Dragon Quest XI

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.

Now Playing January 2020

Beaten

Judgment – read about it here.

Life is Strange – This game came highly recommended to me, but I was a little leery going into it. It presents as mostly an adventure game, a genre I’ve had a lot of problems with. While that is the correct classification, it plays more like a slow motion action game. I have long been disappointed that the only way most video games have to interact with through violence, so one thing I loved about Life is Strange is that it is largely free of that. Not that there aren’t violent things happening, this game gets pretty dark, but most of what you do is just have conversations. I don’t know that Life is Strange really breaks through any barriers that keep video games in their bubble, but it at least pushes the edges.

It also tells a pretty interesting story. I know there are several paths through the game, with differing eventual ends, but the one I got was pretty affecting. The two tracks of the plot are the mystery of the disappearance of Rachel Amber, which digs into the small town darkness of the setting, and of Max’s discovery of her power to rewind time and change the past. While Max has this power, it doesn’t really connect with the mystery. Mostly it serves to put Max in increasingly untenable situations. Every new chapter deepens what came before. Most of the characters at first appear black or white, only for the game to reveal depth and grays as it goes along. It never really diminishes some of the awful things that characters do, but it does explain them. The characters end up largely feeling like real people; it is an amazing achievement.

I didn’t love this game quite as much as some people I know, but damn if it wasn’t an excellent experience, one I might feel like revisiting in a few years.

Ongoing

Codename STEAM – A project I have this year is beating a bunch of DS and 3DS games I’ve started but not finished over the last decade or so. That means that a lot of games will be cycling through here. Codename STEAM is one of those games. It is so close to being such a good game; I really wish it had gotten a sequel that could iron out some of the kinks. Since I last played this game, I have changed from a regular 3DS to a New 3DS, and it makes a difference here. The game plays much faster. I’ve already written about Codename STEAM before, and I haven’t really changed my mind about it. I love everything about the game but playing it. I do like playing it, but it is often as much frustration as fun. There is a reliance on foreknowledge in this game, like the game expects you to lose a time or two before you find the correct path through each map. That is annoying when maps can take more than an hour to complete. This game is just so close to being exactly what I want.

LBX – Another on my quest to conquer my 3DS backlog. This Level-5 kids rpg is fine. It has that goofy anime storyline, where everything revolves around the series specific focus, in this case small battling robots. In the first third or so of this game, toy robots are involved in kidnappings, international conspiracies and attempted assassinations, as well as just school ground play. I don’t know how into it I am. There are a lot of pieces and parts to fiddle with on your toy robot, but I haven’t quite figured out how much it matters and what works. Someone will get a lot out of it, I’m sure. I am also not crazy about the battles themselves. They are fine, but mostly play like a kind of sloppy action rpg. Maybe I will have more intelligent things to say once I finish with this game.

My World, My Way – This decade old DS game is another I have started back up. I like it, but I got pretty sick of it when I first played it a long time ago. Maybe I will like it enough to finish it off this time.

Dragon Quest XI – Okay, I started this early last year, but some good time into it and then just sort of drifted away from it as I got busy. Getting back into it, I am reminded that I really like this series. The cast, which I have mostly assembled at the point I am at, is pretty interesting. Maybe not the most memorable in the series, at least not as of yet, but still really good. Sylvando, Jade and Rab are great, but I wish there was a little more going on, or at least apparently going on, with Erik and the sisters. I like the upgrade system, but I wish there was a little more clarity to it. I want to know a little more of what is ahead as I build. That is not a big deal, as there is a way to reset, though I don’t know the cost. This is just a classic, well made role playing game and I am here for it.

Upcoming

Shovel Knight – I’ve not got 3 campaigns to finish in this game and a hankering to replay the original. Maybe I should buy the game again on a new console; I almost feel like I’ve been stealing from Yacht Club games getting more and more on my minimal kickstarter buy in.

Final Fantasy XV – If I can finish Dragon Quest XI, and I am not sure I can before the end of February, I will move on from 2018’s Christmas present to 2017’s Christmas present. I really want to play the game, but I have not managed to get past the first few hours in more than two years. Thanks, law school.

Something Else – This will be a different 3DS/DS game, after I finish My World, My Way. Maybe I’ll finally finish off one of the Shin Megami Tensei games I’ve still got sitting half finished. Maybe I’ll put some serious effort into that DS Valkyrie Profile game or the various Harvest Moons I’ve got.

Now Playing March 2019

Beaten

Etrian Odyssey Nexus – post coming soon. Great farewell to the series and essentially to the 3DS.

Beyond Good and Evil –

I am not going to beat this game. Not this time through. There is a lot about this game that it still admirable. It is one of the better Zelda-likes of the PS2 era. But the game is just a touch clunkier to play than I remembered. Camera problems abound. The idea of Zelda with an active partner is a great one, but block pushing puzzles do not need the added hassle of waiting for the AI to come help push. I am about halfway through the game and I am simply done with it right now.

Ongoing

Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse –

I am giving this another shot and this time I am making some progress. I was going to compare it to my thoughts on the original Shin Megami Tensei 4, but apparently I never wrote about it. And honestly, other than remembering really liking it, I can’t recall too many details. Apocalypse falls into that void of memory even as I play it. That might not be fair to a game I started nearly two years ago, did all the foundational parts and then put down. I enjoy Apocalypse while I play it, but once I put it down for any length of time I forget what I was doing as soon as I pick it up. Still, this time I am intending to stick with it until I beat the game. Maybe it will have left some kind of real impression by then.

Dragon Quest XI – I didn’t play a lot of Dragon Quest XI last month, but I am still loving all the time I am able to put into it. This is a great game and if it keeps up this level of quality it deserved to be remembered with Dragon Quest V as one of the best in the series.

Upcoming

Disney’s Epic Mickey – If I ever get any time to play video games again, I still intend to finally get around to finishing this game. Maybe it’s not worth it, but I genuinely want to get to the last third or so of this game.

Yakuza 3 – Again, I still want to play this, but I just don’t have any time to actually play video games right now. Maybe I should abandon my plan to replay the whole series to build up to Yakuza 6 and just play Yakuza 6.

Monster Hunter Generations – My brother called me and suggested playing some Monster Hunter. So we are going to play this some. Honestly, there is a lot of this game I never experienced. I kind of only beat this one halfway, so going back to it gives me the chance to really dig into the back half of Monster Hunter Generations.

Chrono Trigger – I’ve been feeling the need to play Chrono Trigger, so I think I might give it another run through, at least to a point to get another ending on my DS game file. Maybe I’ll finally do the added dungeon in that game.