I’ve had a complicated relationship with Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age over the last couple of weeks, when I spent about 70 hours playing through it.
Dragon Quest 11 might just be the best example of a Japanese role-playing game I’ve ever played: It’s a great example of the genre, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a great game. It’s been a long time since I played a turn-based JRPG, but my trouble with Dragon Quest 11 wasn’t just the usual adjustment period when starting a new game. It was with the game as a whole — because it’s just a whole lot of game. And while it may seem absurd to complain about getting so much for the price, its length raises a comparison between quantity and quality. Dragon Quest 11 too often extols the virtues of the former at the expense of the latter.
Dragon Quest 11’s world, Erdrea, is rendered in a gentle cel-shaded style that is fantastical, immersive and gorgeous. And Erdrea is huge. There are dozens of locations that you can visit, each with its own visual style and population of varying-degrees-of-helpful NPCs. You can figure out where you are in the world by the landscape or architecture, or even the way the characters speak. As with so much of Dragon Quest 11, the scope seems enormous and deep, but turns out to be limited and fairly shallow.
All of those towns and locations you visit are unique — there’s the desert-themed city, the Polynesian-themed city, the city where everyone speaks in haiku — and beautiful. Every city is populated with NPCs you can talk to, and each of them has something unique to say. But after visiting a few of them, it becomes clear that their individuality is not much deeper than a reskin. Every town has a save point, an item shop, an armor and weapon shop, the person you talk to for your mission(s), and not much else. The NPCs might give you a vague hint about where to go, but they’re just as likely to give a Chamber of Commerce pitch about the town. All the lavish detail that goes into making the Scandinavian-inspired city distinct from the beach resort city fades into the background when you’re only there as a stepping stone.
Every city is a stepping stone because Erdrea isn’t actually open for you to explore: Dragon Quest 11 is a linear game. You can always go backward to revisit places you’ve been — to do some shopping or pick up some side quests — but you’re never free to just explore and discover on your own. That’s not a problem, but its appearance is somewhat deceptive. Locations like lavish-looking cities are invariably little more than waypoints, existing only to move you to your next destination. Beyond beautiful visual variation, they lack depth. Sure, there are townsfolk to speak to, monsters to fight and items to collect along the way if you want to, but they feel insignificant. And Dragon Quest 11 won’t progress until you finish walking through the town corridor and unlock the gate to the next area. Too often, I found myself rushing past intricately detailed locations just to get to the next waypoint.
All of the world-building that went into creating Erdrea illustrates the trouble I had with Dragon Quest 11. It’s clearly a lovingly crafted game, full of detail in a rich world, but all that detail exists on top of the game. It pushes the experience from fully realized toward overcomplicated.
That overcomplication stands out — and becomes a problem — because, at its heart, Dragon Quest 11 is a simple game. Your progression through the main storyline is linear and (literally) heavily gated. You have to manage your squad’s abilities and gear, but you never control their base stats, just their special abilities and what weapons they do the most damage with. NPCs and even your band of heroes are always full of hints about where to go next, so you’re never lost. The various miniboss fights make sure you’re prepared to progress to the next area and its more challenging monsters. It’s a game that leads you by the hand (or the nose, depending on your mood) through a relatively narrow path, but that path is so stuffed with things of little to no consequence that it starts to feel claustrophobic.
This is part of what led to my complicated relationship with Dragon Quest 11. It’s a “yes, but …” situation. As an example, during combat, you can optionally make your heroes run around in the tiny battle arena. This is a neat feature to tack onto a game where you don’t actually do much in combat beyond navigating menus — except it doesn’t actually do anything. Where your heroes stand doesn’t augment their attacks or defense. There’s no cover mechanic. There’s no dodge mechanic. You’re just moving your character around. So, yes, it’s neat, but it’s pointless.
Dragon Quest 11 is an old JRPG updated for today’s audience and modern hardware. And as comfortable and familiar as that might feel, it may actually be to the game’s detriment. Yes, it ran flawlessly on my PlayStation 4 and rendered Erdrea beautifully, but something just feels wasted playing a text menu-based game on my big TV. Yes, pressing a button to advance dialogue is pretty standard in the genre, but it turns cutscenes into tiresome quick-time events instead of a cinematic moment.
In a game that takes 70 hours just to complete the main story — and well over 100 to finish everything else — every complaint becomes magnified. Load screens become grating, and fighting monsters becomes an annoyance. Every obstacle between you and your destiny becomes “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle” padding, rather than something to overcome, unless you’re completely invested in the tropes of this genre.
There’s an old Penny Arcade comic that says that the difference between a derivative work and an homage is simply whether or not the consumer likes it, and that sentiment underlies my relationship with Dragon Quest 11. The story is somewhere between a tried-and-true hero’s journey and a fantasy-themed Mad Libs. The characters are fun archetypes or, if you start to get frustrated, they become boring (or even offensive) stereotypes. Those 70 hours of story are either a robust saga full of twists and turns, or just padding to fill out your time. Combat is either a chance to pit yourself against the game’s endless variety of enemies, or a time to auto-fight while you get a cup of coffee. It all depends so much on what you expect and what baggage you bring to the game.
A lot of my complaints are about the core conceits. The graphics and scope, while updated, are grafted onto a frail and aging skeleton. The huge map that amounts to hallways, the NPCs with endlessly frivolous dialogue, and the incessant load screens all point to an update — in hardware and software — rather than an evolution. Dragon Quest 11 is a beautiful example of what a JRPG can be after 30 years of lovingly guided evolution. Its success is irrevocably tethered to those decades of development, though, and that means you probably already know if this is a game for you. If you’re not already one of the faithful, Dragon Quest 11 is unlikely to make you a convert.
Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age was reviewed using a retail PlayStation 4 disc copy provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.