For Christmas, I was given Dragon Quest XI for PS4. Playing it for a couple of hours reminded me of just how much I like Dragon Quest. It also reminded me that I didn’t finish Dragon Quest VII: Journey of the Cursed King when it was released for the 3DS a couple of years ago. So while I waited for Etrian Odyssey Nexus to be released, I dug out my copy to jam in my 3DS and finish off the playthrough I started back then.
Dragon Quest VIII makes an interesting counterpart to Dragon Quest XI because they are so similar. Even in a series known for sticking to a formula, these two games are nearly identical. They are both visually impressive, back to basics games. Both of them are games if not designed, at least positioned for success in the West for what is largely a Japanese series. With the caveat that I’m only about a third of the way through Dragon Quest 11, they are both two of my favorite games in the series.*
Dragon Quest’s reputation for staidness is a little overblown; it does occasionally tinker with the formula. VI and VII has some narrative innovation, with a job system that didn’t become available until too long into the game and some other strange pacing choices. Immediately following 8 was Dragon Quest 9’s Monster Hunter influenced take on the series, with its multiplayer stuff. Dragon Quest 8 was the only “normal” Dragon Quest game for about a decade on either side of it. Really though, the game is stripped almost bare of mechanics and characters, resting its accomplishments primarily on the purity of its vision.
That works for the game. There is a little bit of character customization, letting the player choose which of a handful of weapons each character can use. However, the party capped at 4 characters in the initial release. The 3DS added two newcomers, one who felt like she could have been on the team originally and one oddball. Still, they both join up very late in the proceedings and are mostly there for late and post-game shenanigans. The limited party with limited options lets the game be very specific with challenges. There aren’t a lot of ways to break the game, to do things out of sequence or blow up the difficulty curve. That is a mark against the game with many people, I know. I do enjoy games like Final Fantasy Tactics, which just lets the player go nuts and tear it apart, or Breath of the Wild, which encourages the player to do things their own way. However, I am not one to dock a game for carefully calibrating the experience. There are no shortcuts and few tricks to getting through Dragon Quest VIII, you play at the games pace.
It works because that pace is good. The game starts with a fairly simple quest: King Trode, Princess Medea, and their entire kingdom have been cursed by the evil jester Dhoulmagus. The protagonist is the one lowly guardsman who escaped the curse, and now leads the quest to break the curse. At the start they are joined by Yangus, a burly thief with a heart of gold. Soon they are joined by the fiery Jessica, whose life has also been overturned by Dhoulmagus, and cool playboy Angelo, who has been cast out of his religious order. It is not a story in which characters change a whole lot. The protagonist is silent cipher, with the player having some ability to shape his personality. Yangus has already went straight by the time the game starts, and is always Eight’s, as the protagonist is called, right hand man, with insider knowledge of most of the lowlifes they run into. Angelo is always more than he seems, and most of his secrets are full revealed by the time he joins. Jessica maybe gets the most growth of the party, as she learns her potential after being stifled most of her life. It is a fun group, with different perspectives and reactions to everything the party runs into. But it is also a limited group; you pretty well know how each of them are going to react to anything by the midway point.
The game tailors the challenges around that limited party. Early on it knows that the player has only Yangus’s power and Eight’s all around qualities; that is a time for simple strategies as the player learns the game. Then it adds Jessica the mage, and gives her opportunities to shine. Finally, you get Angelo the healer, so the game can really take the gloves off and come at the player. Your options are always limited, but there are enough things to consider when fighting bosses. It just all works wonderfully. The new additions to the 3DS version add some wrinkles near the end, but that is too late to really change things.
The story, building off the simple quest, is Dragon Quest’s traditional vignettes, with each area telling a complete story that is also a piece of the larger story. That is the best thing the series has going for it; very few games work like that and even fewer do it as well as Dragon Quest. One detail I love is that there is a low key mystery through the game about how the protagonist avoided the curse that is never dealt with before the post-game. No other game would leave that detail for post-credits revelations. Also, the game is gorgeous. The visuals are slightly downgraded on 3DS, but they still create a wonderful cartoon world.
So far, everything Dragon Quest VIII does well, Dragon Quest XI does too. It is structured the same way, but bigger. The world is bigger and better looking. The party is more diverse and there are more options for each character. It still feels the same, though. After a decade of detours, Dragon Quest XI is the game the finally follows up on the game that really got me into the series. With it Western success, Dragon Quest XI feels like the game that Dragon Quest VIII always wanted to be. And really, mostly was.
*For the record: V, IV, VIII, (XI pending completion), IX, I, III, VI, VII, II