Dragon Quest XI comes out on the Nintendo Switch tomorrow. I’ve played the original game four times all the way through on the PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo 3DS. I’ve now spent 20 hours with the Switch version, and I can safely say it’s the best way to play this game, which I consider the best instalment in my favourite game series.
In summary: the Switch version is portable. Dragon Quest’s developers have apparently decided that portability is the “definition” of Dragon Quest.
Consider this post a supplement to the review I wrote of the PlayStation 4 and Steam English release of Dragon Quest XI last year for Kotaku. You can read that review right here.
Dragon Quest – glacially paced, Tolstoy-long fairy-tale role-playing games whose art direction literally consists of the artist of Dragon Ball redesigning Dungeons & Dragons monsters and character classes in cute anime style – has been my favourite game series for 30 years. Considering the games’ unfailing commitment to depth, length, generosity, salt-of-the-earth wisdom, and rewarding patience, in my review last year I decided Dragon Quest XI was the best entry in its series.
I stand by every word I wrote in that review – except the minor calculation errors regarding the battle system that FAQ-writers uncovered in the months after its publication.
If I were to write a review of Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age S: Definitive Edition, I’d write almost exactly the same review that I wrote last year. This is high praise: the game is masterfully great.
However, when I say I’d write “almost exactly the same review,” I’m also saying that the additions, improvements, and tweaks that Dragon Quest XI S makes over the original game do not excite me nearly as much as, you know, the original game. Rather, most of the Definitive Edition additions serve to inject quality of life that I, so enthused with the presence of a new Dragon Quest game, did not even notice was missing.
If I’d played Dragon Quest XI S before playing the original Dragon Quest XI, my review probably would not mention any of these “Definitive Edition” alterations. I’d be too busy talking about the Dragon Quest series as a whole. I’d be going on and on about this series is so old in video game years that it’s practically an ancient tradition. I’d be declaring it miraculous that these ageing creators have somehow transcended even their best work with this instalment.
I’d be too busy talking about how Dragon Quest games work best when you treat them like bedtime stories (30 minutes after a bath, before bed) to bother to mention that it’s nice to be able to dress your characters in flashy costumes without sacrificing the stats of superior armour items.
I’d be too busy talking about how Dragon Quest XI, first announced on the 30th anniversary of the original Dragon Quest, sublimely flows like a Dragon Quest greatest hits mixtape that I wouldn’t have time to mention the newly added pixel-art side-stories tying directly into previous Dragon Quest games.
If I were to review Dragon Quest XI S without having ever played Dragon Quest XI, I’d not even mention the ability to fast-forward battles. My fond memories of wasting entire summer days playing Dragon Warrior III on the NES prevent me from encouraging you to hurry through a role-playing game.
Therefore, I won’t say that my video today is a “review” of Dragon Quest XI S: consider it a supplemental critique of the Switch version’s additions and improvements.
How are the graphics? Well, they’re complicated
Dragon Quest XI was one of the first Nintendo Switch games ever announced. When series director Yuji Horii announced Dragon Quest XI for PlayStation 4 and Nintendo 3DS in 2016, he also announced that it was in development for Nintendo’s new console, then called the “NX.”
Yet when Dragon Quest XI was released in Japan on July 29th, 2017, the Switch version was nowhere to be seen.
The developers issued nebulous comments about the Unreal Engine presenting performance issues on the Nintendo Switch. I’ve played Fortnite on my Nintendo Switch, so I believe them.
Thirteen months after the Japanese version of Dragon Quest XI was released, the English version came out. I made a big, long review. This review became quite popular on YouTube.
After I uploaded my review, I got 5,000 new Twitter followers in less than a week, and 10,000 in the course of a month.
These 10,000 people all knew me as “The Dragon Quest Review Guy.” I mean, I’m not complaining. I’ll take it.
Over the next several months, I received more questions about Dragon Quest than about anything else. And the most popular Dragon Question of all was absolutely “Should I just wait for the Switch version?”
A lot of question-askers presumed the Switch version had already come out in Japan. It hadn’t.
Many of these questioners adopted a more speculative phrasing: “Should I wait and see if they make a Switch version?”
Square Enix was keeping so eerily silent about the status of the Switch version that some people were assuming its announcement had been a dream.
Fan speculation swirled, much of it in my mentions. Seeing as “video” accounts for 50% of the word count of the phrase “video games,” most of this speculation concerned the graphics.
Here’s a simulation of what that speculation looked like: “The graphics are going to be bad.”
Well, now Dragon Quest XI S is here, on my Nintendo Switch. (And yours, if you downloaded the demo.) The graphics are great.
Unless you elect to play the Steam version of Dragon Quest XI on my home PC at 1080p and 120 frames per second (or 4K at 60 frames per second) for about a hundred hours before starting Dragon Quest XI S for the Nintendo Switch, you might not have any complaints about the graphics.
Handheld, the game looks as good as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 or Breath of the Wild, the games that twohandedly proved to me that, yeah, I’d play a massive living-room-style triple-A video game on a bus if you gave me the opportunity to easily put it onto a television when I reach my stop.
If you put Dragon Quest XI S up on your TV—ah, suddenly my wrists hurt. Wow, my body doesn’t want me to hate on Dragon Quest. I will type this next paragraph with my nose:
It’s got about as many jaggies as non-jaggies. When you leave the desert and enter a not-desert place, you might be like, “Why is that heat mirage effect still happening?”
At least the framerate is consistent. I mean, it’s also low, though that’s not the point.
If I hadn’t played Dragon Quest XI at 4K and 60fps on my PC (also, yes, 1080p and 120fps, if you’re keeping score), I’d simply be so overcome with the overjoy that a brand-new Dragon Quest brings that a single critical thought concerning the graphics would never sprout up in my brain. This is a sprawling, charming, generous video game that offers you pretty much six anime seasons’ worth of plot twists. Framerate scrutiny must bend the knee before the breadth of this content.
What else is new?
Speaking of anime: Dragon Quest XI S features a full Japanese voiceover. You can switch to it at any time. I adore it.
You can also switch the music from the new orchestrated soundtrack to the synthesised original at any time. I mean, if you want to. I am not sure why you’d want to. Please watch my video if you want to hear a great (I think), long joke about the music. I can’t say any more without spoiling it. (Except this: the orchestrated music owns, and belongs here. The new orchestrated music is so good that Kotaku's Stephen Totilo walked into my office and said “Is that a game? I thought you were just listening to classical music.” Thanks for complaining so much, everybody. You did it!)
One thing you can’t switch to at any time, however, is the gorgeous new 2D pixel-art graphical mode. You can only do that at churches, and even then the game requires you to make a new save file, and choose a chapter to start from.
It’s hardly instant. You might lose as much of an hour of story progress. Furthermore, chapter beginnings and endings are nebulous: the game never trumpets the opening or close of a story arc. So when you choose a chapter to start from, you might not know exactly where you’re going to land in the different graphics mode.
Helpfully, though, the game lets you carry over all your experience and equipment. It’s like a new game plus, in the middle of the game!
Hold up a second: earlier I described 2D mode as a “gorgeous” and “new.” I’m sorry. I forgot to turn my Dragon Quest Fan Mode switch off.
By “new,” I meant that 2D mode is “new” for the English audience. The 2017 Japanese 3DS version already featured this 2D mode. I played it extensively back then. I loved it.
By “gorgeous,” I meant that this mode presents you a bare-bones, no-frills “demake” of the lushly 3D Dragon Quest XI. It’s “gorgeous” if you played a 16-bit Dragon Quest game between the early 1990s and 2002. Do not expect anything on the level of stylised, polished pixel art like Octopath Traveler. Dragon Quest XI S’s 2D mode revels in chunky crustiness. It shows you what Dragon Quest XI would have looked like had it actually come out in 1993.
I say “1993,” because that’s the year before Final Fantasy VI came out.
2D Mode: more than just “graphics”
And though I’ve repeatedly called 2D mode a “graphical mode,” my experience playing it in close juxtaposition with the console-quality 3D mode has convinced me that 2D mode is different enough to qualify as a separate game.
It eschews 3D mode’s avoidable enemies for more traditional random encounters. In exchange, it shrinks every map down to a pitch-perfect facsimile of an 8- or 16-bit Japanese role-playing game.
Your first few hours in 2D mode might feel weird if you have already played a lot of this game in 3D. Towns might feel claustrophobic. The world map might feel insignificant. Cutscenes blink by in displays of old-fashioned paper doll melodrama. The game feels wildly fast-paced.
After a few hours, you might come to appreciate that grandiose, huge-scale open worlds like the one in Dragon Quest XI’s 3D mode are a modern invention. Pumping a game full of details and dragging out its drama is a thing of the now.
3D Dragon Quest XI is a 100-hour game. 2D Dragon Quest XI is more like an 80-hour game. I mean, that’s still huge, though it’s a different, lonelier, more battle-system-enjoying kind of huge.
Many Twitter friends who consider me “The Dragon Quest Review Guy” have been telling me they plan to play Dragon Quest XI S twice: once in 2D, and once in 3D. Then they ask me which I’d choose first.
I go into depth about this in the video, though here’s the short answer: play it in 3D first. This game has roots in 1986, though it was developed in 2016. The cutscenes are well directed. The voices are lovely. The 3D level geometry is fantastic. The towns are beautiful. You get none of that in 2D mode.
I’d say consider 2D mode a supplement. When you’ve gotten to the end of 3D mode’s main campaign, break off a new save file to experience 2D mode as a treat. Do your endgame grind in 2D. By this point you’ll have already spent 60 hours in the main game. You’ll know all the locations by heart. Seeing them demade into 2D will blow your mind. You’ll love it.
At least, that’s how I played the game. I’m now considering the hypothetical perspective of someone who plays the 2D mode first and then plays the 3D mode afterwards. That’d be wild. That’d be like having both the original Final Fantasy VII and the Remake in one package.
Should you play Dragon Quest XI S: Definitive Edition?
If you’ve already played through Dragon Quest XI on PlayStation or Steam, is there enough new here to tempt you to play it again? How much do you really want to see the new character costumes? Does the ability to forge items wherever you want instead of just at camp amount to a Grand Theft Auto-level power fantasy for you? Do you really, really want to play the classic throwback 16-bit episodes and the weird little DLC-like character episodes? Is all that, plus the 2D mode and the Japanese voice acting in 3D mode worth £50 to you?
If Nintendo hadn’t sent me a free code for this game, I’ll be honest: I’ve have preordered the Japanese collector’s editions.
I absolutely will play this game in its entirety all the way through again, both because it’s now portable and because it’s an excellent game.
If you’re one of the billions of people who have not played this game, and you own a Nintendo Switch, congratulations: you patience pays out bigtime. This is the best version of this game to play. And this game is the best game in my favorite game series. You don’t need to have played any other games in the series to play this one: Dragon Quest XI flows like a greatest hits mixtape, expertly representing all the finer points of the series.
Though if you absolutely want to bonker out on Dragon Quest, you could play Dragon Quest I, II, and III first, remasters of which are also releasing on Switch tomorrow. This first trilogy expresses many themes that resonate with some of the more dramatic moments of Dragon Quest XI, and it won’t take you more than 40 little hours to get through all three games.
I’m sorry. I’ve become what I’ve always feared: I just gave you homework.
Feel free to ignore the homework assignment and just play Dragon Quest XI S for Switch.
Just make sure you play it portably, in bed, thirty minutes a night, in 3D mode, with headphones; turn on the Japanese voice acting, and don’t fast-forward the battles (unless you’re a narc).