Square Enix's venerable JRPG series Dragon Quest comes to Nintendo Switch in a big way with Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age - Definitive Edition. It’s an enhanced port of the original PlayStation 4 release from 2017 with some additions. Square Enix has a reputation for approaching Dragon Quest with a staunch, traditionalist attitude. Dragon Quest XI doesn’t veer from that trajectory. In some ways, Dragon Quest XI shows how well the series has refined the JRPG it pioneered. In others, it shows how overly reliant it is on that same formula. What you’re looking for out of Dragon Quest XI will determine much about what you get from it.
In Dragon Quest XI, the player takes control of a silent, heroic protagonist who lives in a small, pastoral town in a Euromedieval setting. It’s a standard start for a JRPG, usually followed by players soon learning that said hero is a secret prince or the chosen one destined for greatness. Dragon Quest XI doubles down on that notion by making its hero both the last scion of a fallen kingdom and the chosen one of prophecy, known as the Luminary.
Based on over 20 hours spent with the game, Dragon Quest XI leans heavy into tropes like this one. It seems everyone you meet already knows about you and your grand destiny. A seer told your first new party member that he’s destined to help your cause. Then the first significant female characters you come across kneel before you to pledge their loyalty.
If you’ve grown tired male power fantasies in genre fiction then Dragon Quest XI’s reliance on these kinds of cliches may irritate you. But throughout, there’s the sense that the game is aware of how quaint it is. While there’s still a lot of plot left to discover (I haven’t played the PlayStation 4 original), Dragon Quest XI’s adventure feels low-stakes thus far, and it's more charming for it.
Charm sums up the game’s entire visual aesthetic. Akira Toriyama’s characters are as energetic and expressive as fans have come to expect. The monsters don’t feel vicious so much as upset that they didn't make it into the latest Pokemon game. The characters are all unflinching in their chillness. There’s some vague threat of an ancient evil returning to bring darkness to the world. But hey, that won't stop them helping an incompetent prince cover-up that he can’t ride a horse.
The charm does wear thin at times. One addition to the Definitive Edition is a full orchestral soundtrack alongside the original MIDI version. You can switch between them while playing and the orchestral version is a significant improvement.
But the way the game implements Koichi Sugiyama’s music can be frustrating. It relies too much on a couple of core themes and plays them on loop throughout much of the game. These themes are energetic to a fault and don’t always pair well with what’s happening in the story. It’s like having to spend too much time with an over-stimulated child. At first, the child’s energy is endearing, even inspiring. After a while, it becomes clear that the child lacks the maturity to read a room and you'd really like them to tone it down a bit.
But there are some scripted set pieces where the presentation is impeccable. Without spoiling too much, the Luminary’s first trip home after learning of his destiny is a beautiful, emotional set piece. It manages to surprise even when you know what must be about to happen, and the music cuts straight to the heart.
This game is a marathon, not a sprint. Its pace is slow, but that may make the Nintendo Switch its ideal home. After a few hours, Dragon Quest XI becomes a game you’re less compelled to play to see what happens next as it is a game you fire up to relax. It’s what you turn to when you don’t have the energy for something more involved or taxing on your mind and reflexes. You explore towns and dungeons at a leisurely pace. You fight in some tried and true turned-based battles. You’re both stimulated and soothed at the same time. It’s the ideal kind of game to play while laying with your feet up on the couch (which is how I spent most of my hours playing the game), and the Nintendo Switch is ideal for that.
If you go to JRPGs for grand, cinematic stories à la modern Final Fantasy games, Dragon Quest XI isn’t that. It doesn’t do much new, but what it does it does to perfection. The towns are interesting to visit, the turn-based combat is as involved as you want it to be, and the world — as basic as it is — is welcoming and fun to play in. It feels less like an epic adventure so much as a fantasy vacation. If you’re a Switch owner yearning for a modern, AAA spin on classic JRPG gameplay, you’re likely to find Dragon Quest XI to be a journey worth embarking on.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age - Definitive Edition goes on sale September 27th for Nintendo Switch. A retail code for the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.