Dragon Quest XI / ドラゴンクエストXI
Although it didn't pick up as much popularity in America, Dragon Quest is a veritable phenomenon in Japan. And with good cause: Dragon Quest XI is an insanely fun, good ol' fashioned RPG that's filled to the brim with content. This is a game not to be missed.
The only other Dragon Quest game I've played (besides Dragon Warrior Monsters 2: Cobi's Journey a long, long time ago) is Dragon Quest IX, which... I didn't like. I had three main problems with DQ9; the first two were mostly alleviated in DQ11. The third problem was unique to my personal situation, and while that same situation was present in DQ11 it didn't bother me this time, for whatever reason.
My first problem with DQ9 was the plot, or lack thereof. The overarching plot of DQ9 is basically just a giant MacGuffin search. Each town/region had its own miniature plot to resolve, so you could think of it as a series of RPG vignettes. The issue is that they were all disconnected and not exciting enough to carry a game. The second problem was the characters, or (again) lack thereof. Your party in DQ9 was completely customizable, but this forced every single character to be silent. A single protagonist is one thing, but a silent party is another; your party members were essentially nothing more than dolls that helped you in battle. The lack of defined characters compounded with the vignette-styled plots because it meant that every area's story really did stand only on its own, without even party members to remain consistent. While a more interesting plot did start in DQ9, a game shouldn't make you wait 50 hours for things to get good.
Fortunately, DQ11 is much improved on both fronts. You start off, as is usual for a fantasy story, as a boy from a small, no-name town in the sticks. When undergoing your town's rite of passage, the birthmark on the back of your left hand starts to glow and fill with power, which your (adoptive) mother reveals is proof that you are the reincarnation of the great hero who saved the world centuries ago. You go to visit the local king, and as the Hero you are welcomed and adored, beginning an adventure in which everyone--wait, no, you're heralded as a harbinger of doom and thrown in the dungeon. Whoops.
Luckily, you run into your first party member in the dungeon, and the two of you bust out. You set out to search the world in order to solve the dual mysteries of why the Hero is hated throughout the world and why the Hero was reincarnated in the first place. Similar to DQ9 (and what I imagine is par for the course in Dragon Quest), you go around and resolve each town/region's individual problems. Unlike DQ9, the overarching plot is driving our journey the entire time, and while there is a MacGuffin search in the middle, it's not nearly as egregious as in DQ9. You also end up visiting each area two or three times, which allows us to get to know the characters and locations a bit more by giving us more substantive plot lines.
The plot as a whole is decent, but don't expect it to compete with a story-based game. As I've already explained, the plot can essentially be divided into two components: the overarching plot, and the individual regional plots.
The overarching plot is relatively straightforward, but has enough mysterious elements to keep pushing you forward. The plot is simple but solid, with clear emotional driving forces making the story stronger, not weaker. Our journey brings us around the entire game world, which ends up being more fleshed out than you may expect. While this isn't some insanely-detailed fantasy world, each area has its own unique character and culture. The world-building doesn't kick in until the later stages of the game, but we get quite deep into the weeds of how the world came to be as it is. Finally, for the negatives, there are a couple of tonal and thematic missteps, and the Big Bad is a bit underdeveloped.
The best part of the regional stories is their variety; you never know what you're going to get when you walk into a new town (although you can usually get a pretty good guess after just a few minutes). As I mentioned earlier, you visit each region of the game a couple of times, so you get a fair amount of exposure to each town. The stories sometimes act like they have an emotional gravitas that they most definitely do not, but aside from that they fulfill their purpose.
Of course, a plot is much more enjoyable when we get to experience it with fun characters, and we certainly get to do that here. We end up assembling a diverse party to join us, with a large variety of ages and personalities. The characters play off each other with good chemistry, and help keep a consistent link between the regional stories. They each have their own backstory and reasons for joining the Hero, and giving us party members that we care about makes the game much more enjoyable.
And for those wondering, the final part of DQ9 that I didn't like was the fact that all the spells were made up nonsense words, which made it difficult to remember them. But for whatever reason, it wasn't an issue this time.
The gameplay of DQ11 is relatively straightforward, and should be easy for anyone who's played an RPG to pick up. You run around towns and dungeons, talking to people and fighting monsters. DQ11 feels like an older JRPG with modern fittings. Only one dungeon in the game has something that could be called a puzzle, so it really is just exploring. One of the new features of DQ11 is ability to mount certain enemies. Each mount type has a special ability, such as the ability to walk on walls or fly. In the end, while they certainly didn't detract from anything, enemy mounts didn't feel like they added that much either.
DQ11 has a simple, turn-based battle that should be familiar to most gamers. Each turn, each character can attack, use a skill, cast a spell, use an item, or defend. The unique feature of DQ11 is the "zone" system, where a character will "get into the zone" after taking enough damage. When a character is "in the zone" their stats increase, but the real power is unlocked when two or more characters get "in the zone" at once: you can then unleash powerful combination attacks with a variety of effects, from healing your party to increasing your experience from the battle to just dealing tons of damage. Each combination attack has a unique animation, and helps gives a bit of a view into how the party members interact with each other outside the story cutscenes.
The other element of the battle system that's a bit unusual is the fact that you can freely switch your in-battle party members and their equipment, and your party-wide healing spells will heal your party members in reserve. This gives you a lot more flexibility in battles, as well as room to get out of otherwise sticky situations. Overall I think the game was on the easier side. I didn't fight many random encounters, but never did any grinding; while there were some tricky battles here and there, they weren't usually too much trouble.
The auxiliary systems in the game are easy to understand, and generally designed to make your experience smooth rather than needlessly aggravating. The bestiary tells you where each enemy is and what they drop, the item log tells you where you can get each item, the quest log tells you where you can find each quest. A short summary of recent events will play each time you start up the game, in case you haven't played in a while, and you can quicksave almost anywhere. If you're ever unsure of where to do, a character who will tell you what to do next will be highlighted in pink on the minimap.
That being said, there are occasionally elements that seem like they have a rough edge or two. Most notable is the item system. Each character has their own personal bag with limited space (along with a party-wide bag with infinite space). For a character to use an item in battle, that item must be in that character's bag. So if the item you want to use isn't being held by the character you want to use it, you're out of luck. The item-related menus are a bit clunky, so managing your items is annoying. You can only move the items one at a time, and the sorting options are limited.
DQ11 has a neat little minigame in the form of crafting. To craft an item you need to find a recipe for it, and then gather the requisite materials. You then make the item in a minigame involving forging the item on a grid. Each square has a gauge with a value you're aiming for, and so you hammer each square to try to get the gauge as close to the proper value as you can. It's a nice minigame, but I think the difficulty curve could have been ironed out a little; at first doing it properly can feel arbitrarily difficult, and by the end the special moves make it feel trivially easy. The nice thing about the game is that you can't fail. You can improve the item up to a level of +3, but you can never fail to make the item. You can also reforge the item (using redo orbs, which you get from forging items and can also buy), and the level of the item can't go down, so if you want you can just reforge until you get the item to the level you want.
The skill system is intuitive and effective. Each character has a hexagonal skill grid, with each square representing a skill or passive bonus. To unlock a square you need to spend skill points, which you get from leveling up, and you can only unlock squares next to already unlocked squares. The grids have different sections, where each character has a section for each weapon they can equip, and then one or two branches for a character-relevant trait. For instance, the Hero has a branch for one-handed swords, a branch for two-handed swords, and a "Heroics" branch. Additionally, there are locked squares that only unlock when at least four surrounding squares have been unlocked, and some branches only get unlocked after story events. In practice, the skill grids are generally organized as rings around locked squares. I think this system strikes a great balance between letting you see in advance the skills to unlock so you can plan how to develop your character, keeping the surprise of what sorts of skills and goodies you're going to get, making it simple to develop your character in the role you want them to play, and not overwhelming the player with too many options for customization. I know this paragraph was a bit wordy, so if I didn't explain the skill system well I assure you that it is straight-forward when doing it yourself.
The graphics are good for a 3DS game, but not breathtaking. One of the unique features of the 3DS version is that you can swap between a 2D mode with sprites and a 3D mode with models. While the 2D sprite mode is nice, it isn't nearly as expressive or cinematic as the 3D mode. There are nice touches in the details, such as how your party members don't follow you in a straight line and random objects in the overworld, but also what feel like weird oversights, like how exactly one menu in 2D still uses the 3D mode assets. There are a couple of pre-rendered movies, which look gorgeous.
The sound and music were... decent, but not particularly memorable to me. The music had a bit of a 'goofy' feel to me, which matched the aesthetic and atmosphere of the game, but wasn't super catchy in my opinion. A lot of the tracks were apparently remixed tracks from older Dragon Quest games, so someone more familiar with the franchise might like the OST more. The sound effects were good and helped breathe life into the game. One final thing to note is there is absolutely no voice acting in the entire game, which is a bit strange for a modern game, but fits in with the retro vibe. I didn't mind it for the most part, but it didn't admittedly feel a bit weird in the pre-rendered movies.
There are a few side quests you can challenge, but the biggest one (in the 3DS version) is the Yocchi sidequest, which uses streetpasses to go on an adventure across the entire franchise. Yocchis are guardians of time, and are tasked with guarding ten books that tell the stories of legendary heroes. It is no coincidence that there have been ten prior Dragon Quest games: each book represents a prior entry in the series. But some malevolent force has tampered with the books, so it's up to you to set things right. First you need to collect Yocchis by finding them in your gameworld or streetpassing. Then you send the Yocchis into the Maze of Time, where they explore to defeat monsters, collect items, and find "keywords" necessary to enter the worlds within the books. Finally, once you collect a keyword, you can enter the book-world and fix whatever has gone wrong. DQ11 will change its visual style to the same style as that game, so it really feels like you've gone into the world. This is an extraordinarily long side-quest that feels worthy of being a world-hopping adventure. Unfortunately, collecting Yocchi and going through the Maze of Time can be a bit of a drag, especially as the monsters get tougher and tougher. Still, this is a really cool sidequest that lets you visit and relive the highlights of the entire franchise.
Of course, if you're planning on getting DQ11, there is still an issue you need to deal with: which version to get. Both the 3DS and PS4 versions have the exact same plot, script, characters, and battle system. While there are a few other minor differences, the major advantage of the PS4 version is the graphics, while for the 3DS it's the Yocchi sidequest, the portability, and a few extra/easier-to-get items. Neither is insignificant. The PS4 graphics are beautiful, with expressive characters and stunning environments, while as previously described the Yocchi sidequest provides a substantial amount of content that builds upon the previous games of the franchise. You really can't go wrong with either, so just pick the one that appeals more to you and don't look back.
There's one final element of the game that's both a blessing and a curse. The good part is that nothing is missable. The bad part is that in order for nothing to be missable, nothing in the game world ever permanently changes... even when there are major plot events that make it feel like they really really should. In other words, while the lack of missable content is convenient and player-friendly, it ends up creating a disconnect between the story and gameplay.
Overall, Dragon Quest XI is an RPG with tons of content that's just plain fun. I ended up clocking in the main quest at 70 hours, and then an extra 35 hours to do the post-game story, getting the strongest equipment, complete all the side-quests and sub-scenarios, etc. While it doesn't have an over-complicated JRPG plot filled with twists, it's compelling in its simplicity. If you're looking for a fun RPG that you can just sink a bunch of time into, DQ11 is your game.
DQ11 may also be the last "true" Dragon Quest game. You see, unlike pretty much every other long-running video game franchise, every single Dragon Quest game has had the same core development team: Yuuji Horii on the scenario, Akira Toriyama on character design, and Kouichi Sugiyama on music. These three men have worked on every Dragon Quest game since the first one in 1986, over 30 years ago. All three are getting pretty old, so soon enough they won't be able to make games, for one reason or another. There's no way they aren't aware of this situation, and DQ11 does feel like they've put their heart and soul into a farewell for one of the biggest franchises in video games.
Based on the Japanese 3DS version.
UPDATE: So it looks like the 3DS isn't coming West, so... I guess that makes the choice easy, then. Hey, at least you're getting voice acting out of it, right...?