Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age Review
The Definitive Version of a Masterpiece
The Dragon Quest series has always taken a conservative approach with new instalments. This is evident in the reprisal of the music, sound effects, artwork, monsters, items, battle system, and the way the story is structured. Fans of the series will always know what to expect, as any player who has played any previous Dragon Quest game can pick up the latest game and feel familiar with it. The eleventh game of the series is no different.
Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age – Definitive Edition on the Switch is not just a mere port of a highly-acclaimed RPG. It adds loads of new content, including new story scenarios, many quality-of-life features, the 2D mode from the Japan-exclusive 3DS version, and packs them all together, making it far surpass the original. After dropping more than 150 hours into the game, I do not say this lightly: Dragon Quest XI S is one of the best RPGs that I have ever played.
The story may be the series’ strongest yet. It demonstrates the typical good versus evil plot at first glance, but its complexities slowly unravel with time – a long time. Players looking for a fast-paced story will not find such here, as the plot moves along at a leisurely pace across three acts. However, that allows players that much more time to bond with the rich characters and world of Erdrea. The supporting characters, though different in appearance and personalities, all exhibit a profound sense of loyalty and friendship towards the hero and each other, further impacted by the party chat option that allows players to get to know them throughout this long adventure. Thus, the tribulations they face become all the more heart-wrenching when tragedy befalls them, and much more endearing during the tender moments. These moments occur frequently, assaulting the player’s emotions over and over, and rewarding them with a moving tale with an underlying theme of hope, even in the grimmest of situations.
The story is enriched through a good translation and capable voice acting. The English localisation, done by Sholc Ltd, changes some names and places from the Japanese version, but does so cleverly to reflect the play on words that some characters and places have on folklore or historic figures. The references to Norse mythology are particularly abundant: there are vikings, the kingdom of Sniflheim, Yggdrasil, and even Snorri the scholar. The voice acting, both in English and Japanese, really adds a depth of sentimental flavour to the game. It’s done so well that the 2D version lacks the emotional pull due to the absence of the voice cast. The localisation also plays a strong role in how well the script is executed. Different dialects reflect the different regions of the game, giving each location its own personality. The voice actors for the main characters do an amazing job, running the gamut of emotions for each character. Those playing primarily for the story should play the game in the 3D mode to experience the storytelling at its best.
Transitioning from PlayStation 4 and PC to the less powerful Switch, the graphics suffer surprisingly little downgrade. The world of Dragon Quest, everything from the scenery and town layouts down to the character and monster designs, appears gorgeous. A lot of detail went into fleshing out this game, as each location has memorable scenery: a bluff overlooking an active volcano with lava flowing into the sea; a desert containing a cascading waterfall of sand, flowing into a seemingly bottomless pit; the clamshell bed belonging to a mermaid. Players have many beautiful environments to explore and admire, and the new photo option allows for the heroes to situate themselves for a variety of poses in front of these scenic backdrops.
Though these panoramas provide succulent eye candy, they are not completely open to explore. Players can only explore these lush environments in segmented pathways and fields, which merely offer the illusion of an open world. This isn’t a negative, however, as the limited range works well, streamlining players to their next objective, and compressing the locations of items and monsters into a passable field rather than endless plains. Even with the boundaries, there are still plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, chests to plunder, and secrets to discover.
Despite the overall beautiful graphics, the Switch hardware reveals some subtle limitations from time to time in 3D mode. There are some minor pop-ups and noticeable fade-ins when the Switch is docked and the game is displayed on the large screen. The horizon always appears a little hazy in the distance. When undocked, the visual flaws disappear on the small screen, only to be replaced by a hard-to-read font size. These are but minor complaints, since Dragon Quest XI S still looks and plays amazingly well even on the Switch.
The 2D mode, which was originally available on the Japanese 3DS, suffers none of the aforementioned performance issues. The graphics in this mode resemble a typical RPG from the height of the 16-bit era, particularly Dragon Quest VI on the Super Famicom. Players can either choose to play the 2D mode from the beginning of the game or switch to it at a church. Switching to 2D mode from 3D, or vice versa, at the church allows players to retain their stats and gear, but they cannot continue from the exact same point in the story. Instead, a menu showing a list of chapters will appear for players to choose, allowing them to go back to certain key points in the story, but players may lose some story progress if they want to switch over to the point closest to their current progression. The 2D/3D transition not only changes the visual element of the game, but resets the items hidden in chests, pots, and barrels, allowing players to collect certain ingredients and rare items all over again, such as mini medals and attribute-raising seeds. Switching modes also allows players to backtrack for a missed item or event without completely restarting the game.
Besides the cosmetic appearances, the 2D mode feels like a completely different game in several ways. First the dungeons, towns, and overworld map are rearranged and seem much more compact, so players will breeze through the adventure much quicker in this mode than in the 3D one. Players can search and loot all the items in a town much quicker, yet they will experience random encounters in lieu of visible enemies appearing on the map, so there will be much more forced fighting. However, players needing to grind levels will find this mode much more convenient. Item locations are different, giving players a new sense of exploration. Despite watered-down drama and lack of voice acting, the 2D version retains the faithful feel of a retro RPG and offers the same adventure in a whole new light.
The Switch version also adds a location called Tickington, which was originally a 3DS exclusive. Players meet these ghost-like creatures called Tockles throughout Erdrea, who give out Pastwords. These Pastwords are used at the altars in Tickington to access a small portion of the worlds of the ten previous mainline Dragon Quest games, requiring players to seek out the anomalies that had occurred and set them right. These quests not only offer a fresh diversion from the main adventure, but provide veteran Dragon Quest players with loads of nostalgic moments.
Besides exploration and talking to NPCs, the gameplay revolves primarily around combat. Veterans of the series will feel right at home with the traditional turn-based battles, whilst newcomers will find an accessible and user-friendly learning curve. The combat appears simple on the surface and easy at first, but as players dig further into the game, they will uncover a lot of depth in the customisation via a skill grid, character swapping during combat, Pep Powers, and difficult encounters later on. Players can, for instance, take a character like Rab and specialise him into a powerful spellcaster, or a martial artist who is more likely to dish out critical hits with claws. Furthermore, players can team certain characters together to pull off coordinated special Pep Power attacks, which can offer extremely beneficial effects or deal devastating damage. This customisation extends to all characters, making them as useful as the player desires, up to the point where the toughest decision boils down to how to distribute their skill points, or who to put in the party or keep in reserve. Each character can be built to bring their own set of skills to the battle, and no single character need solely specialise in a fighter or caster class.
As for content, the original PlayStation 4 and PC versions had their robust share, but the Switch version adds so much that it renders the other versions as a downgrade in playability. Players can speed up battles, skip cutscenes, switch to Japanese voices, access photo mode, use the Fun-size Forge any time and anywhere, and even purchase ingredients whilst crafting. There are more character costumes, and players now have the option to display them without equipping the appropriate gear as long as they have the required items. One major addition, the new character storyline quests, adds new flavour to the adventure and fills in some story gaps; one particular story is even heartbreaking to watch whilst another offers a humorous, lighthearted change of pace. Another welcome addition is the new companion option, which allows players to choose a live-in companion from a list of candidates, as opposed to the original where they could only marry one particular character.
One of the main criticisms aimed at the original release of Dragon Quest XI was the synthesised soundtrack, especially considering how it paired up poorly with the rest of the game. The Switch edition addresses this by adding symphonic music, giving the option to change back to the synthesised versions at any time. The orchestrated tracks sounds much livelier and dynamic; so much, in fact, that the default setting tends to drown out the dialogue during cutscenes. Fortunately, this is a simple fix as players can adjust the volume levels of the music and sound effects. The musical tracks complement each setting appropriately, and fans of the series will recognise returning tracks from previous Dragon Quest games, revised and orchestrated.
In addition to having the symphonic versions of each track, the Switch version also includes many tracks from previous Dragon Quest games in the Tickington quests, including the chiptune tracks from the 8-bit era. Dragon Quest VIII music also returns as an option in lieu of the Dragon Quest XI overworld music. Since this is such a long game, players will be grateful for the option, because the overworld theme of XI happens to be one of the weakest of the entire series, and it loops after a minute or so. Thus, players will hear the same track through countless hours and locations. This new option staves off the staleness, at least until later in the game when the Dragon Quest III overworld theme replaces it.
Dragon Quest XI S is a game for both long-time fans and newcomers alike. There are many Easter eggs and references to past Dragon Quest games that will subtly reward fans, but at the same time, the charming world of Erdrea and its characters are appealing to newcomers of all ages. Even those who have played the previous versions of Dragon Quest XI may find the vast improvements of the Switch version compelling enough for another round, especially with the Tickington quests, new character content, and marriage options. This game is a masterpiece, and it sets a new high standard for not only the series, but console RPGs in general. Hopefully the series will continue outdoing itself with further instalments.
Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Gorgeous, colourful world
Beautiful symphonic soundtrack
Moving story and great cast of characters
2D mode offers a whole different experience
Solid, traditional gameplay
Font size is very small on the undocked Switch screen
Overworld theme is too repetitive