Fans and critics alike lauded Square Enix the past few years for creating the studio Tokyo RPG Factory with their focus on creating throwback RPGs in the same vein as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. With I am Setsuna and Lost Sphear that DNA was present if not the soul of those games. Square Enix made and an even bigger splash in July when they released Octopath Traveler on the Nintendo Switch. Octopath sold so well it far exceeded Square Enix’s expectations and was hard to obtain a physical copy of the game for a time. It’s this focus on creating games like those games from the golden age of JRPGs that makes Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age fit right in.
You see, Dragon Quest, hasn’t really changed. Sure, it’s grown a little, X is even an MMO, and while there have been some fantastic offshoots such as Dragon Quest Builders, the core entries have remained fundamentally unchanged. You can draw a straight line of progression through Dragon Quest I to XI to graph their growth. Unlike step-sister franchise Final Fantasy which pushes to rapidly evolve each entry with their turn based to active time combat and now real time combat to their progression from high fantasy to techno near future fantasy. You’d need to plot their growth with an exponential curve.
You start Echoes of an Elusive Age as the young silent unnamed protagonist. I named my guy Link. It somehow seemed fitting if not a little bit too on the nose. You set off on a village’s rite of passage and quickly discover that you are more than you ever thought. When faced with adversity you overcome it with a latent power that you never knew was in you. It’s upon this discovery that you set out to meet the monarch of your realm. Expecting a warm welcome, you are more than a bit surprised when you end up in the kingdom’s brig. This sets the stage for you to meet your first adventuring partner and the hijinks you have in store.
Yes, there are a lot of traditional JRPG tropes present in the beginning of the story but the characters you meet early one will quickly break their molds. While it’s not much of a reach to think a rogue could have a heart of gold you’ll also learn that you shouldn’t judge a child by their cover. They could possibly contain the wisdom of a sage and the spirit of a warrior.
The world of Dragon Quest XI is beautifully rendered in 3D. It also employees the uniquely styled aesthetics of the Dragon Quest franchise. If presented with stock images or video of this game even casual fans could guess what it was with its stylized cartoonish look and bold old lines. While it’s not truly open world there are many areas to explore. Similar to the way zones work in Star Ocean and the Tales series. You can also see all the enemies you can encounter on the map. No random encounters here. Once you bump into or attack an enemy you’ll transport into combat mode where the fight will take place in turn-based combat. You are free to move around the area and attempt to flee by running at the edge. However, this movement has no impact on your attacks and is purely cosmetic in that regards. Lining up a shot for an area of effect attack will have no impact.
While in combat you can also engage tactics, which will have your party members attack for you. There are a variety of settings that focus from purely offensive to stalwart defense. However, the pace of combat doesn’t pick up at this point and fights can start to drag on. The AI won’t always make the best decisions and you’ll wonder why they don’t focus fire on the correct target more but overall, it’s passable. Even if it is not as engaging as the gambit system from Final Fantasy XII.
To go along with the traditional turn-based combat there is the traditional experience points-based level gain system that leads to stat increases. But you’ll also earn skill points that you can spend on skills. Each character can choose between three different talent areas. You can spend all your points unlocking one area or you can spread them out amongst the three. You are better served spending your points in one area before branching off into another though. By being a jack of all trade, you’ll run the risk of being too weak in any one to be effective. Fortunately, you can spend gold and respec if you made a mistake. Also, your characters that are in your party but not in your combat group will also earn experience so don’t worry that you’ll gimp yourself for later in the game if you aren’t constantly rotating in new members.
One system that Dragon Quest employs, and with great effect, is crafting. Early on in the game you’ll unlock the Fun-Size Forge. You’ll be able to build armor, weapons, and accessories with the forge from materials you collect in the world. With each successful creation you’ll also receive pearls that allow you to reforge items that you have built and even some items that you have collected. Through this process you can improve items and add bonuses to their stats. You’ll unlock more recipes as you level up and as you discover them hidden in the world. This makes crafting fun and relevant in a genre that has placed less emphasis on crafting.
If your critical path through the story you’ll be able to complete Dragon Quest in 60 hours. Even faster depending on how efficient you are. However, the game is loaded with side quests. In each area and hub, you find you’ll see NPC’s dotting the map with things for you to do or enemies for you to kill. These NPCs can also be quite helpful by forcing you to use some of the more advanced systems in the game. There is also additional content to be completed once you finish the main story.
One of the games double edged swords is the aesthetics when it comes to monsters. Sure, everyone is happy to see their old frenemy the slime and his orange friend the sheslime. There are also a handful of returning bad guys that are more humorous that hurtful with laugh out loud funny names. At one point I think I fought a walking sandwich. But this levity also drags down the menace of the big bads. Even if you come face to face with a dragon it doesn’t look that scary. You’ll need to run or you’ll die but he’ll remind you more of Puff than he will of Neltharion.
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age scratches that nostalgic itch for a traditional JRPG without looking like it had to try too hard at it. It’s not leaning on the crutch of pixel art or fake imitations. It’s the natural extension of what the Dragon Quest series of yore has grown into for an audience today. Turn based combat? Check. Traditional Dragon Quest aesthetics? Check and check. Blue slimes? Of course, there are blue slimes! Fun and relevant in today’s modern age? You bet. While it may be unintentional XI’s subtitle is more than fitting for just the story, it’s also fitting for Dragon Quest in today’s modern age. It echoes back to that elusive golden age of the JRPG.
Score: 8 / 10
- Fantastic traditional Dragon Quest aesthetic
- Wonderful score
- Traditional JRPG
- Pace of combat feels slow
- Lack of meaningful movement in combat