Square-Enix has delivered many children unto us across the decades, but the world takes special interest in two of its offspring: Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.
Though he's over 30 years old, Final Fantasy never settled down. He probably never will. Whenever he feels like it's time for the world to give him the attention he deserves, he drinks a bottle of absinthe, puts on crazy clothes, and stagger-runs to the park. There, he climbs to the top of the backstop fence behind the baseball field, screams "LOOK AT ME, I'M BAHAMUT" and leaps.
Sometimes Final Fantasy lands beautifully after performing a flip, and we all gasp and applaud his grace. Other times, Square-Enix is forced to scrape up what's left of their son and haul the slop home to reform him into something bigger and better.
Despite being only slightly older than Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest isn't prone to nutty leaps and weird stunts. He dresses sensibly. He keeps both feet on the ground. Does that mean he's boring? Far from it: He's steadfast, dependable, and great company for extended periods of time. He's even capable of surprising you from time to time; he just prefers to serve up something he knows his company will enjoy instead of taking big risks like his brother.
That's why Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age for the PlayStation 4 and PC is as dependable as Dragon Quest gets. In fact, it doubles down on familiarity and nostalgia by design. The opening movie alone is threaded with "Hey, 'member this?" moments, including a glimpse of Loto's sword, a logo that echoes the first game's, and a quick flash of a flying creature that vaguely resembles at least one of the legendary animals that carry you in previous Dragon Quest games (I'm not telling). As for the core of Dragon Quest XI itself, it most closely resembles Dragon Quest VIII—right down to a bonus set of "Trodain Togs" that might be in your inventory if you buy certain editions of the game. It's not inaccurate to call Dragon Quest XI a bigger, better Dragon Quest VIII that's liberally sprinkled with callbacks and cues from other well-loved entries in the series.
Is that good? If you enjoyed Dragon Quest VIII, it's very good. Like VIII, Dragon Quest XI emphasizes travel, story, and characters. But if you're hoping for another Dragon Quest installment that gives you lots of control over your party builds via a job system (think Dragon Quest III, VII, and IX), you might be a bit let-down by Dragon Quest XI's mostly hands-off approach to building up your party.
However, that's a matter of which iteration of Dragon Quest is right for you (Ask your doctor). Even if you're not already a Dragon Quest fan, Dragon Quest XI is currently one of your best options for an accessible, character-driven, turn-based RPG with handy modern options like "Run away from enemies when you don't feel like dealing with them, or just mow them down with your horse." Dragon Quest XI should keep you enthralled through its 70+ hours—and there's a 20-hour post-game if you want to go the distance.
The first half of the game is a MacGuffin hunt that gradually introduces you to Dragon Quest XI's world, its characters, and its skill system (which, again, should be familiar to fans of Dragon Quest VIII: As you level up, you earn skill points that you can pour into characters' mastery of certain weapons, as well as their innate skills). Aside from your mute hero who's the supposed re-incarnation of an ancient warrior of light and therefore destined to Save the World, you meet a thief, a short-statured wizard, her cleric twin sister, an old martial artist and his spear-wielding charge, and a joyful performer to whom everyone is "honey" and "darling"—monsters included.
The first 30 or 40 hours of Dragon Quest XI are largely, to quote The Hobbit's Bilbo Baggins, a pony ride in May. You meet plenty of strange people and take in lots of quintessentially Dragon Quest sights, like a school for posh girls who learn the art of hunting for mini-medals, the series' most prized token. When I say "posh girls," I mean posh girls of all kinds—including a Hammerhood monster who runs a love advice column in the school paper, and a pink-frocked Walking Corpse who wears copious amounts of perfume so she won't stink too badly around her beloved classmates.
Before you get too comfortable with Dragon Quest XI's sense of humor, however, it offers up a reminder that while the series specializes in offering up plenty of puns and visual gags, it's not afraid to pull the rug from under you and go a little hard, tonally. Or a lot hard.
But no matter how dark Dragon Quest XI gets, there's one constant you can count on: Its monster designs, animations, and behaviors are delightful. Dragon Ball manga-ka and Dragon Quest illustrator Akira Toriyama continues to have no peer as a monster-maker, and Dragon Quest XI's world feels like a living, breathing place thanks to his touch. Dragon Quest VIII's fully open world is gone in favor of a semi-open world wherein chunks of territory are connected by loading screens, but as a trade-off, those pockets of land are stuffed full of secrets, collectables, and the happy sight of monsters doing their own thing. Sabre-cats nap with their sabre-cubs under trees, undead priests lead skeletal soldiers on slow, eerie marches, ravens glare at you from broken fences, and more. The monsters' unique behaviors and exaggerated animations make them as much a part of the world as your hero. Early in the game, you stumble upon a Black Dragon—one of the strongest monsters in Dragon Quest's monster menagerie. As you run from the beast, the low-level enemies you struggled with moments before run alongside you: They don't want to tangle with the dragon king any more than you do. These instances of the monsters showing some semblance of intelligence make Dragon Quest XI's world feel alive, and not simply a place where you kick around enemies for some experience points before you're allowed passage to the big bad guy of the hour.
In a just world, Dragon Quest XI's music would be on par with its graphics. As we all know by now, the world's kind of a dick. Koichi Sugiyama's score for Dragon Quest XI is far from his best, even though it starts of strong with a rendition of Dragon Quest's opening theme from the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, outside of that lovely melding of strings and brass, you won't hear many orchestrated tunes in Dragon Quest XI. Worse, the sometimes-harsh MIDI just doesn't do justice to Dragon Quest XI's living world. It's telling the best pieces of music in the game call back to famous compositions from other games, e.g. a Japanese-style mountain town that features a remix of Dragon Quest III's Jipang theme, and a series of arena fights that remixes relevant compositions from Dragon Quest IV. I quickly turned the game's music down, though I left the voices cranked way, way up. Yes, the very British localization that's come to define the Dragon Quest games since Dragon Quest VIII is present in XI. There's no option for Japanese voices, so either turn the voices down or learn to love 'em, guv.
Even though Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is the 11th installment of the series, it feels like a natural follow-up to Dragon Quest VIII. That makes it a good entry point for Dragon Quest-curious players, too. There's a lot of RPG here, but it all goes down easy. Enjoy it: Games like this only visit us once in a rare while.
If you're a fan of Dragon Quest VIII, you'll find a lot to love about Dragon Quest XI. Its character-driven plot and skill system recall the series' breakout PlayStation 2 installment, though Dragon Quest XI's lively world and expressive monsters lend it a unique feeling and flavor. Some fans might feel let-down about Dragon Quest XI's lack of job system or other options that let you fine-tune every aspect of your party (what I wouldn't give to see Dragon Quest V's monster-friending system make a return), but if you're in the market for a turn-based RPG that feels nostalgic but doesn't force you to deal with old genre mechanics, you won't find a better quest.