Dragon Quest XI is definitely a JRPG, albeit a pretty mediocre one. There’s no denying that the game looks incredible, it’s just sad that one cannot say the same for the gameplay. The problem with it is that there really isn’t anything that will get players to keep coming back for more. Unless you’re the type who enjoys grinding for experience and other forms of repetitiveness, then you’ll find very little to enjoy here.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the game’s plot.
Everything is set in Erdrea, a world whose existence is only possible due to Yggdrasil—a giant, floating tree that’s considered the source of all life. Our main protagonist takes on the role of a young man with a strange birthmark on his left hand. As events unfold, our young protagonist uncovers that the mark is more than what it seems. Along with the discovery of being able to use strange powers, he is told by others that he is the “Luminary”—a reincarnated hero that has a strong connection with Yggrdasil and one that’s meant to save the world from utter destruction. The news changes our supposed hero’s life as he’s forced into an adventure to discover more about his role and the world around him.
The story is all well and good, but you can see the twists coming a mile away. It’s a shame that majority of the characters won’t necessarily gather much of your interest. I’ll give it this though, there was at least some effort put into the voice acting. A couple of the actors managed to bring some form or personality to certain characters, albeit by just a small amount. Nonetheless, this is very much appreciated so props to them.
Before we get into anything else, I want to point out one thing that has been nagging me since I’ve started playing the game. I’m sure that every PS4 owner is used to pressing the circle button to confirm their actions and the cross button to cancel them. In Dragon Quest XI? These are interchanged. It may seem like a small nitpick and you do get used to it eventually, but it’s still annoying having to get used to it for one game. There have been times where I wanted to choose one option, only for me to end up choosing another because of that one simple change in the button layout.
Now, let’s move over to the more important aspects.
The graphical qualities are downright the best part of the game. Everything from the 3D models to the sprawling environments looks absolutely fantastic. Dragon Quest games usually have that specific cartoon-ish art style and it was definitely done justice with the use of the Unreal Engine. Although I say this, the game in itself feels like a glorified 3D animation project. There are gameplay elements in it, but it seems more as if the devs placed more effort into how it looks rather than how to make it fun.
Let’s talk about in-game exploration. As you wander around the many different environments—which almost all look beautiful by the way—there are some that contain enemies within the overworld. There are no random encounters here, what you see is what you’re up against. This is great for those that don’t want to be caught off-guard by enemies that are much stronger than them, letting them backtrack to previous areas where they can go against foes to gain more experience. There are also materials that one can collect via shaking trees, opening chests, or even by picking them right from the ground. This is good in the sense that these environments actually gives players reasons to look around and be rewarded for it.
However, there is a problem with that.
This can be attributed to the quests that you are required to do in order to progress through the main plot. Dragon Quest XI is one of the more linear titles wherein progression is locked behind so many walls. You will be required to pick up certain materials or do something very specific in one location before you can move on to the next part of the story. This…isn’t fun. It just feels tedious as you’re basically doing busy work. It feels like the developers did this just to increase your play time. And mind you, this would have been fine if the game wasn’t littered with so many of these progression blocks.
Another thing is that it isn’t as open as it wants you to believe. You can’t just explore and discover new areas on your own. Certain places can only be accessed when you’re at a specific point in the storyline, meaning that you can’t go where you please. Sure you can backtrack to areas that you’ve been to, but you already know what it has to offer. It’s such a shame that this is how the idea of in-game exploration was designed around. It would have been really nice to just freely walk around wherever you want, despite the dangers that could get you killed in a heartbeat if you’re not careful.
Also, the towns you visit have so many things that left to be desired. While they do look good, you’ll find that each of them is pretty much the same. Every town has an inn, weapons and items shop, churches, and sidequests. That’s it. They all look different, but nothing really sets them apart from each other as the only differences are relegated to the looks of certain structures. The NPC’s don’t help as they bring nothing to make you care about the areas you visit.
I do like the fact that saving in this game isn’t much of a problem. There are lots of savepoints such as the already mentioned churches and a few campsites in the overworld which allows you to do so. These are spread around pretty evenly, ensuring that you don’t lose much if you’re suddenly killed by something unexpected.
Also, campsites allow you to use whatever materials you happen to come across to craft new weapons, armor, and accessories. You can only make new equipment if you have the recipes for them and those can be found by exploring the overworld. This gives exploration more meaning and that’s much appreciated. There’s also an interesting mechanic wherein the quality of what you make is determined by your strikes as it’s being molded. Now don’t think that this is anything intricate as you just press one button to see if you get yourself a high-quality item. It’s just nice to know that there’s something else to do other than battling.
Now, why do I say that? Well, that’s because battling is just boring.
When you run into enemies, you’re forced into a battle wherein you can either fight or flee. Then there are the standard RPG mechanics where you can use items, magic, or standard attacks to take down foes. What’s misleading about the game is that upon entering battle, you’ll see that there’s a circled perimeter that covers you, your party, and your opponents. Every one of your turns would allow you to move your characters wherever they please, so long as it’s within the circle. This made me believe that it was something akin to Chrono Trigger where positioning my units could mean either an advantage or disadvantage in combat. I actually had hope when I saw this as it meant that battles were going to be deep and would actually require me to strategize every move.
Nope. There was none of that. The only reason as to why you can do this is to make battles look good.
What’s worse is that the game tells you this directly. During loading screens, the game offers you advice or information that’ll help you get started. So when I saw the message that told me that moving around does nothing to affect combat? I was immediately very disappointed.
As for the battles, they’re fine. Enemies are just the right amount of tough as they’re usually on par with your current level. However, I soon realized that there was an easy, although boring way to gain experience and levels which requires very little input.
Remember that there’s a “strategy” option in combat. This is where you can choose whether you control all of your units’ actions or if you want the A.I to do everything for you. It’s here that I chose to experiment as to how battles would go if I let the game do it for me. As I did, I realized that it’s much better to let the A.I handle things as it can deal with just about every encounter competently. So the only input I had when it came to battling was to run around and bump into an enemy to engage in combat, press the fight button, and watch the battle unfold. I did this for the majority of my journey and I never died once. I even did this when I went up against certain bosses and mini-bosses and I didn’t feel threatened in the least! I just looked at my screen and pressed a few buttons whenever I’m needed to. Yep, pretty much felt like the game was playing itself.
Leveling up doesn’t mean as much as all you’re doing is gaining stats and skill points. Yes, the skill points allow you to upgrade your characters to learn new abilities or to give them a bit of an edge in battle, but they’re not that diverse. Their benefits feel are pretty minimal and only when you get to the higher skill rewards do they feel like they have some sort of impact. Also, every character has a chance to use “Pep powers”. These are special skills that allow you to decimate enemies, but they can only be activated in “Pep mode”.
Speaking of which, Pep mode is great! It lets you deal and take less damage, increases your defense, and you can use those really strong pep powers! The problem? You’ll never know when it’s going to activate.
It only happens during certain battle conditions such as your character failing below a certain HP threshold or after attacking or getting attacked a certain number of times. The degree of control is gone from something that could have made combat more engaging. While there are some items which allow you to enter the state immediately, they’re not easy to come by.
I will say this, some of the Pep powers do look pretty cool so it’s worth checking all of them out.
What I am definitely happy with though is that there are so many monsters which you can face. It was really nice to see a lot of the Dragon Quest staples such as Slimes and Platypunks getting that amazing HD treatment. And as expected from a game within the franchise, there are so many different types of monsters that you can come across. So in terms of enemy variety, DQ 11 really has it going on.
Overall, Dragon Quest XI is a mediocre JRPG. It looks fantastic, but the gameplay is “meh” at best. Although it can capture your interest here and there, there isn’t really anything too special about the game. It’s still worth getting if you enjoy grinding, leveling up, and seeing your characters get stronger. So if you want, pick up a copy and see how much fun you can get from the 11th installment in the series.
Disclosure: This review is based on a review code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Read our review policy to know how we go with our game reviews.