Dragon Quest XI provides the familiar thrill of nostalgia mixed with a few new elements that manage to make it feel like more than a stroll down memory lane. In fact, though it can feel a bit linear and restrictive at times, the game’s menagerie of monsters, lush scenery, vast world, and engaging action will keep you intently focused on your quest from beginning to end.
You are the Luminary, the chosen one, and in many ways the standard JRPG silent, place-holding hero. But, clichés endure for a reason, and practically in instances where the hero, in a sense, isn’t really the main draw. Dragon Quest XI’s story might not feel entirely new, but it is enough, coupled with the game’s greater strengths, to motivate you onward. That is not to say every twist and turn is entirely predictable, by no means. Yet, where the game shines brightest is the world itself, along with the battle system.
The world of Dragon Quest XI is vast, and beautiful, and teeming with interesting enemies. While some designs do repeat, this does not happen often, which is fairly impressive. Even more so, each new encounter offers the excitement of discovering new types of enemy attacks. Combat is never a lazy affair. Particularly after your levels rise to a certain degree, you will find that using your character’s unique attacks with proper planning actually makes a difference.
The game rewards you for grinding. Leveling up happens fairly quickly, but even as you begin to notice certain enemies no longer pose much of a challenge, you will run into new enemies that will quickly reignite the thrill of battle. This combination of quick reward with a healthy difficulty curve makes you feel powerful, but never leaves you without a challenge.
Exploration is rewarding. The world’s nooks and crannies are stuffed with treasure, crafting supplies, and other items. Wandering from the beaten path is encouraged and often worth the extra trek. But, perhaps, the thing that wraps all this up in a nice little very satisfying bow is the ability to not only craft, but improve weapons, armor and other accessories.
Crafting in Dragon Quest XI is, to some degree, an optional affair as regular leveling and buying supplies at shops should get you through. But, the ability to improve items pulls at my completionist heartstrings like no other in the game. Using the little mobile forge the game gives you for use at campsites, you can implement your skill to create new items such as armor, hats, weapons, and other accessories. And there is actual skill involved if you want the very best version of each. You can also use the forge to make existing items better. This feature led me to having a long-term goal of creating the very best of every item for each of my characters. A silly and perhaps perfectionist goal you might say. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than wiping out enemies knowing, at least in part, my victory was due to my own patience and skill and not just gold coins and running into the right shop owner.
Like its predecessors, Dragon Quest XI is quirky in the very best meaning if the word. From a talking cow with the uncanny ability to accurately predict the weather, to a town where everyone speaks in haiku, the world is teaming with creativity. The people you run across are often delightfully theatrical. Sure, character models are reused a little too often, and you will have many conversations that serve no real purpose, but the world feels vibrant and stimulating and you will find yourself looking forward to seeing the next destination.
There are times playing through the game where it did feel a little overly linear and, perhaps even, a little dated. The story and even your literal path leave little room for deviating. Along with a useful but sort of awkward jump mechanic and a not-so-time-efficient way to sort your inventory, Dragon Quest XI can sometimes highlight the ghosts of RPGs past that are noticeably absent from many newer RPGs.
However, there is an old saying: if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, and Dragon Question XI demonstrates a bold embrace of the past. Not only does it reference prior installments, but you will notice a little familiar sound effect when entering or exiting areas that rings back to the 16-bit era. It is, to say the least, proudly old-school with just enough new to keep it from feeling outdated.
There is one new addition I wish had been used to greater effect. At a fairly early point in the game you can take over the armor or steeds of monsters surrounded by a sparkling gold aura. Utilizing their unique skills, you can gain access to areas otherwise unreachable for you. There you will find a reward in the form of treasure. Unfortunately, these moments are incredibly limited, usually to only very small sections. For example, in one dungeon I took over a skeletal steed with the ability to climb walls. Well, one wall in particular as indicated by similar monstrous handprints. While this is a neat addition, I wish this had been utilized more, giving me alternate paths through the dungeon or allowing for the use of the monster’s skills during battle.
Dragon Quest XI is a reminder of everything that made classic RPGs so memorable. In many ways, the series’ past still holds heavy sway on the present iteration. However, what a delight it is to step into that warm and inviting glow of nostalgia. New elements add a little spark of modernity to this blast from the past. In the end, the vibrancy of the world, the complexities of battle, the joy of forging and perfecting your own weapons and armor, and the series’ delight in the strange and silly juxtaposed with the seriousness of saving the world, makes Dragon Quest XI a great new addition to the classic series.