few games are made with this much heart and soul, which is why I get so excited and passionate when games like this release. The cast of characters are all wonderful companions to have by your side on this journey, which is good since it’s such a lengthy experience. The combat is fun and exciting and has the perfect amount of difficulty to be challenging, but never cheap. However, my biggest takeaway from this game is its gigantic world that’s absolutely overflowing with personality, charm, and a strong sense of wonder and exploration. This is a world that you can easily get lost in and marvel at its design, but it’s the feeling of childlike wonderment it filled me with that cemented it as one of my new all-time favorites. This is an adventure that should not be missed.

– Zack Burrows

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