Dragon Quest XI is the best game in the 32-year-old series.
It wasn’t until watching a rough cut of my 36-minute video review of the game on my television at midnight on Sunday night that I decided to make this declaration. I had grappled with saying it in the script I wrote for the purpose of voiceover for that video. Ultimately, I decided against such bold statements. If you watch the video, you won’t hear me declare any sort of ranking at all for the title.
Watching my video review, I said aloud, in my dark living room, “This is the best Dragon Quest game.”
You must understand that I don’t say this lightly.
I’ve been obsessing over these games for thirty years. I’ve played every entry in the series multiple times, seeing all of their possible endings, defeating all of their optional bosses.
The games resonate with me on levels ranging from mathematical to sentimental. I used Dragon Quest V on Super Famicom to assist my learning process of the Japanese language (in addition to, you know, living in Japan and making some friends). Investigations into the games’ mathematical particulars inspired me to start thinking critically about game design, which led me to pursue a career in game design, which ultimately led me to my current job as a guy who makes videos full-time for Kotaku.
As of this writing, I have played Dragon Quest XI for over 300 hours, starting with the release of the Japanese version in July of 2017. After ruminating on the game and its contents for one year, I now feel safe declaring that it is the best in the series.
For many years, I would tell anyone who showed even the slightest interest of getting into Dragon Quest that they should track down Dragon Quest V for the Nintendo DS. Starting today, I will officially tell them to play Dragon Quest XI for PlayStation 4 or Steam, when it comes out in North America and the UK on September 4. Or Nintendo Switch, when it eventually comes out for that.
I’d love it if you watched my video review, which is light on spoilers. The main game takes about 80 hours to complete, though if you venture into the post-game (which, believe you me, you should) that number will quickly reach triple digits. All footage in my video comes from the first twenty hours of the experience. I have left out all dialogue which contains any plot details whatsoever.
However, if you don’t have time to watch my video, I have provided a lightly edited version of the script as text here.
BACK OF BOX QUOTE
"This is un-quest-ionably the best game in my favourite series."
TYPE OF GAME
Excellent characters and story, Akira Toriyama in glistening 4K HDR, absolutely incredible towns and cities
Main game is only about 80 hours long, the midi music can be hecka dinky in dramatic cutscenes
PlayStation 4, Steam
September 4, 2018
Finished main quest and all sidequests + post-game twice in Japanese in 2017. Played slightly more than half of the English version. Will get Platinum Trophy. (Total 300 hours.)
I love Dragon Quest.
In 2017, I bought every single piece of Dragon Quest XI merchandise available in Japan. I played through the Japanese version of the game two full times. I have played slightly more than halfway through the English version as well. Immediately after posting this review, I will resume playing until I obtain the platinum trophy.
So I am perhaps simultaneously the best and the worst person to review this game.
Along the way, I’m going to have to restrain myself from making any sweeping grandiose statements. Let’s get started:
Dragon Quest XI is one of the best video games I have ever played. I would rank it somewhere slightly beneath Super Mario Bros. 3 in terms of its greatness.
Ah, heck. I ruined it already.
Dragon Quest XI is the first single-player Dragon Quest game on a modern home console since Dragon Quest VIII, which was released on the PlayStation 2 in 2004.
If you’ve never played a Dragon Quest game, or haven’t played one in a while, you can definitely start with Dragon Quest XI. The game is about the reincarnation of a legendary hero who may or may not be the legendary hero Loto aka Erdrick from Dragon Quest I, II, and III, so if the story of Dragon Quest XI bewilders a newcomer to the series, your bewilderment will be a simulacrum of the bewilderment of the protagonist.
Dragon Quest XI is hugely long and chill as heck. It took me about 80 chill as heck hours to finish the main quest my first time. I would recommend this game to anyone who likes chill characters, colourful aesthetics, Akira Toriyama’s art, extremely old-school role-playing games, fairy tale stories, or ridiculously detailed video game towns.
No English-language review of a Dragon Quest game would be complete without some historical background on the series. So let’s talk about the game’s history.
“Dragon Quest games are popular in Japan” is about as thudding an understatement as “kalamata olives are popular in my house.” An ubiquitous urban myth informs global game-likers that the Japanese government mandated that Enix release Dragon Quests only on Saturdays to sidestep a phenomenal geyser of kids and grown-ups calling in quote-unquote sick to work or school.
Or maybe they publish them on Saturdays just because it’s easier to make a publicity event out of a product launch on the weekend.
Whatever the case may be, the games sell by the bucket-load to salivating Saturday shoppers without fail. Japanese people young and old play the games, talk about them, purchase and publicly display cuddly merchandise, and reference the games in conversation the way we Americans might talk about our favourite sitcoms.
I lived in Tokyo for ten years of my life — most of my twenties and the tip of the Thirties Iceberg. I purchased Dragon Quest V on Super Famicom three days after moving to Japan. I used it, together with the age-old pastime of “making friends” and “joining a band,” to learn casual Japanese. I had many conversations over that decade on the subject of Dragon Quest. I had a girlfriend once whose automatic busy-response text message was a Dragon Quest reference. (“ヘんじがない・・・ただのしかばねのようだ・・・” (“No response. It’s just a corpse.”))
In my anecdotal experience, my friends who played Dragon Quest casually described a similar pattern: they played it on weeknights for a half an hour or an hour, after taking a bath, and before going to bed. This is how I played it, too. This is how I played Dragon Quest XI in Brooklyn. This is how I played Dragon Quest VIII in Minami Senju. This is how I played Dragon Quest VII in Kami-Fukuoka. This is how I played Dragon Quest V in Kita Urawa.
Dragon Quest games are bedtime stories. Dragon Quest games are assembled with the care and attention to detail of a hotel room overlooking a sleeping city.
The fundamentals of Dragon Quest games have stayed largely the same over the past four decades. Western critics often attack this point. However, I consider this the series’ greatest strength. When a Dragon Quest’s release impends, you know that it’s going to be suitable for playing in a bathrobe, before bed. It’s not just a video game: it’s your old friend, come back home from a long trip abroad.
Like clockwork, every time a Dragon Quest game’s western release approaches, conversation begins: might this be The One that becomes popular in the US? The whispers were loudest for Dragon Quest VIII, with its almost-seamless 3D world and its gorgeous cel-shading. And then they did this to the box art.
Left: Japan. Right: USA.
Like, what is this thing behind the characters? Why did they do that? Like, look at the Japanese one. It’s so beautiful. Come on, Square Enix in 2004! Let that landscape live!
Dragon Quest VIII was more than slightly popular in the US, though the series then went 14 years without another big-budget single-player home console adventure. Well, now Dragon Quest XI has arrived, at a time when Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball characters are beloved by an entire generation of game-touching millennials. So Square Enix’s way of marketing it is, uh, they included the Dragon Quest VIII hero’s outfit as a preorder bonus. So they’re like, “Hey, remember that hideous outfit from that game from 14 years ago?” Seriously, the only way I’d wear this is if you hated me and somehow insinuated yourself into being in charge of my funeral.
Image: Square Enix
As Dragon Ball and its distinctive art ascended toward cultural significance, however, so did classic, mechanically labyrinthine Japanese video games. Many of these games learned every one of their good habits from Dragon Quest.
Pokemon’s monster collection is from Dragon Quest V. The sublime gambling arithmetic of Shin Megami Tensei and Persona’s battle systems owes a lot to Dragon Quest III! And Dark Souls — well, if I mention Dark Souls people in the comments will make fun of me for trying to say anything, even something intelligent, about Dark Souls, so just trust me that Dark Souls learned a lot from Dragon Quest.
Also, Dragon Quest creator, director, game designer, and writer Yuji Horii wrote 11/12ths of the script for Chrono Trigger. If you love Chrono Trigger and you haven’t played every Dragon Quest game, maybe you should play a Dragon Quest game!
Image: Square Enix
I like to think of Dragon Quest games as “hangout” games. Dragon Quest XI is no exception. Look, there’s even an option right there in the menu to talk to your buds.
The whole game is just chillin’ with your buds. They’re all good buds. We’re gonna talk a lot about your buds later.
You camp out at campsites with your buds. While camped out, you can forge items. Jason Schreier texted me a few hours into his experience playing the game. He was like, “Can you only forge at campsites?” And I replied, “Yeah,” and he replied, “That’s dumb.” I didn’t have a retort. Well, now, I do: your guys don’t want to make taverns and inns all smoky with forge-fire. They’re considerate. [Editor’s note: That’s a dumb retort. - Jason Schreier]
Dragon Quest XI has the best towns I have ever hung out in in any video game. The game deals the towns out to you fast and loose over a period of a few dozen hours. You keep thinking, “This is definitely The Main Town For The Rest Of The Game.” Then a few hours later, oops, there’s another monster-huge, stupid-beautiful town.
The interior decoration in this game is phenomenal. Every living space has at least one chair per NPC. Restaurant tables have an adequate number of place settings. Look at these meals. Look at these cakes. Look at this bread! These towns are perfect artisanal 3D level design geometry toy boxes. Some of them have the verticality and interior-exterior swiss-cheese pathmaking possibilities of a good Quake map.
It’s not just a brave new world, though: it’s also the people in it.
Dragon Quest has always overflowed with palpable masterclassy person-to-person world-building. A soldier on lookout in a castle might say he misses his mom back home. Later, you meet an old lady in a country village who says she misses her son, who became a soldier. All world-building in every Dragon Quest is always done with so light a touch. Each isolated example of two random characters who know each other is a full micro-textbook on the subject of narrative design. All it really takes is one person saying they know another person. Applied gently, this philosophy becomes a blanket warming the entire bulk of a 100-hour story.
Yuji Horii once called this type of narrative “a world you can feel.” In the grand list of design elements Dragon Quest doesn’t change over the years, this is one of the most ancient. It is one of the most low-tech. It relies on only the sleight of hand of a few words sketching a future memory in the player’s brain. When a later text box incites a rememory, however inconsequential to the grand scheme of the narrative or the player character’s levels or equipment, a shower of accomplishment chemicals splatters the player’s cerebellum. A priest, a chemist, and a soldier walk into a bar, and they say, “That’s love.”
Dragon Quest XI occasionally gamifies these feelable world narratives by presenting you characters who task you with errands, for which they reward you. It’s like Animal Crossing, except you get Hot Loot Rewards to help you Crush Screaming Monsters Louder.
Another pillar of Dragon Quest, which every game never fails to deliver, is the art of showing the player something they can’t do long before they are able to do it. Usually, Dragon Quest games will place a mysterious door in close proximity to the player’s starting point, only to inform them that the door is locked. You will be able to open this door perhaps a hundred hours later. The sweetest art of all Dragon Quest’s talents is inspiring the player to quietly remember places to come back to. Just a dozen hours into the game, the buttery fingers of your brain will struggle to contain the slippery marbles of knowledge. It does this better than any series of games ever has, and Dragon Quest XI does it no less masterfully.
A long time ago, you’d want to jot locked door locations down in a physical notebook while you played. Dragon Quest XI retains the essence of this design, while simultaneously providing just-barely-modern-enough quality of life improvements: the in-game map automatically marks the location of locked doors for you.
Some players might think this makes the game too easy.
To that, I say, sure. Dragon Quest games are “easy.”
However, they are also “hardcore.” This dubious duality lies at the heart of the series’ eternal appeal.
Western critics aim two common complaints toward Dragon Quest games:
That they are that they are “too easy,” and that “you have to grind too much.”
I say, why not neither? Clearly anyone executing this variety of criticism toward Dragon Quest has never experienced the joy of playing the game underleveled. Underleveled Dragon Quest is great! It’s like playing a Persona game.
It’s good that the games are easy. It means everyone gets to play through the whole game without ever hitting a wall they can’t climb by grinding. And it means a guy like me can punish himself interminably by constructing inscrutable impromptu challenges.
This is the main party I used on my second playthrough of Dragon Quest XI. Uh, you might need to play the first two dozen hours of the game to appreciate this.
For the first time in a new single-player entry of the series, you can avoid battles. I mean, when I say “you” can avoid battles, by “you” I mean “literally anybody.” Even the most infantile of game-touchers can avoid 100% of battle encounters in the fields and dungeons of Dragon Quest XI. This makes the game slightly easier than Dragon Quest VIII, and also slightly more fast-paced, though avoiding enemies also completely cuts out accidental grinding — you know, those incidental level-ups that happen in transit. With the ability to avoid monsters, you can and will arrive at bosses disgustingly underleveled, simultaneously settling unto a noob’s nightmare and a speedrunner’s buffet table.
Of course, avoiding the battles means you miss out on what is my favourite part of the series.
If every critic writing a review of Dragon Quest XI sat in the same room as me right now, the sound of knuckles cracking would resemble a thunderclap right about now, as they all warm up their phalanges to proclaim that the battle system is “old-fashioned.”
I live in a brick apartment building in Brooklyn. The building was built in 1890. It has survived literal fires and hurricanes. If Dragon Quest XI’s battle system is old fashioned, it’s old-fashioned the way my apartment building is old-fashioned. It’s a brick house. What I’m saying is, sometimes old stuff survives because it’s good and it was made well by competent American bricklayers (or Japanese game designers).
That’s not to say the system has not ever changed in the past three decades.
It’s true that the fundamentals of Dragon Quest’s battle system — and its entire numbers economy at large — were set in stone in 1986. If you want a fascinating quick glimpse at this rock-hard core, look up the “Dragon Warrior Formula Guide” on GameFAQs, which is the result of user Ryan8Bit learning Nintendo’s assembly language in order to break apart the mathematical formulas of the original Dragon Quest. Poke around a little bit. You might not need to be a math professor to find the thoughtful cleanliness of Dragon Quest’s numbers interesting. All the way back in 1986, Yuji Horii transformed his fascination with Dungeons & Dragons into a game as palpably simple as a Rubik’s Cube.
True to the series’ title, Dragon Quest XI contains many dragons.
Each new entry in the series adds one or more extra layers to the system, though Yuji Horii’s team of veteran game designers is remarkably never afraid to peel the clock all the way back to the fundamentals before application of said new layers. Dragon Quest III introduced the job class system. Dragon Quest IV took it away. Dragon Quest V introduced a system in which you capture and train monsters. Dragon Quest VI took it away. (Yes, the DS remake had a class that let you capture monsters, though that doesn’t count.) Dragon Quest VII implements the job system, though it doesn’t give it to you until about 30 hours into the game. Dragon Quest VIII introduced a “charge” mechanic that drastically multiplies the effect of a character’s next action in exchange for their inaction in the current turn. Hey, that sounds kinda like Bravely Default. And also Brave Story: New Traveler for PSP. Don’t even get me started talking about that game.
Dragon Quest XI’s battle system is the series’ best yet. As always, it’s based on the same rock-solid core as previous Dragon Quests, upon which the game designers have carefully placed three new layers.
These layers are characters, skills, and the pep system.
Characters in Dragon Quest XI don’t have job classes. Rather, they all have peculiar personalities and quirkily rigid skill sets. You’re meant to mix and match party members according to your tastes or the situation. The characters are so shockingly full of multi-faceted depth that I’m going to have to talk about them more in the next section.
As you level characters up, you earn skill points, which you can use to unlock skills in a “character builder” menu. This works a lot like Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid or Final Fantasy XII’s License Board, though in true Dragon Quest fashion, the game keeps the integers small, forcing the decisions to be crushingly crucial.
You have to choose pretty early on if you want your hero to specialise in one-handed or two-handed swords, although you can redo that choice whenever you’d like by going to a priest and paying a small fee. For everyone you’ll have to choose between developing physical attributes or abilities. Sylvando can learn swords, daggers, or whips. That’s more weapons than anybody else.
You might want to make a beeline for Erik’s “Dual-Wielding” skill. Now forge him two +3 broadswords. One of his hands is weaker than the other, because he’s a person, though having two swords at once can be pretty helpful early on.
Which skills you’ve unlocked for a character determines who you’re going to want in your party, and when. You can swap in party members during battle, though only when it’s your turn and any character being swapped out isn’t confused or asleep. Or dancing.
The final layer of Dragon Quest XI’s battle experience is the most mysterious: the “pep” system. One of Dragon Quest’s oldest traditions is what game designers call “hidden information.” You may have also heard this phrase if you hang out with board game players. Dragon Quest games — and Japanese role-playing games in general — burst at the seams with visible integers, though it’s the hidden floating numbers that most tantalise my game-liking glands. The pep system is a motherlode of hidden math.
As characters in Dragon Quest XI battle, they earn points toward an invisible “pep” value. When the pep value reaches its unknowable quota, the character enters “pep” state. I think it’s interesting to point out that the Japanese version calls “Pep” “The Zone.” In the Japanese version, instead of saying “The Hero is pepped up!” they say “The Hero entered The Zone!”
This is useful to point out because it makes me remember a Japanese friend of mine who played pachinko professionally. He often had to explain himself to incredulous friends of friends. He said once, “It’s just like any other job. You have some coffee, you sit down, and maybe an hour later, you Enter The Zone.” I distinctly remember him using the English phrase “The Zone” adapted into Japanese.
Dragon Quest XI’s “zone” is most likely an allusion to the gambler’s flow state. This is deliciously fitting given the Dragon Quest’s series’ copious historical allusions to casino culture. Heck, there’s a casino in every Dragon Quest game. (Oh god let’s not talk about the casino in Dragon Quest XI. I spent literally 40 hours in there.)
This is just the first page of the five pages of instructions for only one of the casino games. I love it so much.
Many things can happen when a character is in the zone.
When in the zone, a handful of a character’s attributes go up. Which attributes depends on the character. The hero’s attack power goes up. Serena has healing spells: her healing magic power goes up. Veronica has attack spells: her attack magic power goes up. How long does the zone last? You never know. You can do what I did, and try counting the number of turns until the zone goes away, though it varies. The game is selecting a hidden random number from an artisanally crafted fluctuating range.
You’ll know the zone is going to end on your next turn when you see the zone icon by your character’s portrait flashing.
The zone becomes incredibly more fascinating when you consider “zone link” attacks. (The English version calls them “pep powers.” I’m sorry: I keep trying to type “pep” and I end up typing “zone.” This is the first Dragon Quest I’ve played in English since Dragon Warrior IV on the NES in 1992.)
Zone links are available when you have two or three characters in the zone at the same time. You unlock zone links by unlocking skills on the characters’ character builders. The characters then perform a super-special move which invariably has some kind of bonkers animation. Some of the animations are incredible. (I have only included a couple of the most elementary ones in my video. They get absolutely wild as the game goes on.)
The caveat is that zone links remove all involved members’ zone statuses. You’d think you might want to ride out the zone until the last possible turn before cashing out. Though sometimes you’ll get to that last turn of a character’s zone and the battle will have twisted itself into a situation where a character has to heal or renew a buff spell or else die, and thus you lose the chance to execute the powerful attack.
Furthermore, some of the zone links aren’t attacks. Some of them are complex cocktails of buffs. The decision tree branches everywhere. Considering passive zone bonuses while simultaneously flailing toward predictions of four turns ahead in an optional boss battle exerts a brain-chemical friction not entirely unlike that found in No Limit Hold ‘Em. It’s incredible what the game can do with so few tiny numbers.
(Aside: Jason Schreier commented, on my above point, that he never found any of the bosses challenging. Here I must clarify that, to me, simply beating a boss isn’t enough. I hold myself to an impossible standard. I have to beat a boss viciously, with the weakest party possible.)
If you’re like me (according to my mom, you’re probably not) if you’re like me, you’ll keep a notebook open on your lap in an attempt to extrapolate formulas for how zones work. You’ll count the turns zones tend to last. You’ll count the turns that tend to transpire between exiting one zone and entering another. You’ll have theories, like, “I think Erik’s biggest zone entrance status value increase happens when the hero takes physical attack damage” or “I think Serena approaches zone more quickly when she casts heal spells on her sister.” Ultimately, you’re at the mercy of a random number generator whose architect has literally been wearing tinted glasses indoors for forty years.
You can grind if you want. You can save up money to buy equipment. Or you can find recipes in bookshelves or treasure chests, scavenge for materials, and forge better equipment, though given the delicacy of Dragon Quest’s numbers economy and the subtly built characters, “better” is always difficult to define.
Tip: Dragon Quest pioneered auto battle. It offers you a handful of thoughtfully designed behaviour paradigms to switch between at will. You’re supposed to use auto battle most of the time. That’s the reason the very first menu you see in a battle offers you the choice between “fight” and “tactics.”
So now we have to talk about the characters.
I love them. They are my best friends.
Every Dragon Quest is at its core a canvas for charismatic characters. Some of these games use the popular job class system pioneered by Dragon Quest III and mercilessly burglarised by Final Fantasy III. Dragon Quest VII combined charismatic characters with a job system.
Dragon Quest XI places the focus on the characters. Each of them is a person first and a set of attributes second.
No character is exactly a mage or exactly a fighter. They all fight, well, about how you would expect the character to fight based on the way they talk in cutscenes. This is a sublime element that’s hard to capture in simple examples. You just sort of have to feel it out over a couple dozen hours.
Dragon Quest XI starts you with just one character — the hero — and lets you quest for a short while so as to check off the Dragon Quest I homage box (Dragon Quest I was the only one with just one character, you see).
You then acquire your first companion, and are rarely alone after that. Eventually you’ll have seven characters, of which you can only use four at a time.
I love Erik, no matter how much his English voice actor makes him sound like an Australian who improbably emigrated to Brooklyn circa 1844.
The characters’ traits are structured intriguingly around the concept of pairs. The hero and the thief Erik form a best friends duo. The next two characters you meet are the mage sisters Veronica and Serena, who are clearly a duo of their own: Veronica is more of an attack mage and Serena is more of a healer.
Later you meet two martial artists, Jade and Rab, who have a sort of a grandfather-granddaughter vibe going on.
The only character without a built-in buddy is Sylvando, and this is clearly intentional: Sylvando is an entertainer, and is able to get along with anybody — and thus form a separately intricate, mechanically crucial battle dynamic with each other character.
Let me just stop for a second and say I love Sylvando. His intro chapter devotes several hours to his totally queer-eyeing the toxic masculinity right clean out of this cowardly prince of a horse-worshipping desert kingdom. Sylvando is incredibly thoughtful, empathic, and loving, and also coincidentally complex, capable, competent, and confident. He’s also your strongest physical fighter! He can use both swords (the stereotypically “manly” Dragon Quest weapons) and whips (the stereotypically “girly” Dragon Quest weapons). Girls love him. Guys want to be him. What else can I say? He is a beautiful man, and I love him.
What a classic dude.
Dragon Quest XI’s story is about loyalty — these six people of various walks of life, compelled by some reason or fate to adhere themselves to the prophesied legendary hero (“The Luminary”) and to never let him go, nor ever let him down. Subtly, a commentary on the nature of true loyalty — and thus, love — bubbles into even the most mundane grind sessions: each of these characters forms a subtly different mechanical bond with the hero, and with each other character, while simultaneously possessing a stronger bond with just one other character.
Gently, the overarching theme of self-sacrifice exerts itself even in the coldest mechanical moments. For example, Sylvando has excellent attack strength and speed, and is thus a more-than-capable fighter on his own. However, he is also the only character to start out equipped with both attack and speed buff spells. In other words, Sylvando can attack, or he can use his turn to elevate a weaker party member up to his physical level. In plainer terms: a strong fighter is the one with the strength buff. In other RPGs, a strength buff would be for a support-class character. Here the “hangoutitude” comes back into focus: when considering which of the 35 possible constructions of your party to use, what you’re really doing is thinking about what you and buds are gonna do when you hang out later.
The hero is less bombastically remarkable than any of his companions. He can use one-handed or two-handed swords. He can use various healing and attack magics.
Thematically, he is a man surrounded by loyalty, and by love. One of the first spells he learns is heal. Your first companion can only perform physical attacks. You play as a man surrounded by love right from the beginning of the experience, and the most useful thing you can do is nurture that love by healing it while it attacks stinky monsters with its pointy daggers.
As the plot progresses and your companions proclaim and prove their loyalty again and again, the hero’s physical strength ascends incredibly, yet you’ll often find yourself commanding the hero to support his allies rather than attack on his own. The entire point of the story sleeps somewhere in here.
If it sounds like I’m reaching here, I promise I am not. I have been obsessing over these games for thirty years. The streak of thematic pulp running deep through the battle system is definitely and poetically intentional.
Veronica and Serena team up in a sisterly fashion for a complex heal + buff spell.
As we’ve said about a hundred times so far, Dragon Quest games are never nearly the cultural phenomenon in the west that they are in Japan. One can cynically diagnose quote-unquote western audiences as being quote-unquote “too unsophisticated” to appreciate the charms of subtle thematic reinforcement undercurrent running beneath battle mechanics, though that’s only half-true. You see, I think that the fabric of the plot alone is too subtle a selling point for ANY audience.
Dragon Quest succeeded in Japan because the series was born at a time when Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball was hotter than hot. That’s it. That’s the reason.
In my estimation, the series’ success endured because of the miraculous mechanics-plot chemistry. It endured because of the wonderful depth of the battles and the fairy-tale themes of the story. It endured because the games never don’t feel like personal experiences, like friendly letters from an uncle who knows the best curry restaurant at every train station in Tokyo.
And that’s hard to sell to a culture that hasn’t already been subjected to the massive marketing machine of a comics magazine like Shonen Jump.
The first Dragon Quest succeeded because its makers were smart. The rest of them succeed because its makers make good stuff.
Also, the makers are generous. This, too, is something you can’t simply sell.
Dragon Quest games overflow with generosity, though to go into detail about this in a television commercial or a game review would be to spoil the plot.
Dragon Quests present themselves as cutesy western-style fairy tales with art by Dragon Ball’s Akira Toriyama, and to play them is to while away painless hours in childish reverie. Anyone with an IQ in double digits can see nine out of ten Dragon Quest plot twists eleven miles away.
Then that tenth plot twist comes. That’s why I love these games. The irregular rhythm of the darkness of a Dragon Quest game is a heck of a drug. I mean, I absolutely am not the sort of guy who would ever seriously tell somebody, “Just give it twelve hours, man, and it gets real good,” and I realise that what I’m about to do is sort of like saying, “Just give it forty hours, man, and it gets real good,” though holy lord I love the second half of this game so much.
(The first half is great, too.)
I’m gonna be as vague as I can: Dragon Quest games tend to take about a hundred hours to finish. Don’t think of that as one game, though. The generosity of a Dragon Quest game is such that the games tend to contain their own sequels. You’re not watching a movie: you’re watching four whole seasons of a TV show. This makes the games hecka hard to advertise without spraying spoilers.
You’ll see what I mean.
Yes, Veronica is an adult woman cursed so that she appears to be a child. I assure anyone rolling their eyes at this description that she is never even slightly sexualised and her character is frequently hilarious. I’ll admit: I thought she was funnier in the Japanese version, where I didn’t have to hear her voice.
Dragon Quest plots always hinge on a cute little structural gimmick. Here we have to remember that Dragon Quest creator, director, designer, and writer Yuji Horii wrote, like, 11/12ths of Chrono Trigger.
Ask anyone’s dog and they’ll tell you Chrono Trigger is the Best RPG Ever. Sure, Chrono Trigger is great, and okay, sure, maybe it IS the Best RPG Ever. It’s great because its plot hinges on the perfect bite-size gimmick of “time travel.” It’s like Dragon Ball Z stuck in an elevator with Doctor Who. If you dive deeper than the two words “time travel” and really pick Chrono Trigger apart, you see that its true glorious achievement is structure.
On the other hand, Dragon Quest V, Dragon Quest VII, Dragon Quest III, Dragon Quest IV, Dragon Quest VIII, and Dragon Quest XI are all just as good as Chrono Trigger. Yeah, I said it.
Each of those Dragon Quests has a single bite-sized structural gimmick that unfurls, ripples, and billows as the game grows long, until eventually, you look down and admire the gorgeousness of its tapestry. You’re like, “I was having such a good time hanging out with my buds that I almost didn’t even see Yuji Horii weaving this gorgeous tapestry!”
Here I will refrain from spoiling what Dragon Quest XI’s tiny little gimmick is. It doesn’t openly present it until it’s way too late for you to think it doesn’t sound clever enough on paper.
Dragon Quest XI’s English version is more than just a localisation.
They made the UI background brown instead of grey.
Some of the graphics are better! Seriously, I spent a lot of time with the Japanese version and a lot of time with the English version. The English version has a better frame rate. I don’t know what they did. I expect Digital Foundry will have a good breakdown on YouTube.
They added a first-person camera look mode, so you can ogle all the cakes, and bread!
They added a dash option, so now the hero runs way, way, way too fast on the overworld. The Japanese version didn’t have this. I love it.
Some NPCs speak words in Spanish, or Italian. Everybody talks with an accent. If accents are your favourite thing, Dragon Quest XI is gonna kill you with kindness.
The twin sisters Veronica and Serena are British, where I had totally imagined them as Russian. though I’m not nearly as mad about that as I am mad that they spelled Veronica with a C and not a K. Like, they spelled “Erik” with a K. In Japanese, his name was “Kamyu.” I guess they didn’t want to give them both Ks. Wow, I am bad at nitpicking this game.
Also, yes, there are voices. I asked you all on Twitter to ask me questions about the game, and most of you just wanted me to talk smack about the voices. I’m sorry. I can’t do that.
I can’t compare the English voices to the Japanese voices, because the Japanese version didn’t have voices. I can say, however, that as I captured footage for this review, I made sure to let the characters read their entire lines. The performances are great and full of character.
If you want to squeeze a complaint out of me, here it is: the delivery is almost universally too slow. There’s not a single character or voice actor I don’t wish would hurry up and read the line already. I am sure this is tied to the mouth animations. Though occasionally it interferes with the cinematic pacing of a cutscene.
You can skip the lines if you want, by pressing the confirm button, though that causes a jarring tempo disruption.
(The cutscenes, by the way, are always incredibly well staged and composed. Someone working on this game could have had a career in editing major motion pictures.)
My favourite voice performance is probably Jade. The performance is understated and exudes the confidence that the character can’t stop visually presenting every time she is on screen. I still can’t stop referring to her by her Japanese name, “Martina.”
Rab’s Japanese name was Law, which makes him sound Asian, which, uh, he is. Though in English he’s about as Scottish as a Scrooge McDuck who ate a Scrooge McDuck.
Sometimes the voice acting really hits upon, like, some 1995 Funimation Dragon Ball dub vibes. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching a television show for toddlers. I’ve been in the same room as a toddler watching Teen Titans Go on an iPad, and this game has me flashbacking pretty hard at times — usually when a boss monster is introducing himself.
With the Japanese version, someone stepping into my living room would be like, “Wow, do you read Japanese?” And I’d be like, “What? Oh, you must be referring to The Superior Nihongo.”
With Dragon Quest XI in English, they’re like, “lol what is this?”
And I’m like, oh no. Am I...am I a child? I’m 39 years old. 39 divided by 3 is 13. Am I three 13-year-olds in a trenchcoat? Do I even own a trenchcoat? (I don’t own a trenchcoat.)
Animations often present Veronica’s attack magic like Dragon Ball projectiles, which is not something the series has ever leaned on before. I can’t imagine why not, and I’m not complaining.
In conclusion, everything I have said about Dragon Quest XI being one of the best games of all time is definitely correct, because I played the game in Japanese for 300 hours. I wouldn’t have done that if it weren’t a masterpiece.
Heck, I played the game so much that in my very first moments playing the English version, I instinctively pressed the circle button, which cancelled me back to the title screen. I am such a hard core player of Dragon Quest in Japanese that I continued to forget the game had changed confirm to the X button for the next 30 hours of my experience. This lead to some kooky goofs during battles.
Hey Square-Enix! Next time you’re meticulously localising and adding a bunch of UI polish to a Japanese RPG, maybe add a controller remapping menu in there! Because I sure am never gonna feel right pressing X to confirm. I have been alive for 39 years and while I may have learned a lot of stuff, I am never gonna learn that.
Because I was born stupid.
I will not die hungry.
Video Games Forever.
Kotaku Dot Com.