It was just a couple years ago that JRPG fans were getting swept up in the hype for Ni no Kuni, the gorgeous Level-5 RPG developed in conjunction with Studio Ghibli. Nevermind that its reviews were mixed at best; it had an overworld, and that overworld was stunning.
A few months later, Gamasutra's Christian Nutt remarked on the contrast between the hype for Ni no Kuni and the defeaning silence that accompanied Mistwalker's Blue Dragon. I replied that times had changed - traditional JRPGs were still taken for granted in 2006. There was a real hunger for a big-budget 16-bit RPG that for one reason or another Final Fantasy XIII, Lost Odyssey, and even Xenoblade Chronicles had failed to fulfill.
Enter Dragon Quest XI, the game that some are referring to as the "true sequel" to Dragon Quest VIII. No more customizable characters or co-op multiplayer ala Dragon Quest IX. No strange stab at being an MMORPG like Dragon Quest X. Dragon Quest XI will be comfort food all the way, even if it doesn't feature genre fixtures like random encounters. In the Nintendo 3DS version, it will even be possible to switch between 3D battles and a more traditional 16-bit look.
If it's anything like the previous games in the series, it is likely to feature few alterations to Dragon Quest's long-standing battle system. Characters will continue to acquire abilities automatically, putting the emphasis on team-building over individual customization, and the actual battles will be a battle to buff your party as quickly as possible and knock out foes with burst damage. As always, Dragon Quest's main goal will be to draw in nostalgic adults while enticing new fans with its engaging and accessible combat.
If that is indeed the case, I can't complain too much. Dragon Quest may not match the complexity of a game like Persona, but it makes up for it with fast-paced and often intense boss battles, which contrasts mightily with the slower burn of many turn-based RPG. Its appeal is found in the simpler joys of playing an RPG: Putting together your favorite mix of characters, knowing just when to use a certain ability, and acquiring better gear.
Outside of the combat, Dragon Quest's biggest strength has always been its engaging story, which at its best feels like an epic adventure novel filled with dozens of little character-building vignettes. That sense of adventure is heightened by its colorful menagerie of monsters, which matches Final Fantasy and Pokémon in containing some of the most recognizable characters in gaming.
Such elements have made Dragon Quest timeless and enjoyable no matter what platform it has appeared on. But as enjoyable as it can be on handheld platforms, some of the epic scope that has long been the series' calling card can't help getting lost. That will not be a problem on the PlayStation 4.
Adventuring like its 1995
Much has been written about the the migration of Japanese games to handheld platforms over the past decade. One consequence has been the perception that JRPGs have fallen out of the mainstream. Where JRPGs pushed the SNES and PlayStation to their absolute limits, they became niche affairs on handheld. You could extol Dragon Quest IX's virtues until you were as blue as a slime, but that didn't change the rather unfair public perception that paltforms like the Nintendo DS are children's toys. Hence the longing for a traditional JRPG on console. Fans are desperate to recapture some of the genre's glory days, even at the expense of more challenging and forward-thinking fare.
In Dragon Quest XI they're getting just what they want - a sprawling, big-budget JRPG with traditional mechanics. More importantly, it has a pretty good chance of being really good this time around. And since it will be on the PlayStation 4, it will have a much better chance of garnering both a western release and some mainstream attention.
Part of me is sad that much of what I loved about Dragon Quest IX will be absent in this version. I personally loved being able to customize my character and adventuring along with my friends. Dragon Quest VIII gets a lot of love in these parts for its sprawling story and lovely graphics, but I've always found it to be a little dry and slow-paced for my taste. Despite its reputation, Dragon Quest tends to be at its best when it's feeling adventurous with its mechanics, as in the case with Dragon Quest V and IX.
Fans should also be careful not to overrate its impact on mainstream gamers. Just being on a powerful console isn't necessarily enough to grab the attention of the average gamer. It's still Dragon Quest, which has always struggled to gain traction over here. I actually think Persona 5 has a chance to make a bigger splash over here than Dragon Quest XI, though I'm sure the latter will be warmly received.
As with the rest of the series, Dragon Quest XI will be a lovely trip down memory lane, which will be just what fans on both sides of the Pacific will want. But big budget console RPGs shouldn't be an end in itself. Nice as it might be to have a sprawling overworld, the pining for a next-generation console JRPG obscures the fact that the genre has had a wonderful run on handheld and elsewhere over the past few years.
Enjoy the fact that Dragon Quest XI is getting a major console release, then find yourself a copy of Fire Emblem: Awakening or Etrian Odyssey IV. Trust me, they're really good.