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A Solid Game Held Back By Tradition

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    Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age

    Rating: 3.0 – Fair

    A Solid Game Held Back By Tradition

    It took me a long time to figure out what my biggest problem with Dragon Quest 11 was.

    It was definitely not the gameplay. As someone whose favorite retro-era game was Dragon Warrior 7, I was quite used to the various systems and mechanics that have been in the series for years. Turn based combat is something I’ve always enjoyed since my first Final Fantasy game and Dragon Quest in particular has a brisk pace, quick animations, and the ability to essentially avoid random encounters whenever you’d like.

    It was also not the art style. Dragon Quest is a fantastic looking game. The characters are unique, the towns all have a distinct visual style, and the environments never got boring or repetitive. The series mainstay monsters have never looked better, and the world is vibrant and colorful every step of the journey, even when you’re doing something as mundane as traveling through a crypt.

    It was most definitely not the story. None of the Dragon Series stories have ever been terribly complicated, and Dragon Quest 11 does an adequate job of telling a broad, sweeping narrative about a vibrant group of characters from varied backgrounds joining forces to save the world and defeat a Demon King. There are a couple of major story twists that keep things interesting, and the various problems each town has along with the personal problems your party brings to the table keeps the journey fun and interesting, even if the Demon King himself is ‘uninspired’ to put it generously and never seems to gain a motivation beyond wanting to destroy the world.

    None of the characters rubbed me the wrong way either. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this is one of the best casts the Dragon Quest series has ever brought together. On the surface they fall into archetypes such as the ‘scoundrel’, ‘healer’, and ‘mage’, but while they play into these archetypes, they also show just how much there is to explore within them. Each of them has a story to tell throughout the game that shapes their character and personality, and all of them experience growth and development in emotionally satisfying ways.

    There were plenty of things I could nitpick about the game to be sure. The ‘Big Bad’ was a lazy villain, the combat could be a bit of a crapshoot if you don’t know what elements or status effects you need to prepare for, the license board system that they use makes progression seem incredibly slow at times, one particular ‘side quest’ made me wonder if a character got brainwashed against their will, and the game goes from a very linear story progression to a complete open world free-for-all in the final quarter with almost nothing in between. I could list several dozen more, but none of these things truly affected my enjoyment of the game, and it took me a good long while to figure out what was really bothering me.

    Ultimately, my biggest problem with Dragon Quest 11 is the protagonist.

    The ‘Hero’ of this game is someone that you name yourself, and he’s a silent protagonist in every sense of the word. He never talks beyond the very occasional ‘Yes or No’ responses (most of which don’t even matter) and he never gives off any emotion beyond a general sense of determination and stoicism. He comes from a simple background in a backwater village who gets called to his hero’s journey via a glowing mark on his hand that activates during a moment of desperation, and spends the next hundred-odd hours mutely nodding at things and occasionally managing something resembling a smile.

    This is nothing new for the Dragon Quest series. Silent protagonists have been the norm since the series began, and having played many of those past entries, the trope has never really annoyed me in the past, yet something was different this time. Something had changed. More particularly, everything had changed, except the hero himself.

    Towns which were once simple hubs for bits and pieces of story and equipment are now fully fleshed out with their own cultures, unique problems, and questionable accents. Rarely will you find a place that doesn’t have some memorable event or fun character, and yet your ‘Hero’ can’t interact with any of them.

    Companions that were once no more complex than a background and general personality are now complicated people with emotional struggles, personal problems, and subtle flaws that they need to overcome, and yet the ‘Hero’ can’t help or assist any of them with their emotional burdens.

    The Demon King is an over-the-top evil entity that hounds you almost every step of your journey in an effort to strike you down, but when the time comes to finally confront him, the only thing your ‘Hero’ has to give him is a determined nod.

    One can definitely make the case that the whole point of a silent protagonist is that the player is supposed to put themselves in their shoes and ‘become’ them in a sense, and while there is merit to that argument, nothing in Dragon Quest 11 lets the Hero affect the people around him in any meaningful way. When one of my companions was feeling antsy, evasive, and unnerved, I wanted to help them, but I couldn’t. When another of my companions was feeling anxious and overwhelmed at the prospect of a long overdue reunion, I wanted to reassure and encourage them, but I couldn’t.

    Being the Silent Protagonist in Dragon Quest 11 isn’t so much about placing yourself in the hero’s shoes as it is being placed inside a glass box that you can only uselessly beat your fists against while the story and character dramas play out around you. Characters don’t talk with you, they talk at you. The game wants you to bond with your companions, but never provides any opportunity beyond a strictly surface level.

    There is only one point in the entire 100+ hour game where the hero takes something resembling initiative of his own accord, and it’s a pivotal emotional moment where every one of your companions stands in your way to refute your choice. Had the ‘Hero’ ever had a chance to speak with, bond with, or really even interact with them, it would have been a game-defining heart-wrenching moment, but all the emotional impact it could have had was lost on a character that couldn’t show emotion.

    To make things clear, I don’t have anything against silent protagonists. Link, in almost all of the Zelda games, pulls it off brilliantly, especially in Wind Waker. Unfortunately, the Hero in Dragon Quest 11 doesn’t have the expressiveness of Link or anywhere near the level of animation in his character, nor does he have the ability to affect the world or his companions with decisions.

    In conclusion, Dragon Quest 11 was an enjoyable experience held back by a tired and dated Silent Protagonist trope that stunted the emotional impact it was trying to build. Well polished game mechanics, a pleasing art design, and an intriguing story were enough to keep me invested in the game all the way to a platinum trophy, but it didn’t leave me feeling any particularly strong emotions by the end of it, aside from a growing sense of frustration.

    If you’ve liked the previous entries in the series and you want more of the same, that’s exactly what you’ll get. If you like the series but have been hoping it would evolve or grow into something better, then you’ll likely end up as frustrated as me, seeing them get close to the goal but ultimately fall short. If you’re new to the series and you’re thinking about making the leap while also generally enjoying JRPGs, Dragon Quest 11 isn’t a bad investment, but it’s unlikely to sell you on the series or the genre as a whole.

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