Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
E3 2018 Hands-On Preview
Derek Heemsbergen Derek Heemsbergen

PlayStation 4, PC

Square Enix

Square Enix

Traditional RPG


US 09/04/2018
Japan 07/29/2017
Europe 09/04/2018

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"Oh, flame, BURN 'em!"
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I sense an affinity for fire.
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Cutscene or not, this shot is too pretty not to highlight.
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"Indeed! There's a mattress store on that corner as well!"
"My macro-level impressions of Dragon Quest XI are near-universally positive."

The Dragon Quest vs. Final Fantasy debate is tired but continues to provide a useful framework for analyzing why each remains popular despite their wildly varying approaches to the JRPG genre. Final Fantasy is more popular in the West for always evolving, always pushing graphical boundaries, always shifting our expectations of what the series even is; Dragon Quest, on the other hand, is staunchly traditional and tends to change only superficially while retaining the same core gameplay concepts. Both are excellent, and I find both compelling for different reasons. But in the West, Dragon Quest has long been out of the spotlight. It seemed, for a time, that Western audiences had grown tired of the traditional JRPG, and perhaps a majority had, though I don't count myself among them. It brings me immense pleasure, then, to see the series return in such a grandiose way. Dragon Quest XI is nearly here, and it brings the sprawling sensibilities of Dragon Quest VIII to an even bigger audience — one that I hope receives this new adventure with the adoration I am already convinced it deserves.

Going into E3 2018, there were truthfully only two games I desperately wanted to get my hands on before the end of the show: Mega Man 11 and Dragon Quest XI. (Well, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, but we didn't know about that until the day of the show. Now that I think about it, wouldn't a Dragon Quest character be a great addition to the roster? Yangus, perhaps? Anyway...) What I wanted to know most was not how Dragon Quest XI would play, but how it would feel: I wanted a look at its new menus (they're pretty), a handle on the new dash feature (it's nice), and most crucially, a taste of its English localization.

Dragon Quest has long been one of the most colorful RPGs around in the dialogue realm; its pan-European sensibilities infuse every tiny hamlet, every minor NPC, and every line of spoken text with life. It's all "The lassie's a bit daft, ye ken" this and "Goo-wee, ooze rollicking about over there? slurp" that. I honestly adore the huge amount of personality present throughout Dragon Quest scripts, because they'd otherwise be rote tales of save-the-world heroism that I can get elsewhere. Dragon Quest XI seems to echo the "hero's journey" trope of past titles even more than usual, so it needs all of the prosaic panache it can get.

And panache it has! I'm pleased to report that Dragon Quest XI looks and sounds as fun and fresh as I'd hoped it would. The E3 build I played offered two sections to demo; the first, a leisurely exploration of the game's first town, was something I opted to skip because I wanted to dig into the meat of the combat system a little. I decided to jump into the second section, a short venture through a desert area that ended in a boss fight against a menacing scorpion. The demo was actually so expansive that I could have spent my entire fifteen minutes bandying about a nearby town or even participating in horse races, but I chose to proceed straight to the boss so I could see the maximum amount of dialogue possible.

What I saw faithfully retained the series' vibrant spirit while carefully displaying its own personality throughout. I saw an arrogant (or perhaps just lazy) prince shirk guard duty, got scolded by a diminutive wizardess half my hero's age but twice as wise, and immediately fell for the flamboyant charms of a roaming circus performer. To be frank, that last point is one I had some anxiety about; Sylvano (called Sylvia in the Japanese version) is a male character who uses feminine pronouns in Japanese and behaves like something of a gay stereotype. I immediately flashed back to the portrayal of Makoto in the early Xbox 360 RPG Enchanted Arms, which twisted his femininity and goofy behavior into the butt of a joke. This doesn't seem to be the case for Sylvano. He certainly seems campy, but he's got more of a smooth operator vibe, playful and fun without being framed as creepy. This may seem like a small thing to fixate on, but after seeing how miserably gay people were portrayed in Persona 5, I would have been deeply sad to have yet another otherwise top-tier RPG mishandle a core aspect of my own identity.

My macro-level impressions of Dragon Quest XI are near-universally positive. It's one of the cleanest, most polished games I've ever laid hands upon. Battles are strategic and speedy, with crisp attack animations and magic spells that pop with beautiful particle effects. Voicework is appropriately cast and well performed. Sound effects are faithful to the Dragon Quest legacy. My only contention, and one I will continue to repeat until something changes, is that Koichi Sugiyama's musical score is holding the series back. I truthfully cannot tell one Dragon Quest soundtrack from the next, and XI's is no exception. I'd love to see some new blood could come in and revitalize the series' audio from top to bottom.

Dragon Quest XI was well worth waiting to play at E3 this year, and it has me more enthusiastic than ever about the series' future. It's like a souped-up version of my favorite Dragon Quest (VIII) with a host of intelligent improvements that account for the preferences of Western audiences. I sincerely hope that the rest of the English-speaking world falls in love with it the way I did.

And hell, maybe 2018 is the year I'll finally get that Slime tattoo I've been talking about.

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