If Dragon Quest VIII perfectly merged the classic gameplay of the series with evolving visual capabilities, Dragon Quest XI is that plus more. The appeal to a classic structure feels even more relevant in its era, when Square Enix’s other flagship franchise turned away from turn-based combat to little success. The JRPG is not quite what it used to be culturally, and sometimes it’s good to stick to a familiar formula. Honestly, turn-based combat is like the 2D platformer; it only feels archaic because it’s an idea that worked from the beginning. There are variations, but there’s nothing which can outright improve upon it without becoming something else entirely.
The changes XI does make keep to the simple nature while giving the player more control. Previous Dragon Quest games required choosing everyone’s actions at the same time, and then the entire round would play out. Here, you get to choose actions as the individual turns come up. The game also has a larger cast than earlier entries, which is incorporated with the option to change party members mid-combat. Overall, Dragon Quest XI feels like a hybrid between its own series and where Final Fantasy might have ended up if it stuck closer to FFX. Even the ability board feature feels straight out of the PS2 Final Fantasy era.
Like VIII, XI features a massive world to explore. This time around, locations are more clearly divided, but they still evoke a massive sense of scale. This is simply a gorgeous game to look at, and its colorful art style is a nice change of pace from most modern epics. There’s something about Akira Torimaya’s style which speaks to me, even if a lot of his characters end up looking similar. The individual enemies and subplots are charming as always. It’s simply rare to get something with such a grand scale while maintaining a consistently pleasant atmosphere.
The characters in Dragon Quest tend to be two-dimensional, but many in XI have stronger personalities. The biggest surprise is Sylvando. When you first meet him, it’s easy to assume he’s going to be the worst gay stereotype. He’s flamboyant and loud, but the narrative never relegates him to comic relief. He’s as brave as any knight; he simply wants to make people smile while protecting them. There’s a ton of other baggage usually associated with this type of character, but Sylvando is simply an exuberant presence. His storyline also runs deeper than this surface presentation, showing he has his own conflicts to sort out. While his behavior can still come off as stereotypical, it’s never in a negative fashion – and I have met plenty of gay men who intentionally put on this sort of persona. What’s wrong with being flamboyant?
Dragon Quest XI is a game for those wanting an update on something familiar. Everything about it feels like a greatest hits collection of JRPGs from the genre’s glory days. If this is just the same Dragon Quest as always, then that simply means there’s never been anything wrong with Dragon Quest. But it’s all that and a little bit more.