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An Homage and an Improvement

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    Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age

    Rating: 4.5 – Outstanding

    An Homage and an Improvement

    From the late 1980’s to now, the formative Dragon Quest franchise has been a turn-based constant, mixing medieval fantasy settings with the charming artwork of Dragonball creator Akira Toriyama. Over the course of eleven mainline games and numerous spinoffs, the series has grown to be a cultural phenomenon in Japan and although it’s had less of an impact in the West, the titles are still recognizable to most gamers— especially to fans of the role-playing genre.

    In many ways the progenitive console RPG series, Dragon Quest has resisted trends in favor of its own through-line; each volume features similar gameplay, settings and stories. Dragon Quest XI doesn’t try to change that, and in-fact, much of the experience serves as a modern homage to the classic structure of its predecessors. For this reason, your personal mileage may vary¡ª Dragon Quest XI isn’t a fast paced or completely innovative game, but rather a quality rendition of a time-honored formula. For this reviewer it is easily the series’ standout game; both a fantastic entry point for newcomers (seriously, start here!) and one of the most significant JRPGs in recent memory.

    Gameplay 5/5

    As with every other Dragon Quest game, we’re looking at a classic turn-based battle system here, with characters gaining attributes and skills as they level up through repeated battling. Equipment, stats, items¡ª I won’t go too much into detail under the assumption that this is at least somewhat familiar to most! We’re able to swap party members in and out, set tactics for party members or control them directly and unleash pep powers this time around, basically team attacks with various effects. In what seems to be a modern trend, Dragon Quest has moved away from random encounters. Instead, we’re treated to monsters visible in the field. I don’t abhor random encounters as much as others seem to, but even I must admit this is a positive improvement. The monsters look quite natural in the world and even interact and group with one another in cute or interesting ways. Battles also feature new camera options, in which you can maneuver characters around the battle zone and freely control the camera. This is a striking addition¡­ although it serves no purpose other than changing the point of view! Still, it’s appreciated because there is plenty to look at— the battlefields are just as intricately detailed as the world map and all your party members can be individually controlled. This can be fun if you have some imagination or want to position characters a certain way. When I know an attack will KO poor little Veronica, I control her and sprint away to no avail¡­

    Outside of battle we have a horse immediately accessible for quick travel around the world map and there are also a few mountable-enemies for some nice variety. There’s plenty to explore through the course of the game; the bucolic country inns, small villages, and architecturally impressive towns are all full of life while the wilderness areas have dramatic scenery and lots of color. You’ll sail and even fly¡ª but you may have expected that, right?

    This time the game has implemented a skill tree for limited customization, each character has two weapon choices and unique traits that harken back to Dragon Quest’s class system, i.e. sage, martial artist, pirate, warrior. Mercifully, unlike DQ XIII we’re allowed to respec and redistribute our characters skillpoints this time. This is an appreciated addition as you can freely experiment with different setups. It works well but unfortunately the customization aspect peters out in the latter half of the game. As your skill trees become more or less filled out, there will be little differentiation between one characters Erik or another’s. There is also the pleasant fun-sized forge, akin to the alchemy pot in DQ VIII, in which you refashion the materials you’ve found on the world map into better equipment. All this is done in a charming camp setting in which you can speak to your party members, who will normally have something amusing to say regarding the plot or just their current thoughts.

    There are other diversions to enjoy as well. Many sidequests are available in which you assist the various citizens of Erdrea in gathering materials, slaying particular monsters or unleashing specific pep powers. Most quests are relatively simple, if not slightly underwhelming, with some rewards certainly more worth it than others. I found the dialogue accompanying these quests to be the biggest draw, providing some humorous moments or a least a little characterization of the world’s NPCs. The largest sidequest, the crossbow challenge, finds you searching for small, hidden targets in each region. For the observant, finding one by chance or intuition is quite satisfying. Finding all of them however is another story, and I imagine most will resort to a guide. There are also the DQ staple casinos which offer a fun and well-designed diversion with cute ¡°slime quest¡± slots as well as video poker, roulette etc.

    Difficulty:

    Played with the normal settings, which I suggest, this game is not difficult. I was only ever wiped out a few times in the main story, until Act 3 in which the difficulty ramps up to strike the absolute perfect balance, with a refreshing level of challenge for certain end game scenarios. Generally, the nice thing about RPGs is they’re less about skill and more about perseverance, and this game gently provides every resource you may need to succeed.

    Story 4/5

    The story’s strongest trait is its likeable cast, each a recasting of some of Dragon Quest’s (and RPG’s in general) well-worn tropes. We have the silent protagonist, our chosen one of course, and in various incarnations a thief, a mage, a priestess, a jester, a martial artist, a sage etc. Instead of being too conventional, these characters are convincing. They’re full of personality, have clear convictions and poignant histories. The interplay between them all is somewhat minimalist but the chemistry is definitely there. The story itself is well-done, in parts both classical (in terms of RPGs) and surprising; it establishes expectations and subverts them. The overall arc of the story is very satisfying, telling a classic heroes’ tale, which is fitting for Dragon Quest’s 30th anniversary. For this reason though, the story may lack somewhat in emotional poignance since it’s just ¡°a chosen one saves the world¡± path. Still, there’s enough subplots, each town having its own plight and defining characters, to keep you invested. There’s a lot of humor in the game also though it’s of a particular brand; akin to Dragonball it’s a shonen-type humor.

    Visuals 5/5

    This may be the game’s highpoint. It’s a truly detailed and colorful world, with a lot of imagination. The option for a first person camera is a delight and I found myself using it all the time to get a closer look at the scenery; flowers, objects strewn about, great character models with well-drawn clothing and expressive faces. The character design is highly stylistic, true to Dragonball creator Akira Toriyama’s style and it’s one I have a definite fondness for. If you don’t care for cartoonish graphics, you’ll probably know if this game is for you after looking at just one or two screenshots. The environments are transportive, with a wide range of scenery in the world and nothing too overwrought. In my opinion, it’s all sensible and tasteful, with a strong emphasis on the pastoral and awe-inspiring beauty of nature in this fantasy world. Monster design is excellent as always, a consistent highlight of the series, featuring mostly cute, cool or silly enemies. The main party is outstanding with very memorable characters, super expressive faces and many smartly designed, interesting costumes.

    Sound 4/5

    Per the series usual the nostalgic sound effects from the 8-bit era are still going strong. We have our spell casting bleep and boops as well as our saving screen hymnal, which remain charming (at least to me). There is, as has been discussed among fans, a somewhat glaring lack of variety in overworld/battle themes and the music that is present is not very distinctive. Still, there’s nothing bad about the music and it does enhance the feel of the gameworld with it’s orchestral, stately sound. The voice acting is absolutely topnotch, with dialects swaying towards cockney English or Italian accented which give each locale a definite color. I believe it may be a high watermark for JRPGs. My one qualm is the music itself can be a little too far forward in the mix¡­ but this can be easily adjusted via settings!

    Overview

    Playtime: Easily 100+ hours

    Replayability: Relatively low¡­you’re likely to stick to your one save file unless you want the added challenge of Draconian difficulty settings, which can only be applied at the game’s onset.

    Final Recommendation:

    As a long-time fan of Dragon Quest, DQ XI is the game I would recommend to newcomers of the series and newcomers to JRPGs in general. While maybe not my personal favorite, I think this is Dragon Quest’s most consistent entry, one that manages to encapsulate and reiterate the charm of what’s come before in a highly effective way.

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