Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age Review
Without doubt, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King was one of my favourite games on the PlayStation 2. It was my first experience with the series and I loved how different it was to Final Fantasy: sillier, cuter, more forgiving. The voice cast was British and sterling, the cel-shaded graphics looked incredible and the orchestral soundtrack was simply fantastic. Even after playing the older games re-released on the DS, the eighth entry was always the pinnacle for me.
This makes reviewing Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age a particularly troublesome task. Not because it is bad — that simply isn’t the case, and Square Enix have done a capable job on development duty. The biggest problem this game has is that it tries to emulate Dragon Quest VIII in almost every respect.
Homage or Homogeneity?
The series has always had its tropes; just like Final Fantasy has moogles and chocobos, Dragon Quest has slimes and puntastic monster names, many of which have become regulars. Yet wandering around the sprawling world of Erdrea with my voiceless hero felt almost mechanical, an odd sensation where I could often predict to a scary level of accuracy what was going to happen. The party characters I collected along the way all had wacky, differing personalities and quirks. Half the townsfolk in every settlement fixate on a couple of different events — comical or serious (though in Dragon Quest, things are rarely that serious) — which is all they could talk about; the other half were there to point me to my next goal. Each town, city or area is individually painted with a personality to distinguish it from the rest, and they all have a weapon shop and an item shop, along with a church to save at.
Even the story feels familiar: a typical hero’s journey where the reincarnation of a chosen warrior from ages past is hunted down once his true nature is revealed, because some believe his appearance foretells a great disaster. Thrust into the world from his sleepy hometown, he is passed from pillar to post by people he meets along the way, each with their own agenda but all drawn to him and his ever-growing party. The story beats are nothing new. There is the occasional twist but they rarely surprise, let alone shock. Your party bicker and amuse each other while your bland, mute hero looks on, dispassionate and enigmatic. Quests are handed out with the regularity you would expect from a JRPG, some interesting, some grindy, a few to introduce you to the game mechanics. Most of them have quirky or adorable elements, whether in the nature of the task or the title it’s given. The feeling of openness is, as ever, a facade: you’ll be blocked from accessing a new area until you’ve completed a main quest task or spoken to the right person. There is a comfort in the linearity at times, a feeling that while it seems like it’s an overwhelming game world, in reality you just need to get to the next town and complete the next quest to continue the story, and the game will guide you every step of the way.
Bright and Breezy
The visuals are sumptuous, a feast of bold primary colours lined with dazzling sunsets and indigo evenings. Wandering into the fields outside of town will cause you to squint; the amount of saturation hits you in the face like a children’s book. The cutscenes are nothing short of spectacular, which is to be expected from an industry veteran like Square Enix. Only the occasional screen tearing when running around distracts from the thick layers of polish the company has smothered the game with.
It may feel like I’m being harsh, and perhaps I am. You see, almost everything I’ve said so far is a variant or straight-up clone of Dragon Quest VIII’s content, and indeed many of the other entries in the series, story tweaks aside. I was hoping for more, not more of the same. It’s a nice callback to hear the same theme on the title screen and the same cues in a church when I save my game, but I wanted something a little different; finding collectible mini medals in hard to reach (but not that hard to reach) places is fun, but familiar. Yes, there’s a crafting pot. Yes, navigating shop menus and organising your inventory is still a pain. In short, if you’ve played a previous entry you will know exactly what you’re going to get when you buy the game.
Yet despite this sameyness, I cannot fault its heart nor the enjoyment it brought me. You don’t put seventy-plus hours into a game you hate, or — and this is sometimes worse — one that you don’t care for either way. The tropes may be there but they are tropes you love, which is why they keep returning to the series; the turn-based combat might be similar, but it’s been the same for decades because it works and fans love it.
More importantly, Square Enix hasn’t copied and pasted entirely from a fourteen-year-old game. There are changes and additions, some superficial, some more substantial, which are appreciated. Your hero can run (or auto-run) and jump for one thing, making the world a little easier to navigate. Combat introduces a new “pepped” status after a few rounds which automatically makes characters hardier and able to perform special moves in tandem with other members of the party. On the superficial front, combat also gives you the option of moving around the field in between turns, which has absolutely no impact and feels completely pointless.
You still pick your action from a menu, whether to attack, defend, cast a spell, use an item, change your equipment and so on, but levelling up now often grants you skill points which you can spend on a range of new abilities. If you want to focus on boomerangs over blades, then you can choose to unlock a path along that route. It’s similar to the licence board in Final Fantasy XII and it allows a nice level of customisation which makes the combat a little more worthy of your attention. Boss battles are as tough as ever, requiring you to fully embrace your party’s strengths and master the otherwise simple tactics which push you through the majority of the other fights in the game. These easier encounters benefit from an auto-combat option which lets you set your tactics and sit back to enjoy the carnage; being a step removed from the action may not be to everyone’s taste, however.
Echoes of a Previous Age
Overall though, it’s unlikely a Dragon Quest fan will be disappointed with this eleventh entry in the main series. Even with the relative linearity of the main quest, there are so many secrets stashed around that you’re unlikely to get bored collecting loot. Akira Toriyama’s monsters are as appealing as they ever were, and the localisation is absolutely spot on. Sure, the villains are out of a pantomime and the heroes are klutzy, but the game’s earnestness in trying to get you to have a good time will wear down the defences of even the most cynical gamer. Echoes of an Elusive Age does very little new, despite its shiny flourishes trying to mask the fact that its core gameplay loop has been almost identical for decades. At some point a significant change is needed to prevent the series stagnating in future; churning out variations on a theme simply won’t cut it and a new direction will be required. But for the PS4 era I cannot help but recommend it. It may be little more than a reskinned update of one of my favourite games for the latest generation, but I’d still take Dragon Quest 8.5 over most other JRPGs currently on the market.
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