I played most of Dragon Quest XI between Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII Remake. I did put it down near the end of the second act to play FFVIIR before coming back to finish off the main game and the deceptively important “post-game.” Playing it between the two most recent mainline Final Fantasy games colored how I think of the game. The usual comparison of the two series with Final Fantasy being the experimental one and Dragon Quest being the stodgy one is not really accurate, but that does feel accurate when comparing Dragon Quest XI with its contemporaries.
Despite its reputation, the only area where Dragon Quest does not innovate is the battle system. Those classic battles have been pretty much the same since the first or second game of the series. The Dragon Quest series has long been very experimental when it comes to narrative structure. From Dragon Quest IV’s series of chapters centered around different small casts that eventually come together into one big party to Dragon Quest V’s following the life of the protagonist from childhood through fatherhood. Dragon Quest XI does some interesting things with its narrative structure. For the first thirty or forty hours, it plays out pretty much like a classic jrpg. You start with a hero and a quest and gradually build up a party of supporters. Each new area has new troubles, and a growing threat is hiding just out of sight. The shocking twist at the midway point is not especially shocking, many games have done similar things. Final Fantasy VI comes to mind. The second act feels a little truncated, it is a getting the band back together tour of the world that has surprisingly little new to see. It culminates in the defeat of the villain but notably leaves a lot of unanswered questions. That leaves things for the post-game third act, which feels oddly essential for something coming after the credits roll.
Dragon Quest XI’s story structure is more interesting than good, I think. It seems to be an effort to disguise how surprisingly small the world for this eighty hour adventure actually is. It is effective, because the game seems massive. It also helps that it rests on an incredibly good core game. It looks excellent, plays well and features a delightful cast. I didn’t mind exploring the world three times because I liked exploring this world.
Despite its HD graphics and interesting narrative experiments, Dragon Quest XI still feels like something of a throwback. That is largely because full-blooded, turn-based, classic jrpgs almost do not exist on modern consoles. Most have gone with some kind of action rpg, like most Final Fantasy games. Others package things with another sort of gimmick, like a focus on crafting or being a graphical 16-bit throwback. I guess Persona 5 would count, but even that game is entirely bereft of exploration. Dragon Quest XI stands alone. For all intents and purposes, Dragon Quest XI is the same game as Dragon Quest IV or V from the early 1990s. There are some different character building systems, but nothing that would have been too far beyond what those games offered.
I really enjoyed Final Fantasy XV. As strange and as broken as it was in places, I can honestly say I have never played a game quite like it. And I loved Final Fantasy VII Remake; it took a game from my youth and both radically reimagined and perfectly translated it to modern sensibilities. Both games were new and interesting in their own ways. That said, I loved playing Dragon Quest XI as a kind of antidote to those games. I grew up playing turn based jrpgs, games from the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series, as well as plenty of others. The last time I remember getting just a straight up jrpg like this is honestly Dragon Quest 8 fifteen years ago. I am sure there are games that fit the mold in between, but that is the last one to really leave an impression on me. This is an amazing game.
As is usual with Dragon Quest games, the overarching plot is nothing special. Some evil is active in the world, and the protagonist is the chosen one who can defeat that evil. There is nothing to it that anyone who has played more than a half dozen games hasn’t seen before. The strength of the game is in the scenarios that arise in each town along the journey. Every town has a problem to solve, and it plays out as a story vignette that is largely wrapped up by the time the player leaves the town. This is how most Dragon Quest games work, and it is a very effective way to tell a story. You end up with more memorable characters in each place than most games have.
Speaking of characters, this game also largely shines with its party. While the characters start with simple to describe archetypes, the game mostly gives them room to grow. Some, like Erik, seem to get a little lost as the game goes on, but each member of the crew is a memorable personality. Rab is kind of a typical old man party member, weary and experienced, though not without his foibles. Erik is the brash thief, Jade the stoic martial artist, the spoilerific final party member the duty bound knight. Serena and Veronica fit broadly into caster/healer archetypes. The one I’ve avoided mentioning is maybe the game’s best character, or maybe its worst. Sylvando is an erstwhile knight who instead acts as a jester. He also is a flamboyant gay stereotype. I can’t tell if it is intended to be a mean spirited joke, or a genuine attempt at inclusion. At best, it feels like Barret from Final Fantasy VII, who was a cool character and was also something of a stereotype. I chose to take Sylvando positively and treated him as though Freddie Mercury chose to join my party. I can definitely see other interpretations, though.
Overall, there is just something comforting about Dragon Quest XI. It strikes some reliable nostalgic notes; playing like you expected games would play in the future 25 years ago. Sometimes that is just the kind of game you want to play.