Monday, September 24, 2018

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age Review

Dragon Quest XI is a return to form for the long running RPG series. The DQVII and VIII remakes on 3DS were traditional Dragon Quest games, but DQIX and X were very experimental, to say the least. DQIX had a big focus on DLC, quests, and multiplayer, and DQX was a full-fledged MMO. DQXI feels more like a followup to the recent DQVIII 3DS remake than a followup to DQIX. I, like many other people who don’t live in Japan, have never played DQX, so I can’t compare it to that, but DQXI feels like a game that’s putting all the lessons learned from DQVIII, IX, and the 3DS remakes to use, while still making a very traditional, old-school RPG.

The main story of DQXI starts out a bit generic, but it gets a lot better in the second and third acts. Act 1 is kind of a mishmash of sword and sorcery cliches and Dragon Quest traditions. A lot of it will probably sound very familiar to anyone who has played previous games or watched stuff like Game of Thrones. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s well done, but it’s just predictable. Things start to pick up as more characters join your party and you get closer to act 2, though. There's some interesting twists and a lot of references to ancient Dragon Quest lore that really spice things up. Those who have played DQIII will probably get a lot more out of it than I did, but even with my limited knowledge of it, I picked up on a lot of the references and was able to understand what the game was going for.

Where Dragon Quest XI's story really shines is in the individual town scenarios. Every town has its own story which ties into the overarching one in some way. It’s a lot like an anime in which traveling heroes get into new adventures in every town they visit. The scenarios in each town are mostly inspired by classic stories and have a moral or lesson to be learned from them. A lot of them might sound familiar, but the way they are integrated into this world is always interesting, and the characters are memorable. For example, there's a weird take on Romeo and Juliet involving a mermaid and a fisherman, which seems to have touched a lot of people. They don't all have happy endings. The voice acting of the minor characters is usually pretty good, and the quests you get in each town make sense within the context of where the town is and what is going on in it.

All of your party members also have great introductions and origin stories. This isn't one of those RPGs in which people join you and then go hang out at the base and you never see them unless you put them in your party. All the characters are with you at all times and show up in the cutscenes and chime in whenever they need to. Every character has a big introduction quest and then a follow up origin story or quest that reveals more about their motivations later on in the game. There isn't a single lame character here. They all feel like they matter.

What makes this DQ stand out to me is how modern it feels. Dragon Quest XI is the most accessible the series has ever been. This isn’t the old-fashioned, clunky UI, grindy, NES DQ some people still think of when they hear the name. A lot of the things the game does for the sake of playability are things that have been in the series for a long time or started being put into the series with VIII, IX, and the 3DS remakes, but they are worth mentioning, because they add up, and make the game easy and intuitive to play.

Outside of when sailing on the ship, there are no random encounters in DQXI. Like in DQVIII on 3DS, you can see monsters in the field. They will agro and run after you if you’re at around their level or lower, and run away from you if you out-level them. You can also get a preemptive attack on them in the field, a la Paper Mario. Making your way through a dungeon doesn’t feel like an endless gauntlet of battles, because you can avoid most enemies. Fighting regular monsters almost feels optional. I made it through most dungeons only fighting a handful of battles, including the boss. You still need to battle, because you need to level up, and you need money to buy new gear, but the game doesn't feel grindy. I never had to stop playing the story to level up. At least not until the very end of the game. Those late game bosses will wipe your party in 1 turn if you are not prepared.

The game is really good about telling you what you should be doing to progress in the story, without nagging you like Navi, or funneling you down a path like Pokemon. Every zone has a full map with quest givers and story-related NPCs marked on it. These NPCs also have purple or pink chat bubbles over their head, and they're also marked on the minimap, so you can't miss them. There’s also always a little blurb on the map screen reminding you of where you should be going to progress the story. You still have the option to explore, but you should never feel lost.

The UI is also easier to understand and faster to navigate than in previous games. I don’t have to go from the menu to “Misc” and then click on “Heal All” anymore. I can just pull up my menu and press a button to automatically revive, remove status effects, and heal everyone while only using the minimal amount of MP. I don't have to have gear in a specific character's inventory to equip it on them either.

The battle system is more responsive and intuitive than ever. You no longer choose a bunch of commands for your party, watch them attack, then watch the enemy attack, and repeat. Your stats determine when and how often you attack now. Your characters also perform their attacks as soon as you input them. You’re no longer choosing your whole party’s actions at once and then sitting back to watch what happens. This makes battling a lot more fun and exciting. You can also switch characters in and out of your main party right before a battle, and even during a battle, with a 1 action penalty. Your party is also automatically replaced by your benched characters if you wipe, which is kind of like having 2 lives.

DQXI also introduces Pep abilities. They’re kind of like a cross between Chrono Trigger’s Techs and Final Fantasy VII’s Limit Breaks. Each character has a hidden meter that fills as battles go on, and when they fill up, they “Pep up”. While Pepped up, their stats get a temporary boost and they can do a variety of special moves. You can keep battling normally and just take advantage of the stat boost or do the special move. If you have 2-4 characters Pepped up at the same time, you can use team Pep abilities using up to all 4 of the active characters. There’s attack Pep abilities, heals, stat boosts, and even weird moves that increase loot and experience points, or even replace all the monsters with Metal Slimes. Every Pep ability gets a unique animation, and they get more and more elaborate depending on how many characters are involved in the move.

There’s a lot of strategy involved in DQXI boss battles. The first few are just DPS and healing checks, but they get a lot more complex as the game goes on. A lot of boss battles are designed around specific status effects, so you’ll have to prepare with the right accessories, consumable items, and team makeups to beat them. Leveling up isn’t the answer to everything.

Dragon Quest XI has a gigantic, 100+ hour, 3 part main quest. It’s basically a trilogy onto itself. And if that's not enough for you, it also has a bunch sidequests and minigames. Every town has a handful of quests for you. None of them are as annoying as some of the ones in DQIX, but they’re in that sort of MMO style. Some will have you killing a specific monster for a drop, some have you exploring to find an item, and some are more closely tied to the story of the town. The casino is also back for this game, with roulette, poker, and slot machines. There’s also a sort of F-Zero-like horse racing game with 5 tracks, which was a lot more fun than I was expecting. And of course, the game is full of Mini Medals to hunt, so you’ll want to smash every pot and explore every nook and cranny in every area. All these quests and minigames offer a bunch of nice rewards including gold, Mini Medals, weapons, items, and crafting recipes.

Yes, there’s crafting in this game, too. Some of the best gear and coolest costumes are only available through crafting. You forge everything in a blacksmithing minigame called the Fun-Sized Forge. It’s pretty unpredictable, unfair, and not a lot of fun, but it’s not very punishing. You can completely fail at it and still get a perfectly usable, normal item. Doing well in the minigame just gives the items a +1, +2, or +3 stat boost.

I love pretty much everything about the graphics in this game. The monster battle animations are great, as usual for DQ. Every town has its own unique architecture and color scheme inspired by fictional and real-world locations. There’s a little Hawaiian style village on an island, the Puerto Vallarta inspired beachside town of Puerto Valor, the Venice inspired Gondola, and an Ironforge/Erebor-like city built on the side of a mountain where there are no Dwarves, among others. There's even a place that will look very familiar to DBZ fans. No two towns are alike. Pretty much every kind of environment imaginable is in the game. Deserts, rain forests, swamps, snow covered forests, the inside of a volcano, you name it. The textures in the game are incredibly detailed. You can see the fibers in the cloth textures on all the characters. It’s a bit like seeing the stitches in the denim on Mario's clothes in newer games. You don’t expect to see detail like that on Akira Toriyama style characters. That’s the weird thing about the graphics. The characters have a black toon outline and are modeled like Toriyama characters (like in Dragon Ball Z), but besides that, the game is not very cartoony at all. It's not cel shaded. Everything is textured and lit in a realistic style. It doesn’t look like an Akira Toriyama anime, like Dragon Ball FighterZ. It doesn’t look like the old Famicom Dragon Quest covers, or a current gen DQVIII. It’s a great looking game, but this is not the style I would have chosen for the graphics.

One disappointing aspect of this game is the music. There are only a few orchestrated tracks in the game, and they’re in the intro and endings. The audio quality of the rest of the soundtrack is fine. It sounds like MIDI music in any other game. People expect more from a big AAA Square-Enix RPG, though. It turns out that the composer, Koichi Sugiyama, didn’t want to put orchestrated music in the game, because he wants fans to buy albums and concert tickets. The actual composition of the music isn’t anything special either. A lot of the soundtrack is music from old games, and the new stuff sounds like music trying to sound like music from the old games. The classic songs are good, and there’s some good tracks among the new ones, but a lot of it just feels phoned in. It's like they think they can play anything with this instrumentation and fans will think it's great.

I don’t have much nostalgia for NES Dragon Quest. I remember seeing the DQIII Famicom boxart with the Toriyama artwork in Nintendo Power and falling in love with the character designs, but the first DQ game I ever played was the remake of DQVI on DS. Before DQXI, I had only played through 4-6 and 9 on DS, and I liked them, but I didn’t love them. I love DQXI. This game made me a much bigger DQ fan. It’s not a groundbreaking game, but all the little things add up. The quality of life improvements, voice acting, great story, endearing characters, exciting battle system, fun costumes, and amazing graphics make this one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. It's right up there with Chrono Trigger and Skies of Arcadia for me. I can’t wait to see what’s next for the series.