For the uninitiated, the Dragon Quest series can seem like a daunting prospect. As venerable and well respected as that other giant of the JRPG genre, the Final Fantasy series, the Dragon Quest games quite literally laid the template that developers still follow to this day. But where Final Fantasy titles reinvent the wheel with each iteration, Dragon Quest refines it’s core conceit, evoking a nostalgia in long time fans in a way other games rarely do. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age has a simple design mantra… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Traditional, perhaps to a fault, DQXI recalls a bygone era. An era where heroes were silent and destined to save the world. It is a tale that you have probably heard before, but it’s not in the telling that it succeeds, but in the execution of its seemingly simplistic mechanics, unbelievably charming characters and beautifully realized landscapes. Everyone, from the companions that aid you in your journey, to the foes that oppose you, down to the descriptions of the items you find, are crafted with love, care and a fiendish attention to detail
You play the role of The Luminary, a legendary figure in the world of Erdrea, who is destined to defeat the Dark One. Born to the king and queen of Dundrasil, our hero still only an infant at the time, is one of only several to survive the complete devastation of the kingdom as an army of monsters raze it to the ground. Taken in by some kindly villagers that raise him as their own, a big part of the Luminary’s journey is discovering who his family were and what his role will be in a world beset on all sides.
You are joined on this journey by what just might be one of the most colorful and likable cast of characters ever seen in a JRPG. Of course each character is given time in the spotlight, and considerable time is spent explaining each’s motivations for aiding the Luminary, which I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say, that with the protagonist being of the silent persuasion, your companions do the bulk of the narrative lifting, and its through their eyes that we really see the world.
Each is much more than just an archetype, Erik for example seems at first to be a standard rogue type character, from both a gameplay and narrative standpoint. But while certainly roguish, he is plagued by doubt and indecision. He can be built to deal insane damage and apply all kinds of nasty status effects to foes, or more of an AOE damage dealer by specializing in boomerangs.
The twins Veronica and Serena fill the traditional mage and healer roles respectively. While initially a little bit tropey, Veronica quickly came to be one of my favorite characters due to her spunky nature and explosive damage dealing potential. Serena is perhaps a little underdeveloped, maybe the most of the core cast, but her role as a dedicated healer is virtually essential, at least in the mid to late game. The sisters have a very endearing dynamic to them, and their familial bond is a strong part of their story line throughout.
We must, of course, spend sign some with the incredible, the fabulous, Sylvando. A famous troubadour, Sylvando is initially portrayed as quite mysterious, always evasive about his own past. But he wears his heart on his sleeve, his only goal in life to bring smiles to the people of the world in his own spectacularly flamboyant style. Mechanically he functions as a kind of jack-of-all-trades, able to deal damage and dual wield with swords and knives or deal group damage with whips. He can heal, buff allies and debuff his foes. Truly the star of the show, Sylvando is a standout character and a wonder to behold.
Rounding out the core cast is Rab and Jade, wandering martial artists initially portrayed as antagonists. They are a little harder to talk about without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say they play an important part in the games narrative. Rab is an elderly gentleman, whose role lies somewhere in between Veronica’s and Serena’s – that of a magical damage dealer and healer. He can also dish out some decent damage by dual wielding claws. Jade, meanwhile, is pure physical damage. Playing something of a femme fatale, she is murderous with polearms and brings some much needed physical punch to the group.
The turn-based combat is simple but incredibly satisfying, honed to a razor edge. Your party learn various abilities at certain levels, and can specialize into branching skill trees that are reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid, if a little more streamlined. There is an incredible amount of synergy between the different party members, and you really can find success with any combination. Further complicating things is the Pep system – each turn, there is a certain chance one of your party will become “pepped up”, a state in which they can do increased damage, or have a higher healing ability or dodge chance, depending on the character. This lasts for a few turns, or can be spent by unleashing cinematic pep powers. The cool thing about this is that, like Chrono Trigger before it, if multiple characters are pepped up, you can unleash very specific full party combos that can have a variety of uses, and are glorious to behold.
But what’s a good role playing game without some great loot? DQXI features an interactive forging system that I found myself addicted to, in which you need to use very specific strikes to forge items in a mini game that is surprisingly in depth. While min-maxer’s will obsess over forging the perfect equipment, its nice that even if you fail, you still receive the item at a base level, and your carefully horded ingredients don’t go to waste.
These ingredients are found out in the wild and dropped by the games horde of delightful foes, each more ridiculous than the last. I fell in love with Akira Toriyama’s monster design, I’ve long been a fan of his work and this is some of his best. It’s incredible to me that a turn-based game can be so comedic on a mechanical level. Bad guys might fall asleep, get distracted or fall in love with your party, all animated with loving detail. The boss fights too are fantastic, and there are a lot of them. This is a big game, with hundreds of enemies and dozens of areas and hours upon hours of dialogue. Each townsperson has something to say, and often something new to say after each story beat.
While not an open world game per se, there are parts of Dragon Quest that feel quite open. Generally you will enter an area, get some story beats, and then be let loose to accomplish some grand endeavor. The areas, while somewhat empty, are large and have multiple layers to them. They are filled with secrets and enemies to do battle with, but can be quite a task to walk across, and thankfully you are given several different modes of transport as you progress through the game. All are colorful and varied, and really add to the sense of a large, inhabited world.
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is a triumph of classic game design in the modern era. Few series today can boast of such a successful lineage and still put out games of such high quality. Even if you didn’t grow up playing these kinds of games, DQXI succeeds in its accessibility, and if anything will make you a fan of the genre, it is this game. Likewise, it appeals to hardcore fans of the series with its wealth of content and homages to prior titles, and is a high water mark in gaming worthy of your time. Plus, it has given us the magnificent Sylvando, and for that alone I’m grateful.