Dragon Quest XI is probably one of the best games to come out this generation that I’ve played, which is no mean feat; the past two or three years have been pretty good to me, gaming-wise, with a lot of stuff I like just falling off the shelves.
I say probably because DQXI is a long game, and the deadline for this post is closer than the ending is. But having logged 40+ hours so far, I feel capable of giving an opinion.
Honestly, part of the excitement of DQXI is just the novelty of playing a traditional, turn-based JRPG made with contemporary, big budget production values, something which is surprisingly rare these days. A lot of the big names in the JRPG world seem to have steadily drifted away from their roots, taking a more action oriented or otherwise western inflected approach. Meanwhile, the titles that haven’t done this have as a rule been more niche, low-budget affairs. Even Dragon Quest itself seemed to have succumbed to this: while VIII was one of the biggest RPGs on the PS2, IX wound up as a portable game and X was an MMO.
XI breaks that trend, bringing the plonky turn-based combat, world-map romping and dungeon crawling back to the big(ger) screen, the way it was meant to be. More than that, it shows that this style of game doesn’t need to feel archaic or outdated if done well.
Of course, Dragon Quest is nevertheless something of an archaism: it’s the most archly-traditional video game franchise, with its core game mechanics not having changed much since the 80s; the aesthetic is still shaped by mangaka Akira Toriyama’s character designs; Koichi Sugiyama’s music is still in a dinky MIDI format; Yuji Horii is still at the helm. A big part of what has made its relentless conservatism succeed is the sizable gap separating individual installments, preventing familiarity from breeding contempt (take note, Disney!), and also using that time wisely to ensure that the end product is as complete and polished as it needs to be (take note, uh, Square-Enix!). Dragon Quest XI is a big game, not merely because it has an undifferentiated manifold of stuff for the player to do, but because it is truly epic in scope and had the time, resources and vision to make it happen.
DQXI is set in the medieval fantasy world of Erdea and centered around that most hoariest of fantasy cliches: the Hero is the chosen one, the reincarnation of the Luminary, and has to leave his hometown to go on an epic adventure to defeat an Evil McBaddude. Also he’s an orphan who never knew his real parents. All the characters are drawn from broad tropes and caricatures you’ve probably bumped into before in the realm of video games and/or anime.
But none of that really matters. DQ has typically used its overarching plot as less of an end unto itself, than as a peg on which to hook the more episodic, character-driven scenarios that really drive the story, and DQXI is a great example of this. The broad strokes of the story are ridiculously predictable, but the finer details, the way the characters grow and develop and play off each other, and the subtler turns the story often takes, is where the writing often becomes magical. You’re so busy watching story beat X appear over the horizon that you don’t hear story beat Y sneaking up from behind. It’s a great sleight-of-hand that the game plays throughout.
This brings me to my next point. If there is one area of DQXI where game design lessons are to be learned, it’s in the realm of pacing and structure. As an old-fashioned RPG, DQXI is a rather linear experience—which has become something of a faux pas recently. A lot of big game franchises came under fire for being “too linear” and responded by embracing the open world/sandbox design approach. Final Fantasy XIII is a famous example, taking a lot of flack for having a design that funnels you on a pretty strict path for most of the game. But a lot of the earlier, classic Final Fantasy titles also share a similar philosophy of keeping you on a railroad for much of the game; the difference was that the rail was cleverly built into a fleshed out world, and wedded to a narrative structure which gives purpose and direction to the rail, and so they don’t stick in the memory as overly linear adventures.
Rather, the kind of game which is often criticized as being too linear is just a game which is poorly paced and disjointed to the point where the illusion is shattered, and it becomes obvious that you’re moving through an abstract game environment in which you have no real agency. A lot of big video game franchises just became too unwieldy or poorly thought out in their structure.
The embrace of very nonlinear game design isn’t a solution to this so much as it is a workaround: it puts the duty of pacing and structure into the hands of the player. This can be liberating in its own way, but it can at times produce a “checklist mentality” where it feels like the game is just giving you a lot of Stuff to do as a distraction. It’s also harder for the level design and game mechanics to have depth, as they have to be designed to accommodate whatever structure the player is bringing to things. Thus there’s the danger of a lot of the stuff you’re doing becoming very samey.
DQXI meanwhile, shows you can, indeed, make a modern linear JRPG that is as well paced and structured as the classics, even one as lengthy as DQXI. It just takes time and effort and a strong focus on what you want the game to be. The first twelve hours or so of the game, for instance, are almost entirely just setup, taking the time to introduce all the main characters and establish a long term goal. But it doesn’t feel like the game is dragging its heels, as this introductory segment is a carefully structured series of smaller episodes that are both satisfying in their own right while cumulatively contributing to the characters and story, showing exactly when to have an exciting climax, a bit of downtime, a stretch of dungeon crawling or some cutscenes. It always feels like things are moving, and that you’re playing the game, even if the adventure proper is still just being pieced together.
On that note, this game does have a lot of cutscenes and dialogue, which is something I’m not usually fond of in games. But I haven’t minded it as much here, principally because of the aforementioned good writing (which includes an awareness of when you really need to shut up), but also because it addresses an issue I’ve had with a lot of contemporary JRPG storytelling: how it often defaults to depicting large swaths of dialogue as just two talking heads on screen exchanging info in speech bubbles or dialogue boxes. Aside from just being a boring way of conveying story, it also places a level of pressure on the dialogue and (if applicable) voice acting to carry the story, and they often buckle under the weight. DQXI marks a welcome return of cinematic cutscenes that make use of dynamic camera angles and editing to frame the dialogue in an interesting and informative way (while also allowing Toriyama’s character designs to shine). It’s something that really shows the level of attention that went into all aspects of the game, and made a big difference in my ability to get into the lengthy story.
I could talk about the battle mechanics, but, well, it’s a turn-based Dragon Quest game; if you’ve ever played a classic JRPG before, you know exactly what you’re going to get. It just has an extra level of polish. One neat touch is that the level design and enemy placement is such that it’s pretty easy to pace yourself with the ratio of combat-to-exploration.
So DQXI gets a provisional thumbs-up, though I’ll likely have to edit this post later with my final thoughts.