Since its inception in the 1980s, the Dragon Quest series hasn't changed much. The series has almost always revolved around a silent hero who sets out on a grand adventure with an ever-expanding party of unique characters as they travel from one town to the next. Along the way, players encounter villagers who have problems that need solved, usually involving monsters or nefarious schemes hatched by evil villains. It's a simple formula, but it works, and that's why Square Enix hasn't strayed far from it. 11 main entries deep, and Dragon Quest is still basically the same, though Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age makes enough small but important changes to help it become easily one of the best games in the series to date.
Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age is a typical Dragon Quest game, except updated for modern consoles. It stars a silent protagonist who has to leave his hometown to discover the truth behind his tragic origins. As expected, he encounters a variety of quirky characters along the way that join him on his quest. These characters fall into typical JRPG archetypes, like a black mage, a healer, a thief, etc., and since only four party members can be in a battle at once, players have to decide what kind of party they want.
The set-up for Dragon Quest 11's story is familiar, and it's true that the game relies on some JRPG cliches. For example, the main character's town is destroyed in the first couple of hours, and the quest eventually becomes about collecting magical orbs. There are still some surprises in store, though it's easy to see how some players may come away unimpressed with the story due to its reliance on ancient JRPG tropes. Others will find the familiarity of its narrative charming, however.
None of these JRPG tropes have a negative impact on the story in any significant manner, except one. In Dragon Quest 11, the vast majority of the dialogue is voiced, even outside of cut-scenes. Considering this and the sheer amount of dialogue that's in the game, it's a little odd that the player character doesn't speak. The player character in general is a weak point in the story due to his lack of personality, and while players are able to project their own personality on him if they wish, the inability to customize his appearance makes it somewhat difficult to get invested in his plight. His haircut is also just flat-out dorky, though that may have been a purposeful choice on the part of the developers.
The main character as well as all the other characters and monsters in Dragon Quest 11 were once again designed by Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame. Toriyama's artwork really shines in Dragon Quest 11, though, thanks to its stunning visuals that get the most out of the cel-shaded art style. Everything in this game looks great, and that in turn makes the world a real treat to explore.
Exploring the game world is yet again a major part of the experience in Dragon Quest 11. It's not exactly an "open world," but players do have a lot of freedom when it comes to going off the beaten path to see what's out there. Towns are filled with hidden loot to find, and there are some genuinely interesting sights to see for those who decide to seek them out.
Luckily, the side quests in Dragon Quest 11 do a good job of pointing players to some of the more interesting areas in the game. They also encourage players to talk to townsfolk, as well as utilize combat techniques that they may have never discovered otherwise. The side quests are sometimes a bit repetitive with their objectives, but their rewards make sure that they're still worth the effort to complete.
Besides completing quests, Dragon Quest 11 players will spend a great deal of time battling monsters. The game uses a traditional turn-based combat system, but like past games, cuts out the annoying random battles by letting players choose which monsters they engage with on the overworld map. It also offers an unprecedented level of customization when it comes to how battles actually play out, which is one of the game's biggest steps forward for the series.
Dragon Quest 11 lets players tailor the experience to their tastes. There are a number of restrictions they can place on themselves to up the difficulty, and they can also choose to control their party members or pass things off to the AI. We found that the most entertaining way to play the game was to control the player character, and have the AI control the other party members. This made battles go faster, and since the AI will likely do what the player was going to do anyway, it doesn't feel cheap or less engaging.
Of course, if someone wants to directly control every party member they can, or if they just want to control two, they can do that as well. It's even possible to set all characters to being controlled by the AI in battles. Ultimately, it comes down to player choice, which we also see with the ability to move the characters around the battlefield instead of just having them stand in a straight line like in most turn-based JRPGs and past Dragon Quest games. There's no strategic advantage to doing this, but it can make battles feel more involving and cinematic.
Dragon Quest 11 also mixes things up by letting players use some of the monsters they find out in the world as mounts. Players are able to use these monsters to get to some areas they otherwise couldn't access, as well as get through dungeons a bit quicker. The monsters players can ride range from ridiculous to incredible, and while the monster mounting system can be largely ignored for most of the game, it's still better for its inclusion.
It's also worth discussing the game's crafting system. Like many of its other mechanics, there is nothing revolutionary about Dragon Quest 11's crafting, but it's still very satisfying. Players collect ingredients that are then tossed into a forge for a mini-game that will determine the quality of item being crafted. Some of it boils down to dumb luck, but there are special crafting abilities (called "flourishes") that players can unlock to add a bit more strategy to the proceedings. Like monster mounting, crafting can be ignored, but those who choose to engage with it will have a richer gameplay experience overall.
Between the crafting, battling monsters, and completing quests, Dragon Quest 11 offers a significant amount of playtime to anyone willing to invest in it. Clocking in between 50 and 100 hours depending on how in-depth players want to get with the game, the Dragon Quest 11 experience is epic in scale and manages to deliver all this content with minimal busywork, filler, or grinding. There are some JRPGs that seem like they're long for the sake of being long, but Dragon Quest 11's minute-to-minute gameplay is strong enough to justify the rather lengthy adventure.
As far as turn-based JRPGs go, Dragon Quest 11 is one of the best we've seen in years. The game delivers a classic-style JRPG adventure with small, smart tweaks that make it feel like a more modern take on the genre. For these reasons, it's an absolute must-play, especially for fans of the genre, and it deserves continued sales success.
Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age is out now for PC and PS4. It is also in development for Switch. Game Rant reviewed the PS4 version of the game.