Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age review (PS4)

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age will be remembered as one of the JRPG greats, at least of this generation. As is always true of Dragon Quest games, Echoes of an Elusive Age is instantly familiar, yet feels new and fresh at the same time. I said as much in my first impressions piece, and the 80-odd hours I’ve spent with the game since have only solidified that. Dragon Quest XI is as classic as JRPGs get, and that’s a wonderful thing indeed.

As is always the case with this series, Dragon Quest XI opens with a prophesied hero setting out on a quest to save the world from an all-encompassing evil, this time a demon called Mordegon. With little by way of information to go on beyond vague folk tales, this hero—known as the Luminary—travels the world with a growing ensemble of allies, helping people in need along the path to finally stopping the encroaching darkness once and for all.

It’s the same broad framework as every other Dragon Quest game, and like every other Dragon Quest game, that gives it an immediate familiarity, but without feeling like a tired rehash. The world and characters of Dragon Quest XI are unique enough to make it stand apart, even as the bigger picture mirrors what came before—like an ancient folk tale, told and retold a hundred different ways over the course of time.

Those unique characters are the likes of Sylvando, a camp entertainer who rejected his knightly upbringing to “bring smiles to the world”. The twins Veronica and Serena are descendants of a great sage, and who, though equally serious in their duty to support the Luminary, approach that duty very differently: Veronica is brash and sassy, a foil to Serena’s quiet strength. Erik is an unexpectedly cheerful rogue, a far cry from the anti-hero trope you’d assume from his appearance, and the warrior princess Jade is both a formidable fighter and a picture of royal elegance.

Even these are Dragon Quest archetypes—Veronica has a lot in common with Dragon Quest IV‘s Alena, Serena calls to mind Dragon Quest V‘s Nera, and so on—but, as always, they’re given enough personality to break out of those boxes. Each character takes an archetype and builds upon it, rather than being locked into a trope.

Again, take the example of the twins. At first glance, they neatly fit into boxes of “the sassy one” and “the quiet one”, but the more time we spend with them, the more we see how those boxes don’t quite fit. Veronica may seem irresponsible and rude, but she’s wholly committed to her quest, driven by a passion to see a better world that only grows brighter as the journey presses on. Serena may seem indecisive or doubtful of herself, but there’s a fierce determination beneath the surface that becomes abundantly clear.

Likewise, the overall plot of Dragon Quest XI quietly subverts the form, even as it sticks close to it. It’s true enough that the Luminary is a hero destined to stop the Lord of Darkness and save the world, but he spends most of the game on the run, accused of being the “Darkspawn” responsible for the spread of evil to begin with. Some of the bigger plot twists—which I won’t spoil here—directly upend the familiar Dragon Quest framework. Even if they’re only a temporary diversion from the timeless “light versus darkness” tale, they’re enough to set Dragon Quest XI in its own stead.

It’s that commitment to tradition, but without being held back by it, that defines every facet of Dragon Quest XI. You see it in the battle system, too, which hasn’t changed all that dramatically since the first Dragon Quest came out more than 30 years ago, but introduces some small but noteworthy improvements for a more streamlined experience. Animations tend to play out quicker than in previous games, and there’s some overlap at the edges to keep things ticking along—so you might see one character rush forward to attack while the previous one is running back to their spot on the battlefield, or while the last remnants of a spell animation fizzle out. It’s a small touch, but it makes a huge difference to the flow of turn-based battles.

The Pep system adds a new element to combat, but without fundamentally changing it. Any time a character’s turn comes up, they have a small chance of becoming “pepped up”, increasing their stats and giving them access to powerful “Pep Power” special moves. Neither the stat boosts nor the Pep Powers are game changing enough that the random nature of the system becomes frustrating, but when a character does get pepped up, it’s a welcome bonus and a few other tools at your disposal.

Similarly, exploring the world of Dragon Quest XI tends to follow the mold of every other Dragon Quest (and most other JRPGs in general), but with a few little flourishes here and there. New to the main Dragon Quest series is the ability to jump, with many a treasure hidden behind some sort of light jumping puzzle. In some areas, certain marked enemies become mountable after being defeated, giving you access to new parts of the map: a demon can climb walls, a wasp can glide over bodies of water, a dragon can fly, a robot can jump much higher than usual. Modern conveniences like autosaves, more frequent save points, easily avoidable encounters, and the ability to teleport from within doors—no more bumping your head when you cast Zoom!—all help keep potential tedium to a minimum.

Again, none of these are groundbreaking innovations, but they all work to tinker around the edges of a very robust classical JRPG framework to make it feel modern.

This refreshed traditionalism carries through even to Dragon Quest XI‘s presentation. Where other JRPG stalwarts seem to regularly mix things up with music, art style, and character and monster designs, Dragon Quest has remained remarkably consistent over the years. Every recurring monster carries the same whimsical design, only now they’re in higher definition. Even though they’re unique to Dragon Quest XI, the characters are all instantly recognizable as Dragon Quest characters thanks to Akira Toriyama’s distinctive art style, but now there’s more detail in things like hair and clothing textures. The same familiar music is given new life with new orchestral recordings, and is accompanied by a few new themes for good measure.

Perhaps the one area of genuine innovation in Dragon Quest XI is its brilliant crafting system. Forging new equipment is crucial to progressing through the game, and the mini-game for doing so is delightful and unexpectedly complex. At its most basic, the game has you hammering away at different parts of the item until various progress meters enter a sweet spot. But an ever-increasing away of special forging moves—hitting multiple spots at once, altering the forge temperature, and so on—keeps adding new options, allowing for more varied and creative forging strategies that are essential if you want to create the best equipment in the game.

Despite Dragon Quest XI‘s commitment to tradition, Square Enix decided to throw that out the window with crafting, and I’m glad they did. They took afar is often a tedious necessity in RPGs and turned it into something that’s genuinely fun.

But it’s that overall commitment to tradition that is Dragon Quest XI‘s greatest strength. Square Enix has taken the series that gave rise to JRPGs and refined that formula to perfection, but without getting so bogged down in traditionalism that it becomes a burden. Dragon Quest XI is a classic JRPG, but isn’t some sort of throwback to some “golden age”; it’s just the latest incarnation of something that is truly timeless.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
Genre: JRPG
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PC
Release Date: 4 September 2018
The publisher supplied a copy of the game for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.