The hilariously steadfast Dungeons & Dragons aped dice-rolling traditions of Japanese role-playing games in the late 80’s and early 90’s appeared to die a slow, agonizing death through the dissolving waves of mediocrity offered on the Playstation 2 console; In truth the compulsive tedium of those games had merely been translated into countless unimaginably profitable handheld niches years previous. The average video game enthusiast in Japan not only had a better, constant internet connection but far more capable phone and/or mobile options. The western world, or lets say ‘anime man-child spawn of the 1990’s’ imported and supported what they could but no niche survived in the North American and European markets without weakly pandering to the rising tide of third person action games and first person shooters. Nintendo sure made some fantastic games for children along the way and Final Fantasy would fumble their output for decades trying to please both sides of the pacific ocean. The console JRPG experience, specifically the cinematic turn-based role playing game, was not dead but in no way was it thriving outside of nostalgic remakes, tributes, emulation, and bland worship sites. From my own perspective the (traditional) JRPG died a horrible death after the release of Persona 4 and Dragon Quest VIII late in the Playstation 2‘s life cycle. There were some blips on the radar thanks to Level-5 and the occasional Vanillaware or Atlus-USA release but the heavier hitters like Square-Enix failed to enthrall at every turn as they promised big and delivered complete shit art direction and dumbed-down mechanics.
So, who cares about the traditional JRPG anymore, and why did I ever like them in the first place? Well, I was a kid! This style of game offered incredible value for the investment. To play Final Fantasy VI for 30 hours, or Phantasy Star IV for 40+, meant I’d invested a huge portion of my time in (relatively) open worlds while constantly making progress. Auto-battle wasn’t a thing and the best games (Lunar: Eternal Blue, Seiken Densetsu 3) kept you on your toes and grinding. Each game offered string of varied and secret filled mazes (dungeons) creating good reason to grind and get new gear there was a constant stream of reward that came with playing these games and only very, very occasionally the Japanese RPG would offer an inspiring plot. From 1990 until 1998 I’d played just about every Super Nintendo/Famicom JRPG release, including several fan translated Japan only releases which remain among my personal favorites. The glaring hole in this undertaking was the lack of Dragon Quest/Warrior interest on my part. I’d first gotten into the remake of Dragon Quest III on the Super Famicom thanks to beautifully updated graphics but a basic initial story and a lack of interesting characters had me fall off quickly. By the year 2000 I had such a high off of Breath of Fire IV, Final Fantasy IX, Grandia II, Star Ocean: 2nd Story, and my first playthrough of Tales of Phantasia that I figured hell yes, it was time to buy Dragon Warrior VII for the Playstation and tackle its apparent 100+ hour story. To be clear I spent upwards of $80.00 USD on that game and never left the starting town, it went on a shelf and I’d sold it on eBay for like $150.00 a few years later. I’d continue to avoid the Dragon Quest series until 2009 after finding a cheap copy of Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King and I was blown away by it.
Fully polygonal presentation with cel-shaded graphics was the perfect way to present Akira Toriyama‘s designs, which were traditional high fantasy made distinct through his usual child-like whimsy. It was a darker story than expected and a difficult adventure that demanded grinding before every singly dungeon. The characters and voice acting were memorable, well written, and each felt entirely necessary for the story and in battle. I spent 90 hours with Dragon Quest VIII and loved every moment of it, going as far as defeating the Dragovian trials. So, I’m not a Nintendo handheld guy and I’d missed the Nintendo DS remakes of Dragon Quest III, IV, V, VI, and the Nintendo 3DS remakes of VII, and VIII but I did get Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies working at some point. It was more or less a story-based MMORPG-lite experience that included all of the advancements Level-5 had brought with the eighth game but at that point the series was kid shit and I had adult shit to play like The Witcher and Demon’s Souls. I’m not above playing a video game designed for all ages but the style of turn-based combat offered by the series absolutely died as bad cliches and androgynous characterizations became increasingly prevalent. I don’t role-play as an effeminate teenager, if that is your thing I understand but I’d, rather not. So, after an ill-concieved MMORPG on the Wii with Dragon Quest X, Square-Enix decided to bring an entirely traditional entry to modern consoles and well, Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is spot on both graphically and structurally as a 16-bit era Dragon Quest entry inflated to 2018 graphical capabilities, which allows for anime quality 3D rendering. The look, the feel, the animation and most of the art design are all entirely spot on but, the game falls flat on nearly every other point of value.
You begin in the world of Erdrea in some town, whatever it is called, and it is about time you had your ‘coming of age’ moment atop a mountain. You’re the warrior of light, yep. For the next 40 hours the game tasks you with running between a series of mid-to-small sized towns, villages, and kingdoms fetching things and fighting monsters until you ultimately defeat an enemy that you learn very little about. If you did feel this wasn’t enough after the credits roll, you’re in luck because there is literally 30-40 more hours of content when the game ends and yes! It is sub-par and you will need a guide to figure out what to do. I picked this game up already understanding the scope of Dragon Quest XI as the folks at Game Informer, Happy Console Gamer, and Kotaku made it clear through frankly creepy coverage between video reviews and podcast commentary. I will resist a rant about how inanely nostalgia driven each of those three takes were, how grossly poetic they’d gotten about a very bland and standard assed game, but to be fair that fan service and nerdy enthusiasm is the point of a Dragon Quest game in 2018.
I hated every moment I spent playing Dragon Quest XI. Auto-battle AI is perfect, there is no need to ever manually instruct your team outside of 2-3 major boss fights. The Dragon Quest team over at Square Enix went as far as creating a control scheme that makes it possible to play the game with one hand, so you could fuck around on your phone while ignoring it. So, what do you actually do anymore if combat is pretty much a pointless screen saver that allows for character progress? You can assign skills that create aptitude with certain types of weapons, mess with various gear combinations for sake of aesthetics, and do about 45 menial fetch quests that become available throughout the game. Oh, but the main plot is great right? No, it is the most dumbed down garbage the series has crapped out in decades and ultimately retells the Seiken Densetsu/Final Fantasy Legend storyline: You’re the warrior of light, get that sword man, yeah defeat evil, the end. Oh man, but the characters are great this time right? Remember Yangus? While I will concede that gay, and very Puerto Rican, Sylvando is hilarious and bold considering how conservative Japanese folks are… Most of the characters are infuriatingly cliche or just blandly irritating. This might’ve been more acceptable if games like Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and Persona 5 hadn’t set the bar so high for strong and varied characterization with such solid voice acting previous. The story is cliche, the game plays itself 90% of the time, and you still played 67 hours of it? Yes, I felt that it was necessary to see the game through plus there were parts of the game that were legitimately fun.
There is a short and very sweet spot in any traditional Japanese RPG where you’re just slightly over-leveled, you have a good spread of healing abilities and buffs enough that fighting difficult bosses becomes a legitimate game of chess and random chance. Dragon Quest VIII had a good 30+ hours of this that made the latter half of the experience unforgettable and challenging; Dragon Quest XI was challenging in this same way for a total of three boss fights and two very short later dungeons. Naturally I’d probably get what I wanted out of the game if I played the post-game content but there are better things that are far more worthwhile. To be clear, it isn’t as good as it looks. Combination attacks (see: Chrono Trigger) and a ‘pep’ system serve to fully automate the Psych Up/Tension system of the eighth game and remove strategic buffing while replacing it with a predictably building (hidden) gauge that powers up under calculable conditions. Consider it a cheesable random chance generator for Limit Breaks (see: Final Fantasy VII). By automating this sole point of strategy from an already overly simplified design Dragon Quest XI simply admits that it doesn’t even want to bother you with its bullshit. [CLICK/TAP here to watch 90 minutes of gameplay on YouTube].
Granted my perspective is that of a nerd who really digs hard into strategic gameplay and while the combat was beneath even rock-paper-scissors levels of complexity, I might have just breezed through the game because I understood fully how to work all of its parts. I play console RPGs using lessons learned from countless repetitive games with subtle systemic changes happening through iteration so, I know and anticipate how their entirety will play out. Talk to everyone, pick up every resource you spot, fight a bunch of enemies early on, sell excess gear, and specifically for Dragon Quest games make sure you get the hidden mini-medal from every area you visit otherwise the rewards you get from collecting them later will be meaningless. I made sure to focus on one weapon and magic type for each member, and never had less than two party members in my line-up who excelled at healing magic. By the time I was 15 hours in I was killing story-relevant bosses in 2-3 turns thanks to really focusing on resource collection and improving my skills with the Fun-Size Forge, a crafting system that can only be implemented when you camp. Camps almost function like they do in Final Fantasy XV and Dragon Age: Origins where you save, regenerate, and in Dragon Quest XI‘s case can craft items, shop, and speak with your party. The item forging mini-game is actually more fun than any of the battles in the game and though that is largely meant as a dig for the game as a whole, I legitimately had fun forging the best gear I could manage as I progressed through the game. I’d given up on this mechanic once I found a knights set for my otherwise plain-Jane girly-boy main character. Looking back on my playthrough I could have easily beaten the main story around 30 hours into it because I’d gained ability and resistance enough to do so. This is where I reflect upon the regretful hours spent doing 43 of the games ~45 side-quests, which may as well have been labeled ‘fetch quests’.
Through the weeks of playing Dragon Quest XI side-quests and backtracking through dungeons I began to really grasp how small and simple their designs were. The flat walls and bland palette swapped enemy designs could easily have come from a Playstation 2 game back in 2003 or so if reduced to their most necessary bones and I’d say the same for the generally small world of Erdrea. By the time you’re riding a dragon around the world map you’ll have literally no reason to do anything but finish the main story and I found this ultra-late mobility, which offers a terrible alternative to fast travel, completely pointless. Trust that I have severe nostalgia for this type of game but it would be a lie to recommend a game that deserves none of the benefits of nepotism or general brand recognition. The only thing separating Dragon Quest XI and a mediocre title like Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is a budget, and several parts of this game were just as blandly realized. I didn’t feel this way, or realize how soul-stomping the experience was until I’d decided to play the first few hours of Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, an equally beautiful game with a few presentation issues of its own that immediately -earns- its value with gameplay. This created a contrast so startling that I began to loathe the final hours of Dragon Quest XI, ultimately killing any nostalgia or further interest in the series or brand. I wanted darkness to win. I wanted Yggdrasil to remain dead forever.
The traditional turn-based Japanese RPG isn’t my thing anymore. I won’t pompously say that I’ve grown out of it or that I’m above anime storytelling cliches and predictable tropes. I just have no interest in such self-deflating game design that relies entirely on nostalgia and fan service. This is the 90’s hairspray blonde of videogames today, a beautiful glossy mess willing to hold your hand and coo into your ear until you grow bored of its dead eyed stare and childish stupor. If only considering 2018 there is little reason to buy this game when Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, Valkyria Chronicles 4, and Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom brought new and exciting presentation to similarly aged but satisfyingly complex JRPG ideas. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is a tired slog that cannot, and does not, sustain itself on beauty alone. As much as you might fawn over screenshots and perhaps the some of the character design it is a sorely dated and brain dead experience that will absolutely feel like a bland waste of time when you finish it. I do not recommend buying it.
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