The Greatest Games: Dragon Quest XI (2017)

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (2017)
Developed by Square Enix

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.

The Greatest Games: Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (2005)

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (2005)
Developed by Level-5

Dragon Quest was the first JRPG to find real success, and the series has purposefully kept to simple mechanics ever since. Due to this lack of evolution, most of the Dragon Quest games are acceptable favorites. VIII simply hits a specific niche which resonates with me. Where earlier entries are as aesthetically simple as the mechanics, VIII pairs the classic gameplay with an ever-expansive world.

When I first played this back in 2005, I had never encountered a game which felt so big. Most JRPGs tended toward overworlds which essentially truncate the locations for easier navigation. Dragon Quest VIII keeps everything to scale. Combined with the gorgeous cel-shading, this is easily one of the most aesthetically pleasing games of its era. There were so many moments where I would stop playing to stare in awe at the land. More games have moved to this presentation style, but few match the sense of wonder found here.

Matching the visual scale is the game’s massive length. The overarching narrative is incredibly simple, but most of the game consists of self-contained missions with a ton of charm. Each new location has its own story. Games of such size usually have a ton of empty space, but every inch of Dragon Quest VIII has purpose.

The gameplay is simple, but that does not mean it’s shallow. Each character comes with their own sets of skills which the player can control, giving variance to different playthroughs. Boss battles tend to be strategic affairs. The only real problem is the series’ overreliance on metal slimes; there are a few points where it feels like you have to grind to keep up, and that largely devolves into hunting the same rare monsters over and over.

The series in general is charming, but that’s really brought to life here. The creatures have tons of distinct designs and their own silly mechanics. Some early monsters will simply devolve into laughter for their turn, while another will waste its turn casting a late-game spell for which it lacks the MP. The world captures everything from rural country sides to sprawling kingdoms to frozen grottos. The central cast all have their own quirks. The highlight is Yangus, a bumbling bandit with a thick Cockney accent.

The minor quests each offer their own distinct atmosphere. Some can be somber, such as a kingdom in mourning. The one which sticks out most happens in the kingdom of Argonia, where the party must assist the spoiled Prince Charmles (Get it? Charmless? This series loves its puns) in hunting giant lizards. Charmles joins the party, but completely fumbles everything he does and ends up running away. These diverse quests help sustain this massive journey.

Dragon Quest VIII is an exceptional JRPG not because it pushes the genre forward, but because it offers the basics in stellar form. It might seem wrong to praise a game purely for offering a stylistic improvement over its predecessors, but there’s no need to fix what’s not broken. VIII takes the familiar and makes it bigger than life.