Improving on Tradition: First Impressions of Dragon Quest XI S

Imagine, if you will, the most generic possible japanese roleplaying game (JRPG). What elements do you imagine? For me, I imagine a prophesied hero rising up from a nameless village to defeat an evil sorcerer overtaking the world. The hero is joined by a party of fellow nobodies who each fit a clear fantasy archetype: the wizard, the priest, the archer, the rogue. Together, the group travels from town to town, solving the problems of the little townsfolk while collecting various magical tools which they will use in their ultimate final battle against the evil sorcerer in order to save the kingdom – and probably the world – from tyranny and destruction. If that’s what you picture too, you probably have Dragon Quest to thank for that.

Dragon Quest is a game that has held tightly to tradition over decades of entries into the series. You can go all the way back to Dragon Warrior (seriously, it’s available for the Switch) and see how little the core premise has changed since Erdrick first toppled the Dragon Lord. Dragon Quest may be the quintessential generic fantasy JRPG, but that’s because they started the trend that others have relentlessly copied. You wouldn’t typically approach a Dragon Quest game expecting groundbreaking new ideas in fantasy roleplaying – instead, you’ll get familiar ideas delivered at their most polished. That’s the weakness but also the promise of Dragon Quest: you know what you’re getting, but it’s going to be the best possible version of exactly what you expect.

Dragon Quest XI S – at least in the early hours of the game – does not change that narrative for me. It still has a nameless hero from a dinky village who partners with a ne’er-do-well in order to fulfill his prophesied role in the defeat of an unspeakable evil. I know what most of my spells do, which abilities are the best for bosses and which ones are best for trash mobs, and recognize plenty of the classic fantasy references such as the legend of Yggdrasil. But although the game brings all of these familiar elements to the table, it does so in a way that is perhaps the best Dragon Quest has ever been. So today I want to talk about the myriad quality-of-life changes that help make this Dragon Quest feel like the ultimate JRPG classic.

DQ11 One Way or the Udder

EXPLORATION
Moving around in Dragon Quest is perhaps the aspect of the game that has changed the least over the years. Sure, you don’t need menus to go around stairs anymore, but the act of walking around a vast overworld or through narrow dungeon catacombs has held pretty steady throughout the series. What Dragon Quest XI adds in terms of exploration are little improvements that make that exploration more varied. This is, for example, the first Dragon Quest game where you can jump. Adding verticality to cities is a great touch that makes exploration more interesting. Is there a reward for finding my way onto this roof? Probably so! The ability to click the left stick in order to run automatically is a nice touch too, saving you from having to push forward for miles of in-game travel.

In the overworld, the biggest change is the addition of campsites. These locations are great ways to add a much-needed respite in the middle of a long journey. Sitting down by the fire allows you to fully heal as if you were sleeping at an inn (except camping is free). You can use the goddess statues at these campsites to save the game, resurrect allies, cure poisons – pretty much all of the classic services of a Dragon Quest church. Having these services out in the middle of the woods is a huge improvement as far as time spent traveling, because in other DQ games if you died 75% of the way to your goal, you’d have to travel that full 75% again. It also makes grinding cheaper (free healing at any time or day or night) as well as making defeated allies in dungeons less of a problem since you can reach a resurrection site much faster.

Speaking of reaching places faster, mounts have returned in Dragon Quest XI S but are much more detailed since their last appearance. Anywhere you find a bell in the overworld, you can ring it to have a horse magically run towards you from nowhere and then ride it around places. It makes moving between distant locations before learning the Zoom spell (which I assume still exists) a much easier proposition, though it isn’t always ideal for looking for treasure in the narrow nooks and crannies of the world. You can also scoop up mounts by defeating sparkling enemies you see in the overworld, and these monster mounts typically have special movement abilities you can use to find treasure. All of these features help to make overworld exploration function quite a bit better than it once did.

DQ11 Fun Sized Forge

SYSTEMS
Meaty JRPGs tend to have multiple subsystems to engage, and learning these miniature systems helps to expand on the game and adds to the overall experience. In last week’s article I spoke at length about the positive changes to the skill system, which now features more player choice as well as working harder to tell you exactly what it is you are working towards. Leveling up is a lot more exciting when you can look forward to an opportunity to play the skill grid minigame, but there is one other system that has grown and improved quite a bit since its last iteration: crafting.

In the past, Dragon Quest used the alchemy pot to mix ingredients in order to make new weapons and items for your party. You just picked random ingredients or used a recipe, waited around or did some battles, and then got a new product. In Dragon Quest XI, you use the Fun-Size Forge to play a little crafting minigame each time you make something. You actually take on the task of forging the item, hammering different sections of the tool as it molds in order to create a version of the item with the highest stat bonuses possible. Success not only yields a useful new item but also currency called perfectionist’s pearls which allow you to retry an item that you wanted to craft in a better way.

So how does the crafting subsystem work? When you choose an item to make you’ll see the mold on the forge broken up into square segments. You can bash a segment with your hammer to fill up a bar that tracks your quality. The bar has a small green segment within it marked in the center of that segment by an arrow. When you fill the meter right to the arrow in the center of the green field, you’ve got a +1 bonus for your item. Staying within the green field is still a positive accomplishment, but overshoot too much (or run out of energy for hammering) and the item may be less than perfect. You have special forging abilities that can strike multiple squares or vary the strength at which you hit a segment, but be careful – run out of focus and you’ll be stuck with whatever progress you have made, unable to improve the item any more.

DQ11 Lips Stunned

COMBAT
One might say that the classic turn-based combat is the most important feature of Dragon Quest, and fortunately XI delivers that combat in a way that feels fresh while still maintaining the core experience. Like in many games where your enemies are visible in the overworld, you can now attack enemies before they initiate combat with you to deal a bit of damage to the monster right away. Once battle starts, you can actually move your character around the battle arena to get different angles on the monsters and see your heroes moving back and forth across the battlefield. If like me you prefer a more traditional turn-based battle camera, you can easily change the settings from the battle menu in combat or the main menu outside of combat.

Targeting still works at three broad levels: an individual target, which can fall into a group of enemies of the same type, which can then appear with other individual targets or groups in order to constitute “all” the enemies. Different spells and weapons have different target ranges – such as the boomerang still hitting all enemies when thrown – but targeting has improved by allowing you to choose which specific target in a group or all attack is the “primary” target that takes damage at the highest level. Additionally, any concerns about losing a move due to the target no longer being in play are gone. Instead of choosing actions for your whole team at once, when it is a specific character’s turn you will choose that character’s action, and they’ll take it immediately.

Combat has grown more interesting by adding new options and abilities to the mix as well. Erik has this great new spell called Rubblerouser that deals damage every time the target’s turn begins. It’s a great way to rack up damage over time on enemies and captures a strategy not present in any previous Dragon Quest games. Psyching up has been replaced with pep, combat power that builds whenever a character is repeatedly targeted. Pep unlocks combo moves between characters such as an enhanced version of Rubblerouser that combines with Hero’s fire magic, dealing earth and flame damage while also lowering resistance to those elements. Since different characters have different pep powers based on which skills they have unlocked on the skill grid, mixing and matching to find your favorite ones seems like it will be an exciting part of the game as more party members are added.

DQ11 Tracing a Doodle

DRAWBACKS
While Dragon Quest XI S has built lots of positive changes on top of classic elements of the series, it isn’t perfect. Even in just a few hours of play I am already finding features I would consider to be a step in the wrong direction. One particular drawback that really drives me crazy is the autosave system. Dragon Quest has historically required you to save in a church, and this is no different in XI. However, the game also autosaves whenever you enter a new area. This is a frustrating condition for activating autosave because how often you enter a new area depends completely on what the game constitutes as an “area.” That large field in the overworld full of enemies where you have leveled up twice and crossed a significant section of the map? All one area. This door in a dungeon that leads to a small 5×5 room with nothing to interact with? Totally a separate area from the hallway outside.

The autosave function isn’t just frustrating because it isn’t as strong as autosave in other contemporary titles, though. It also restricts functionality that was previously available in Dragon Quest. I particularly remember in VII and VIII (because I have played them most recently) how convenient it was to be able to create a suspend file where I could stop playing for a bit and then return to that exact spot without actually producing a “save file” – it leaves the challenge that comes from limited save points while still allowing the convenience of quitting when you need to. Because the game now has autosave, you can’t suspend – when you quit to the menu, the game will simply bring you back to the last autosave, which could’ve been an hour ago if you haven’t transitioned areas.

This choice feels particularly odd to me because XI S specifically is on the Switch, a portable console. The whole point of portable gaming is to be able to quickly pick up and put it down, and this autosave functionality fights against that possibility. This is particularly frustrating if you share your Switch with someone, because you may not have the option of just putting the console in sleep mode until you can come back to the game – if the other person(s) who want(s) to use the Switch decide they would like to play, either they have to wait on you to be able to save or your save file is up a creek. Autosave would be fine as an addition to the suspend function available in previous titles, but it fails to serve as an adequate replacement.

Save file frustrations aside, I am enjoying my time with Dragon Quest XI S. The quality-of-life changes to exploration, the skill and crafting systems, and to the combat of the game have added a lot to the Dragon Quest experience. But even with all these changes, the game still feels very much like the JRPG experience I have come to expect from these games over the course of many years. Just like most games in the franchise, Dragon Quest XI may not do much to break the mold, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a game that delivers a more polished version of this familiar premise. And sometimes, that’s exactly what you want from a video game.

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