Few things are as satisfying as leveling up in a roleplaying game. That moment when wit and courage have served thee well and you are promoted to the next level is a satisfying reward for all the battles that led up to the moment. You get to watch your stats increase and potentially learn new abilities for your character to use in order to make them more effective. Some games make leveling up even more exciting by giving you meaningful choices to make when your character increases in power. What stats do you want to focus on? What new ability do you want to prioritize first? These choices help you to make the character your own.
In early Dragon Quest titles, leveling up didn’t involve a great degree of choice. Your character would gain stats or spells based on his or her predetermined archetype (in games like IV and V) or based on the class you were currently using (as seen in VI and VII). Dragon Quest VIII injected a little more player choice into the equation by adding a skill system. Starting at a certain level, characters would gain skill points that could be invested across five different skills: three weapons skills, an unarmed fighting skill, and a personal skill. Each skill had 10 possible ranks that were achieved somewhere on a point scale between 0 – 100. This allowed character customization through the abilities that you chose to emphasize for each hero.
In Dragon Quest IX, this skill system was combined with the class system from games like VI and VII. When you changed classes you restarted at level one, but carried over any skill investment that was applicable to your new class. Did you already invest 40 points into sword? Well if your new class could use a sword, those 40 points would still be valuable for keeping your character equipped with helpful skills. Yet other than this small change, nothing match happened to breathe new life into the skill system. Fortunately with Dragon Quest XI, a number of quality of life changes have been implemented to make the skill system more robust and exciting.
To help you fully appreciate what’s possible with the DQ11 skill tree, it will likely be helpful to understand some of the limitations of the previous skill system. In Dragon Quest VIII, the “skill tree” was a menu that popped up whenever your character leveled up. You’d see a list of the five skills – for this example let’s use the player character – each with a number displayed about like this:
Sword: 0 >
Spear: 0 >
Boomerang: 0 >
Fisticuffs: 0 >
Courage: 0 >
You’d get a certain number of skill points and could begin investing them into any of the five categories that you wanted to. Can you see any obvious drawbacks here? Let me make some clear by asking you some questions.
- Which of those fives categories will give you your first skill the fastest?
- What are the names of the skills you can learn from the Fisticuffs tree?
- Which two categories, when mastered together, will give you a powerful combination skill?
- Which category doesn’t have any particularly good skills early game, so you can wait until later to invest in it?
Now if you’ve played the game you may know the answers to some of those questions off of the top of your head, but the point is there is no way for you to figure out those answers in the context of leveling up. Here you are making this exciting decision, but you have no idea what you’re really deciding unless you are using a guide. Now it’s true that there are some NPCs in-game who can describe to you what it is you’re working towards and when you’ll unlock skills within the tree, but if you don’t write down what they tell you on a notepad or your cell phone then you won’t have that material to reference when making decisions after you level up.
There’s one last limitation to the skill system of DQ8/DQ9, and that’s the overall low amount of choice you have. You can choose which category you want to invest in, but there’s no way within a category to give more focus to the skills you want the most. If I care a lot about Sword Attack + 10 but could really care less if I learned Flame Slash, that’s just too bad. I don’t get to choose which skills I want to prioritize over others or skip spending skill points on ones that do not matter to me. If I want to get to Metal Slash, Miracle Slash, or Gigaslash, I’ve gotta go through Flame Slash first.
Now that we know better the limitations of the old system, let’s take a moment to admire the new. You’ll notice in the screenshot above that the skill tree’s first big change is that it looks different. You have a grid of tiles in a unique shape – and this shape is different per character – with symbols that represent the skill category outside of the grid and symbols that represent the skill type on each individual tile. By hovering over a tile, you can see what skill it teaches and how many points you need to invest in it before you’ll be able to unlock the skill. Already we have an advantage over the old system – for each category I can see what it is I’m going to learn as I invest points, helping me to get an idea right off of which category I want to emphasize first.
You start from the glowing tile in the center of the skill grid and can make investments in any tile adjacent to it. This means that at first, you are pretty limited in your skill choices and there are some skills that are effectively mandatory for unlocking others – you have to pick up Flame Slash if you want to quickly open the rest of the sword tree, for example. However, it is also possible to start in greatswords, work your way all the way around the grid, and start picking up some later sword skills by way of mastering greatsword first. Or if I do start with Flame Slash, from there I have multiple choices about what to unlock next and can choose what I want to emphasize.
One thing you’ll notice on the grid are the question mark tiles. These are special tiles that, rather than being unlocked by points, are unlocked by learning four of the skills that are adjacent to them. This is a cool addition because these abilities can be unlocked casually as you learn the skills you want, or you can invest your points in a way that will unlock the skill as soon as possible by quickly filling the cheapest adjacent skills. When these tiles are adjacent to five or six skills instead of just four, you have some choice in which ones you learn in order to unlock the skill.
There are a few other features I appreciate about the skill tree. One is that I can ignore some of the skills that I don’t particularly care about. While certain skills are going to be essentially mandatory in that they open up paths on the grid to places I want to go, it is possible to open up the majority of the grid without having to pick up every single skill along the way. If I don’t particularly care about expanding boomerang accuracy (this is a terrible example, accuracy is so important), then I don’t have to spend the points on it but can still continue to expand my mastery of boomerangs generally. Naturally there will be times when I have to make the choice between not wanting a skill but needing it to open up a convenient path to where I want to go, but that’s more interesting to me than just flatly investing points in a category until it it maxed out.
Another thing I appreciate about the grid is that you can easily visualize which categories compliment each other and interact. In the case of Erik’s skill grid pictured above, I know that my early investment in boomerangs will mix well with investing in his personal Guile skill. These two categories meet at some point and there’ll probably be a question mark tile that has skills in both adjacent to it, challenging me to have mastery of both in order to unlock that powerful skill. Alternatively, knives and swords meet similarly at the bottom of the grid. This helps you to plan ahead when you unlock a character by showing you which abilities go together.
It’s been fun so far experimenting with the skill grid and thinking about the choices I want to make. The quality of life improvements really did a lot to enhance the excitement of leveling up. More than in previous Dragon Quest games, I know exactly what I am working towards when spend skill points and I can see the future that my investments will lead to. Soon I’ll be able to unlock two skills at once in the greatsword category as I finish my fourth skill adjacent to a question mark, and I’m excited to see what that holds for me. I’m also excited to see more of the game’s characters and learn what weapons they specialize in, what their personal skills are, and how those things combine to lead to powerful abilities. Character building is one of the most important parts of a roleplaying game, and so far Dragon Quest XI is delivering that in a much stronger way than previous entries in the series.
If you enjoyed today’s Dragon Quest article, be sure to visit next Wednesday at 9 AM EST for continued coverage of the game – Wednesdays will be Dragon Quest day as I continue to explore this exciting new game!