Review: Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age

Well worth the journey.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age continues the series’ decades-long tradition of being a helluva lot like every other Dragon Quest. Enjoy straightforward, storybook tales of good versus evil? DQXI has one as polished as any I’ve ever seen. Care for the classic turn-based combat without many mechanical wrinkles to get in the way of a smooth power fantasy? That’s another plus for Dragon Quest. Do you enjoy grinding your brains out to prep for boss fights, rinsing, and repeating? Well, actually, you won’t find much of that here.

That’s because one of DQXI’s few major changes to the series’ formula is difficulty. It’s a damn sight easier than its console game predecessor—2004’s Dragon Quest VIII—which Echoes of an Elusive Age otherwise shares a lot in common with.

As in that game, you play a silent protagonist out to kill a cackling antagonist. You’ll draw a troupe of magicians, swordsmen, and assorted misfits into your party and take them into battle against many of the same monsters Dragon Quest has been refining since it debuted on the NES. Original Dragon Ball and Chrono Trigger artist Akira Toriyama’s character designs (and the designs inspired by his work) have frankly never looked smoother, more vibrant, or just plain better. Which is just one of the many polished flourishes that makes DQXI such a very, very good JRPG.

Because despite the game’s initial adherence to tradition, it very slowly allows itself to diverge from expectations. Your playable allies in particular are more colorful and ultimately relatable than in past games. They burst onto screen with larger-than-life fairy tale personalities—like Sylvando, the traveling, faux-Spanish jester who’s also a suspiciously skilled fighter—while dropping tiny hints about their deeper past lives.

It takes ages for those hints to pay off. I didn’t really learn about Sylvando until more than 50 hours into the game. That’s fine. By the time each ally reveals their emotional baggage or personal plot twist, it feels well-earned. And the game has time to burn: something around 80 hours worth, depending on how much side content you track down.

These aren’t terribly dark revelations, either. They still fit with the generally airy tone of Dragon Quest. But some are easier to see as metaphors for real-world struggles anyway. Sylvando is a clear caricature of a queer man, for example. Though the game never says it out loud. Nor does it say he ran away from home because he was too scared to come out to his family. But all the pieces of that subplot are obvious.

Crucially, despite Sylvando being a bit of a stereotype, his manner is never presented as a bad thing. The rest of the cast doesn’t erupt in gay panic at his flamboyance. If anything, they join in. Not to mention Sylvando is repeatedly presented as one of the party’s best fighters. All of the DQXI cast members get similar treatment. They’re allies on a simple, but serious quest and none of them feel relegated to pure comic relief on the way. It makes it so much easier to enjoy their company on the lengthy quest.

And there are some twists and turns on that journey beyond the personal ones. Yes, DQXI’s hero starts as some kind of chosen one. You get a boat, a magic key, and eventually an airship—all Dragon Quest traditions. But the steps along the way get just as much room to breathe as the main characters. So much so that each “chapter” of the titular quest almost feels like its own self-contained fairy tale.

One magical tragedy involving a mermaid stands out in particular. It’s a perfect example of how DQXI introduces entire new locations and lore about its world of Erdrea, while keeping its attention laser-focused on the plight of NPCs that appear, tell their story, and never come up again. So even when the stakes have nothing to do with you, or the fate of the world, they manage to feel important.

This might be a nuisance to anyone who just wants to get back to the action. There’s a lot of talking in Dragon Quest XI. It’s mercifully chronicled in a “the story so far” reminder every time you boot up the game. So there’s little worry about forgetting the status quo. Most of the plot even comes with stellar, if appropriately over-the-top voice acting, too.

But honestly, it’s just a lot to button through manually. DQXI frees itself from tradition in many ways. It does not cut down on the long-standing mountain of menu text to climb.

Saving your game still takes an entire work week. Some messages and prompts stay unskippably on-screen for several seconds too long. Which is a genuine, physical problem for me at times. I instinctively smash on the X button during every one of these sections, despite it not doing anything, to get through as fast as possible. I was less than a third of the way through when the habit caused my wrist to ache for days on end.

That likely won’t be a problem for anyone playing the game at a normal, non-review pace (unless you have the free time to swallow 80-hour JRPGs whole). But it should tell you how those tiny, “classic” inconveniences add up over time. I wonder if even the developers foresaw this problem. I eventually discovered you can use the L2 button to confirm messages, too, allowing me to alternate hands. It’s not a perfect fix, but it probably staved off debilitating RSI for at least one more game.

When you’re not hammering through text,there’s still quite a lot to do in the game’s margins. Collectible “Mini Medals” return, as they so often do in this series, as a sort of stamp collection that encourages you to check every nook and cranny of the enormous world. 

However, I was much more excited to find hidden recipes for DQXI’s crafting mini-game. It’s a lot like the one found in another of Square Enix’s JRPGs: Final Fantasy XIV. You select whatever equipment you want to make and do so by filling up various progress bars. At first you just fill them individually, hoping to hit a certain sweet spot to get a bonus on each piece of gear. But there are skills that fill four bars at once, fill them them up more, or give you just enough juice to hopefully reach that bonus point.

The whole process is a lot like the game’s bog standard turn-based combat. Only it has a puzzle element as well. It’s also addictive as all get-out. Which is why I’m kind of bummed gathering raw materials can be a real slog. I wanted to craft every time my party rested to constantly shoot for better gear with better bonuses. But I was often bottle-necked by missing ingredients.

Crafting is still a nice diversion from sneaking up on monsters, striking them to start a battle, and hitting “attack” and “heal” until they’re dead. Mind you, I like Dragon Quest’s traditional combat just fine. And the break from random encounters remains one of the series’ best changes. But without much variation—besides occasional super attacks you can use when a character takes enough hits—battles are a little simplistic to sustain the whole game.

The lower difficulty compared to other Dragon Quests means you at least don’t have to slog as much. I did basically zero grinding throughout and can count the number of times I died on one hand. But that also means you don’t need to employ much strategy—even during boss fights.

So it’s up to the charming characters, incredible creature design, fun and tragic vignettes, as well as a more twisty story than usual to keep up Dragon Quest XI’s momentum. And it’s all… frankly more than up to the task.

The game does slow down in the middle. I won’t spoil it too much, but those character revelations, which play out almost like “loyalty missions” from Dragon Age or Mass Effect, coincide with a much wider change to DQXI’s status quo. It’s a genuinely shocking moment that resets the game world in a big way. Which also means backtracking to areas you’ve previously visited (for admittedly good reason, I promise).

But other than that, Dragon Quest XI has more than enough new sights, characters, and lovely locales to fuel its massive run time. I never stopped wanting to know what silly little plot beat came next. I never stopped wanting to know more about my party members’ mysterious pasts. I never wanted to miss out on one of those special super powers during combat. It’s all just too damn delightful to miss.

If you’ve got the time, and occasionally the patience, you shouldn’t miss it, either.

VERDICT

Yes, if you are at all a fan of classic JRPGs.

Main takeaway: As polished and accessible as the Dragon Quest games have ever been. Just remember to pace yourself.