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The Slime of my life.

Dragon Quest XI is a distilled, energetic, mathematically elegant epic that takes what I love most about traditional dungeon crawlers and masterfully iterates on the formula. On the surface, Dragon Quest XI seems to be a simple return to the single-player RPG format, after deviating into MMO territory for Dragon Quest X. But that simplicity is a purposefully-crafted facade that melts away after a little time in the immense, complex world. Dragon Quest isn’t simple… it’s pure. I’ve been plugging away in Dragon Quest XI’s sprawling environments for well over 65 hours and I just want to keep going.

Check out a large chunk of the latest Dragon Quest XI footage from last week at Gamescom 2018 above.

Dragon Quest XI battles prove that turn-based battles can be absolutely nail-biting. Combat is snappy, tactically satisfying, and full of surprises. The vast menagerie of monsters presents unique challenges in every fight, and I found myself eagerly rushing toward new types of enemies just to see what new twists they threw my way. Boss battles get downright tense, and my entire party was wiped out more than once, though never often enough to feel frustrating.

With the exception of a few stints on the high seas, there are no random encounters in Dragon Quest XI. Every enemy is lavishly depicted in the open world, and the Akira Toriyama-designed monsters spring to life with gorgeously fluid animations on my stock PS4. The best parts of Dragon Quest are the moments where I’m battling the wonderful beasties. There are hundreds of the suckers, and while some are simple color variations, their abilities change up enough to keep things tense and surprising. It was also easy to evade foes I didn’t feel like fighting thanks to a visual indicator and alarm that sounded when I got too close. Weaker groups of enemies fled when they saw me, which made me feel powerful and also kept me from stumbling into time-wasting encounters with monsters well below my level.

This monster was having a great day and then this happened.

I appreciated the return of the powerful Zoom spell which allowed me to move between locations at my leisure, but I often choose to ride my speedy horse, take in the scenery, fight some monsters, and hunt for crafting resources. I had a blast on horseback bowling over monsters who bounced of my thundering hooves like rubbery tennis balls. Less fun but more useful were monster mounts I captured after winning battles with riders which I could use to scale sheer walls, leap over obstacles, and fly through the air. None of these could be used outside of pre-defined areas, but I enjoyed using their special abilities to root out hidden treasures.

Dragon Quest XI is really just one vast, beautiful treasure-stuffed dungeon stretching off near-endlessly in every direction, all set against a stirring orchestral backdrop. One of Dragon Quest XI’s true joys is the sheer magnitude of useful gear scattered around waiting to be discovered. Odds were that if I spotted an out-of-the-way corner, there was useful loot concealed nearby. My curiosity was generously and consistently rewarded.

dragon-quest-xi-echoes-of-an-elusive-age-screen-04-ps4-us-16mar18

There’s always something awesome behind a waterfall.

Many of these hidden items were rare crafting materials and recipes I could weave together into an array of powerful equipment. The crafting element of Dragon Quest XI starts out beguilingly simple, but as I leveled up, the forging minigames grew complex and engaging, yet crafting remained entirely optional. I could have just sold all my valuable crafting discoveries to purchase equipment in shops good enough to get the job done, but crafting was fun, and it allowed me to indulge my perfectionist personality, absolutely maximizing the stats of every character.

The voice work in Dragon Quest XI generally high quality, but I chose early on to mute character dialogue in favor of subtitles. I prefer to speed through conversations in any RPG I play, but in this case, the liberal application of accents was distracting.

The text localization is excellent, with the most impressive collection of clever English puns I’ve ever encountered in a translated video game. A town where residents spoke in haiku was an especially impressive feat of creativity. But while townspeople have a lot to say, very little of it is vital, so I wasted little time getting back to stabbing and searching.

-vH4biow

DQ11’s characters were designed by Akira Toriyama, creator of Dragon Ball.

For long-time Dragon Quest fans, there’s plenty to like, with nods and homages to past games scattered all over the landscape. Mini medals, familiar spells, metal slimes, and sprawling casinos are all back, as well as some other more spoilery winks. But I could have thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Quest without any context from previous games whatsoever. The mash-up of the symphonic instrumental score accompanied by subtle eight-bit sound effects works startlingly well, functioning as more than just a gimmick, but rather a thoughtful, resonant musical connection between past and present.

Dragon Quest XI is a throwback in at least one negative way: It’s uneven story simply isn’t a match for its mechanics. Some of the beats could have been far more engaging with just a little more refinement. I’d also be remiss not to mention some of the cringe-inducing sexualization present in Dragon Quest XI. What does a side quest tasking me to dress up female party members like fetishized bunny girls really add to the Dragon Quest experience?

What does a side quest tasking me to dress up female party members like fetishized bunny girls really add to the Dragon Quest experience?

Dragon Quest’s long tradition of “puff-puff,” a pseudo-sexual metaphor coined by Dragonball creator Akira Toriyama, also returns in Dragon Quest XI. Dragon Quest games have long included semi-lewd puff-puff references as a sort of Easter egg, and Echoes of an Elusive Age leans too heavily into that tradition. At times it’s played for laughs… a cliffside puff-puff turns out to be just some bungee jumping, and another proves nothing more than an innocent makeup application. But one optional encounter really put me off. I was invited into a girl’s dim bedroom where I received a puff-puff in a dim room, and when the lights came back on, her father was standing there. She revealed that he’d delivered the puff-puff in the dark. The consent implications troubled me. I didn’t find it funny.

Dragon Quest XI’s party members are visually distinctive, but I wasn’t especially captivated by their personalities. The silent hero, The Luminary, is a deliberately blank slate. He’s the Chosen One destined to save the world, a fact which Dragon Quest reminded me of A LOT. The rest of the party all experience growth and change as the story progresses, but very little of what happens is a real surprise — though the rote narrative improves considerably in Dragon Quest XI’s second half.

Get a glimpse of all of the characters (and hear their accents) in this new character-focused trailer.

Despite having their own rather bland story arcs, the other party characters become far more interesting when you focus on their stats. Every character’s skill tree advances meaningfully, and each character’s distinctive combat abilities complement the party. And I could shuffle party members in and out mid-battle to adapt to any situation. When things went wrong in battle, I was confident that I could come back stronger or better prepared and try again with little penalty. Dragon Quest XI also nails accessibility by creating a challenging system that also makes allowances for players of any skill level.

The Verdict

Dragon Quest XI excels when it emphasizes fighting bad guys, exploring dungeons, and finding treasure. It’s a visual feast populated by a cast of colorful monsters more engrossing than its main characters. Uneven story beats and some icky bits sometimes slow Dragon Quest down, but superb mechanics remain the focus, making Echoes of an Elusive Age a top-tier JRPG for the modern age.


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