Thoughts on Dragon Quest XI: The First 10 Hours

I have very little exposure to the Dragon Quest series. I first attempted to play Dragon Quest VIII on my PlayStation 2 as a high school student, and while I recall very little of the short experience, I can only assume that something about the mechanics didn’t mesh at the time, resulting in me not being very fond of the game.

Maybe I wasn’t able to gain a good grasp of the combat system or resurrection mechanic within churches, or maybe I wasn’t particularly interested in the story or the characters. Either way, after a fleeting introduction to Dragon Quest VIII, I didn’t know if there was a game that would have given me a stronger impression of the series as a whole. Should I have started with Dragon Quest V, with the marriage options not unlike Fire Emblem? Or Dragon Quest Heroes? Because of that, I assumed that the Dragon Quest would be one of those series that I never got around to experiencing.

So it was a real surprise to hear that Dragon Quest XI is not only very good, but is far and away considered to be the best in the series by many die-hard fans and newcomers alike. After reading a couple of reviews, watching some trailers, and seeing the characters drawn in Akira Toriyama’s signature style, I decided to take the plunge and buy the game. As soon as I got home from Gamestop, I popped the game in and wondered if this would be the entry point I needed to appreciate a series that seems to be well-loved.

I may only be 10 hours into the game so far, but I have to say, I am enjoying it so much! Way more than I expected. One of the first things that caught my attention was how PRETTY this game is. Dragon Quest XI takes full advantage of the PS4 graphics engine, and boy does it show. The environments are colorful and lush, the characters are vibrant and lively, and the game plays extremely smoothly, often seamlessly transitioning from one area into the next.

When I was asked how I was liking the game so far, the first thing I said was, “It’s really pretty.” 10 hours later, that hasn’t changed for me. As I travel through the world of Erdrea, the scenery and environments continue to be stunning, and I often find myself stopping just to take in the view. It’s great.

The second thing that stood out to me following the pretty basic tutorial in Cobblestone was how creative the enemy designs are. Some of them look plain silly, but overall, I find the majority of the wacky designs to be extremely charming, and most importantly, unique. My favorite enemy so far has been these little beauties:

WHAT ARE YOU??? I have so many questions about these little guys.

The combat system is really intuitive and borrows elements from other JRPG’s, and the most notable one that comes to mind for me is Final Fantasy XII. Final Fantasy XII allows the player to set up tactics for their characters to fight automatically, as well as featuring License Boards for the characters to learn new skills and abilities from. Dragon Quest XI operates very much the same way, but the Tactics feature is completely optional. If you want the team to auto fight, they can; but if you want to be in control, you can manually put in the inputs, and switching between the features is an option provided at the start of every single battle. It’s really smart game design, and it’s much appreciated.

The Super Saiyan Blue transformation – I mean the pep mode – is very fun as well. Unlike Final Fantasy IX, when the Trance mode triggers more often than not at the worst possible time (aka the end of the battle, making it one of the few flaws in that game) and is expended until it recharges again, if pep mode is still active when the battle ends, it carries over into the next fight. These are all little design features that don’t really matter, but it’s still great to see a game with old-school mechanics be modern in ways I wasn’t expecting. The combinations of pep mode attacks and boosts feature bombastic animations that have no reason to be there, but range from being epic to hilarious and I love it.

Obvious DBZ references, like this uncanny Kamehameha pose, make the game something of a love letter to Akira Toriyama’s properties as well as his contributions to the series.

While I’m liking the story so far (the early twist(s), while I saw them coming, were still fun to watch unfold), the characters are a large part of why the game has consistently kept me invested and attentive. Hero boy (aka Trunks is what I should have named him, missed opportunity) is fine. As the silent protagonist, not a ton is to be expected from him, but his design is unique, and more interestingly, he’s a jack of all trades in combat. He can heal, cast offensive magic, and hit pretty hard too with swords and great swords in his arsenal. I’ve currently recruited Erik, Veronica, and Serena in my party, and I adore all three of them. Not only is the voice acting across the three of them solid, but the dialogue is funny and characterizes them well.

Erik may be my favorite of the three since he joined the party first and his general sarcasm and demeanor amuses me, but I love Veronica’s spunk (and the fact that her voice sounds natural and not overly squeaky or airy and grating, as tends to be the standard when adults are cast to voice children in JRG’s), and Serena’s lackadaisical introduction was extremely entertaining.

So far, the characters embody basic tropes in conjunction with their job or class, but their personalities are distinct and help avoid standard cliches. I also enjoy that they all have unique roles and abilities in combat that can make boss battles rewarding and exciting to beat. I have no idea if this is the standard of Dragon Quest characters or if Dragon Quest XI has approached its character writing in a different way, but so far, I’m enjoying all of the interactions with my team.

If I have a criticism of this game, it’s the music. I know I’m not the only one, but I didn’t realize how badly spoiled I was by games like Kingdom Hearts, Zelda, The World Ends With You, Persona 5, and Trails of Cold Steel II–all of which have amazing soundtracks–until now. Not only is the music enjoyable both in these game and outside of them, the examples I listed often utilize musical cues and shifts effectively to render emotions with the player. They are as important to building a good cutscene as sweeping and well-placed camera angles are.

Unfortunately, Dragon Quest XI suffers from a lack of diversity in the soundtrack, with borderline generic overworld music persisting throughout cutscenes, and it’s pretty clunky at times. I wish the music was better. I could imagine the game having a fun balance of catchy and epic scores like Final Fantasy IX, or quiet, somber piano solos like in Zelda. I prefer the quieter, sad music, and even the town themes are at least a welcome change from the ever-present overworld theme. But since it’s the only complaint I have, it’s not so bad, and I’ve learned to tune out the more redundant themes throughout my playthrough so far.

Based on these early hours, I couldn’t have asked for a better starting point in the Dragon Quest series. Dragon Quest XI has proven to be a blast so far, with great graphics and characters. I can’t wait to progress through the story, meet the rest of the party members, and immerse myself into a game that isn’t going to feel 80+ hours long when it’s all said and done.

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