Dragon Quest XI S for Switch is the best version of a brilliant game

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age was one of the real highlights of last year. In a time when many JRPGs seem to be either trying to aggressively “modernise” or deliberately channeling nostalgia, here was a game that felt timeless right out of the gate. It stayed true to the series’ (and the genre’s) roots without feeling like it was stuck in the past, while mixing in plenty of modern conveniences. The result was a game that, for anyone who likes JRPGs, was an utter delight to play.

Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age – Definitive Edition is all of that and then some. Everything that made the original release so great is still intact, but now it’s on a portable console—with hardly any technical compromises, to boot—and comes with a raft of new features and and little improvements to make this Dragon Quest XI S, truly, the definitive version.

Chief among those new features is the (optional) 2D mode that was previously only available in the Japan-exclusive 3DS release. Basically, the entirety of Dragon Quest XI—which is a huge game, even by JRPG standards—has been remade in the style of a Super Nintendo game. That means absolutely stunning pixel-art renditions of every character, every town, every dungeon, every monster, and every cutscene in the game, and I can’t stress enough how gorgeous this mode looks. For all the technological advancements we’ve seen in game hardware over the last couple of decades, for me, nothing can top the 16-bit era for sheer aesthetic beauty; the 2D mode in Dragon Quest XI S delivers on that in spades.

But it’s more than just a visual overhaul; 2D mode also amends the game design to more closely mirror the 16-bit Dragon Quests. That means random battles, an overworld connecting the various towns and dungeons, redesigned maps to fit the overhead perspective, no day/night cycle, and no jump button (and, subsequently, no jumping puzzles). These aren’t things that will appeal to everyone, but for anyone who loves the RPGs of yesteryear, it’s wonderful to have the option of playing what is, essentially, a lovingly-crafted “demake” of Dragon Quest XI

It may seem odd to highlight this retro mode after celebrating how good vanilla Dragon Quest XI was at not getting stuck in the past, but the crucial thing here is that it’s optional; not only do you get a choice of which mode to play when you start a new game, you can also switch between 3D and 2D mode part-way through by speaking to any priest or save statue.

The catch is that you can’t just switch mode when and where you are in the game. Rather, you have to jump to the start of a chapter and replay from that point (while retaining your character levels and any non-story-related items). On one hand, it’s frustrating to not be able to just switch mode wherever you’re up to without potentially losing story progress. On the other, it’s neat to have a sort of mid-game New Game Plus as a way of revisiting recent scenes and seeing how they compare between the different modes.

2D mode isn’t the only time you get to enjoy a 16-bit view of the world. Dragon Quest XI S also includes a series of sidequests that were formerly exclusive the 3DS version, each of which sees you transported to places and scenes from earlier Dragon Quest games to help out the locals. Even if you’re playing in 3D mode, these time travelling adventures always take place in 2D mode—that’s great if you enjoy the old-school style, but not so much if you don’t.

I have a bone to pick with these quests, though: in Dragon Quest XI S, they all use the 16-bit art style, regardless of which game you’re visiting. Contrast that with the 3DS version, where each of the past-worlds has a different visual style to match the source material—visit a scene from the original Dragon Quest, and suddenly the game has NES-style graphics; visit one from Dragon Quest VIII, and you’d find yourself in a more technically primitive 3D world. In Dragon Quest XI S, all of these scenes are homogenised with the 16-bit style, watering down what was a celebration of the series’ history and its journey through decades’ worth of different hardware.

There’s more to Dragon Quest XI S than nostalgic throwbacks, though. It also comes with a slew of quality-of-life improvements that all help to streamline the original’s already smooth gameplay. There’s a new battle speed option if you want to speed up combat animations and get through encounters quicker, which is a godsend when/if you want to grind. Outfits can be equipped to a separate “Outfit” equipment slot now, in addition to your regular equipment, if you want their appearance without their stats. You can now craft items anywhere, instead of only at campsites, and if you’re missing any regular ingredients you can just buy the extras you need at the time of crafting (though they’re pricey). A new shortcut menu, bound to the + button, gives you quick access to things that would otherwise be buried in menus, like the Fun-Size Forge, Erik’s Nose for Treasure ability, and the Quest Catalogue. After reaching a certain point in the game, you get an item that summons a horse to your location, instead of having to search for a horse bell each time. Party members are now visible on the field, and you can talk to them directly.

All of these little touches help to ensure there’s as little tedium as possible to get in the way of actually playing and enjoying Dragon Quest XI. They aren’t things I ever thought about when playing the original, but they make such a big, welcome improvement to how the game feels to play that now that I’ve had a taste, I couldn’t live without them.

The final pieces to this Definitive Edition are dual language options and a new orchestral score. I’m rather fond of Dragon Quest XI‘s English voice acting, so I wasn’t all that concerned about not having a Japanese voice track in the original—though having the option available is always a good thing. The new score, though, is a crucial improvement. The original game’s synthesised music, while as charming as ever in terms of composition, all sounded somewhat flat, and felt at odds with the level of detail on the rest of the game’s presentation. Now, the music has all the depth and texture that comes with being performed by a full orchestra, and it sounds marvelous.

I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that so comprehensively earned the title of “Definitive Edition” as Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age – Definitive Edition. The original game was brilliant enough in its own right, and the wealth of new features and quality-of-life improvements present in the Switch version underscore that perfectly. This is, without a doubt, the best version of one of the best JRPGs of recent memory.

Essential


The publisher provided a code for the game to Shindig for reviewing purposes.

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.