Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age Review

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.

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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.

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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.

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NieR: Automata Review

For the Glory of Mankind.

Developer: Platinum Games

Publisher: Square Enix

Reviewed for: PS4 Pro

Played: Around 35 hours, receiving endings A, B, C, D, and E, along with some post game cleanup.

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NieR: Automata is something unique in a landscape of games attempting to follow popular trends and genre norms. Much like the robotic foes you spend most of your time slicing through, Automata has been pieced together from the cast off mechanics of genres that we have come to know and love, and even those that are probably better off left by the wayside. This fusion of satisfying play styles is held together by a narrative penned by auteur game designer Yoko Tarō, and while not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, NieR: Automata is an unforgettable experience that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled on any of its many, many different endings.

Taking place in the far distant future, Automata tells the story of three androids fighting a proxy war on a ravaged Earth, seeking to reclaim it from the machines occupying it. The human survivors of this robotic apocalypse sought refuge on the moon, where they have developed elite android combat units known as YorHa. These soldiers are the eyes through which the world of Automata is seen, and through which concepts like duty, emotion and individualism are explored by the player.

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The protagonist, at least initially, is 2B. A front-line unit designed to be the perfect soldier, 2B’s journey is one of exploration, as she discover’s there is more to the machines on earth than humanity’s leadership would have her believe. Accompanying her, and arguably the true protagonist of the game, is 9S. A scanner model, 9S is the emotional link to the games narrative, and has the strongest and most effective arc by far, once all is said and done. Finally, we have A2, an outdated model turned traitor to her YorHa brethren. A2 is a little one note, and really only present for the back third of the game, but her unique mechanics are a welcome change to Automata’s combat system, especially after some of 9S’s slower segments.

One of the games major supporting characters is Pascal, a pacifist, sentient machine that has a surprisingly large role to play, even if the majority of it is spent doling out fetch quests to pad out some of the middle sections of the game. I wish Pascal was a little more interesting, but like virtually every other character you will meet, there is very little actual growth. Most end up being one note, and rather flat. This is a shame, because Nier; Automata is well written, and the world these flat, one note characters inhabit is intriguing and full of mystery.

And before we get to the thing’s NieR gets right, we do have to talk about NieR’s greatest sin. The large, semi open areas that the majority of the game takes place in are unfortunately quite boring. While there are some beautiful vistas to behold, the world is sparse, which I suppose could be intentional, as it certainly feels desolate. Unfortunately, they aren’t very exciting to explore, and are for the most part quite straight forward. While there are some locked doors that cant be accessed until later playthroughs, most of the loot found hidden off the beaten path is fairly trivial, as the materials required for upgrading weapons is dropped by enemies fairly generously. I could forgive a lot of the above, if you didn’t have to travel back to each of these bland environments so many times. For example, the factory that the opening hour of the game takes place in, has to be revisited five times throughout the course of the game as part of the critical path. It isn’t that interesting to begin with, and that’s not even including the multiple times you need to return there as part of various side quests.

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Where Automata truly shines though, is in its combat. Developed by Platinum Games, hardened veterans of the action-rpg genre, the combat is lightning fast and deeply satisfying. Playing as 2B, you are able to dual-wield any weapon in the game, of which there are dozens across four categories. For example, say you had a sword equipped to your first slot, and a spear in the second, each weapon has its own string of attack’s and can be combined fluidly with the other at any point. Further, each weapon has a differing move set, depending on which slot it is equipped to. So, a spear in slot one has a wider, more sweeping move set when compared to a spear in slot two, that consists of stabs and thrusts. Further, each weapon can be upgraded multiple times, each time adding more attacks to the combo chain and providing additional benefits, such as extra damage while at full health. There is nothing stopping you from equipping two spears either, to become a whirling dervish of death.

Each android is also accompanied by a pod, a little helper drone that supports you in battle and acts as a kind of robotic commentator to everything you do. By holding down the appropriate button, your pod will unleash a barrage of laser fire, functioning as your basic ranged attack. There are different types of pod, all upgradeable, with different methods of attack, but I found the starting unit to be the most effective. Your pod can also be equipped with various programs, that function as special attacks. Again, the default is a powerful ranged blast attack, and I found myself using it for the majority of the game. Embarrassingly, I assumed that the limited selection at shops were all the programs available. It wasn’t until I was about to complete the game I discovered exotic programs like a grappling hook that could be used in combat, or a gravity bomb that could be used to set up groups of enemies for devastating AOE’s.

Your android can be upgraded by attaching what are known as Plug-In Chips, which can be bought and are frequently dropped by enemies. These function as Automata’s upgrade system, and it is incredibly robust once fully unlocked. Like any machine, YorHa units have limited memory, and can only equip a certain number of upgrades. Once all of these upgrades have been purchased, you will have a lot of options to play around with, and you really can create a unique build or playstyle. For example, I built 2B as a real glass cannon, with multiple attack and speed upgrades, but also several chips that would not only heal me for every machine I destroyed, but also every time I even hit one. This translated into an ultra aggressive play style where I was constantly on the offensive, and the game felt more akin to something like Bloodborne. Conversely, playing as 9S, all of my chips buffed his unique hacking skill, his movement speed and his pods ranged attack, which felt like playing a ranged caster in other games.

And we should talk about the music, which is uniformly incredible. I think the highest praise I can give it, is that I listen to it out loud in my apartment when I’m working. I’m listening to it as I write this in fact. The soundtrack to NieR; Automata is, much like the game itself, loud, bombastic, epic and deeply weird. Whether its one of the booming orchestral epics that accompany boss fights, with melodic Gregorian chants that make you believe you might be fighting God himself, or any of the more stripped back tunes that you might hear in the Resistance Camp or in Pascal’s Village, the OST is fantastic, and one of the games greatest strengths.

Another strength, although not as consistent, is the games emphasis on differing game styles to mix thing’s up. You might be exploring an open three dimensional space, and upon entering a hallway the perspective will shift to that of a two dimensional sidescroller or platformer, not unlike Mario. Of course, you can still be laying down constant fire with your pod, which makes these segments reminiscent of sidescrolling shooter like the Metal Slug series. 9S has a hacking mechanic that plays out like a top down shooter, and while used in interesting ways, can become a little tiring with repeated use. Even the most mundane fights in an open area can end up feeling like a third person shooter, as the weight of enemy fire that you are forced to dodge can feel like area-denial attacks. Boss fights especially can come to resemble games from the bullet hell genre, and are truly intense in the latter stages of the game. And of course there are the flight suit segments, that play like Ikaruga or Space Invaders, with you vanquishing wave after wave of enemie fighters. A personal favorite section of mine featured a full motion FMV battle taking place in the background while you fight off enemy aircraft in the foreground, strangely reminiscent of the Battle of the Garden’s in Final Fantasy VIII, to date one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a game.

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In this way, NieR: Automata truly keeps you guessing. It’s a weird beast, that you cant ever truly pin down. It constantly bombards you with ever shifting gameplay styles, keeping you on the back foot, fighting through by the skin of your teeth. Then it might deliver a quieter moment in the form of philosophical monologue on the nature of self determinism straight from the mouth of a strange looking robot. There is the childlike sense of humor present throughout the game, with gags that sometime work, but always succeed in selling this world as alien and unfathomable. And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the games insistent sexualisation of 2B to an uncomfortable degree, with the camera angle always gently trying to peek under her skirt. But aside from that last part, every aspect comes together in a way that just works. This game should be a mess of confused ideas and concepts, but aside from some pacing issues in the middle and a few too many fetch quests, the game as a whole comes together in a big way.

One of the best JRPG’s of the modern era, NieR: Automota is a flawed masterpiece that has to be experienced to be believed. It’s fantastic soundtrack complements its brilliant combat system perfectly, and guides you down the rabbit hole of its desperately compelling narrative. Yoko Taro and Platinum Games have crafted something truly unique, and like 9S and 2B themselves, complement each others strengths while masking their weakness’s. In a landscape full of sequels and stale ideas, Automata has taken something from virtually every genre that has come before, and in doing so, it feel’s like they have created something that defies definition.

Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood Hype

I cant wait to return to Eorzea! My history with Final Fantasy is admittedly somewhat limited. On the PS4 I spent a blissful month playing through the base storyline of A Realm Reborn as a Lancer ,and later as a Dragoon. And while I eventually reached Heavensward content, and began my journey through Ishgard, life happened (or more likely other games grabbed my attention) and my subscription lapsed.

I’ve often thought of returning, but I suppose I just lacked the motivation. With the release of the upcoming expansion, Stormblood, that motivation has returned.

But I find myself in a unique position. While I played through ARR on PS4, I want to play on my gaming laptop, because A) It’s a beast and will look and play better than the PS4 version and B) the portability factor, as I travel a fair bit and would love to play XIV on the go.

And so we come to the controversial topic of jump potions. I will be using them, as I have played through ARR and don’t want to force myself to play through ALL of that content again. I think I will play through Heavensward though, as I missed that and agree with the majority of XIV fans that the entire point of this MMO is its story focus…

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But now I can play as a Samurai! I know, real original right? Rather than grinding Palace of the Dead to reach level 60, I will play through the Heavensward content as this new DPS class. I’m playing around with the idea of Twitch streaming this, maybe for new players who are jumping right into Stormblood, but want to see some Heavensward content.

So to do this, I have pre-purchased Stormblood on Steam and created a new character for this purpose. His name is William Adams (a little historical samurai reference that I was pleasantly surprised no one had taken), and I’m on Tonberry, with my fellow Australians.

So I’ll be jumping ARR, and boosting a Dark Knight to level 60. That will allow me access to the samurai trainer, and also let me play another new class (at least, new for me), while simultaneously avoiding the horrific DPS Duty Finder queue that will inevitably happen once everyone and their mothers start levelling Samurai and Red Mage.

So what do you think of my plan? Any tips for a newish player, or advice from any veterans? WordPress seems to have a vibrant XIV community and I look forward to hearing/playing with you all!

Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood releases on the 20th June, 2017, with early access beginning on the 16th.