JRPGs are my favorite genre of videogames by far, even though a lot of them are time sinks and take a long time to really strut their stuff. I’ve been meaning to get into the Dragon Quest games for a while, and I finally got that chance with Dragon Quest XI S for Nintendo Switch.
So far, at about ten hours in, it seems to be almost going out of its way to be a bog-standard JRPG. The plot is about the main character, whom you get to name whatever you want, is a special hero guy who needs to fight a big bad atop the same World Tree that’s been ripped from Norse mythology for about the 12,221st time to date. However, the cutscenes never feel like they’re more than two minutes long, and most of them can be A-mashed through, plus you can skip them by holding Y.
As for the gameplay, this is a good, old fashioned, rootin’ tootin’, retro JRPG. When battle starts, you pick your character’s command when it’s their turn, and do the move. Everything is as it says on the tin. If you’ve played a JRPG, you’ve played this one. Battles can also be set to go extra fast, just in case you need to grind, but this game isn’t designed to be grindy (but that doesn’t mean it isn’t outright).
The modern twist that Dragon Quest XI uses to stand out is Pep Powers. With Pep Powers, your character basically goes Super Saiyan (since this is an Akira Toriyama game, after all), and if the right party members are Pepped, you get access to what essentially are Dual and Triple Techs from Chrono Trigger, and as expected, being able to try out all these combinations is no doubt going to be the best aspect of the game. However, there are a number of issues. Although the game says that Pep kicks in after your character takes a lot of damage, similar to a Tales Of‘s Overlimit, in my experience it seems to be purely random. Furthermore, the Pep status goes away as soon as you use one Pep Power, or after a certain number of turns, which the game thankfully gives a visual indication on the last turn that it’s available on. What sucks is that the Pep Powers are the coolest aspect of the game, yet you cannot control the conditions in which you use them. Fortunately, ending a battle in the Pep state causes it to carry over, which can help in a tougher battle; but at the same time you’d have to grind battles if you wish to rely on Pep for said situations. I’m hoping that there will be ways to make Peps happen more frequently later.
Another thing I find tedious is the game’s skill tree. Normally, I love skill trees in JRPGs; however, Dragon Quest XI‘s looks really stingy. You only get skill points on level up, which so far has been only 2 or 3 each time. Most skills require 6, 10, or even more skill points each, meaning you gotta level up several times to get one skill unlocked.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is that everyone has different weapons they can use, such as a regular sword or a greatsword for the main protagonist, and you can change equipment mid-battle without taking their turn. Each section of their skill tree is devoted to one of the weapon styles, plus an additional style that’s unique to them only. I’ve been doing skill trees by committing to a single section, which might not be the way the game intends, since skills are pricier the further out from the center you go, and it’s a real pain. Maybe you get more skill points at once upon further level ups?
Fortunately, the crafting system in Dragon Quest XI seems to be a lot of fun, so far. With the Fun-time Forge, you can craft new equipment with materials you find around the world (as well as their recipes). This starts a minigame where you have a limited number of strikes to fill up gauges on different areas of the equipment. You want to fill it up to the green section, but REALLY want to fill up to the arrow on each gauge (which will be indicated by it turning yellow if successful). The closer you get, the better the final product will be, with the best being a Perfection. Forging things successfully gives you Perfectionist Pearls, which can be consumed to reforge something to make it stronger. Your forging skills will also level up, allowing you to learn Flourishes, which are special moves that make the minigame even more interesting than before. Options are limited early on, but one can only imagine how ridiculously hard- and rewarding- some of those late-game equipments will be to make.
I’m kind of split on the aesthetics of the game right now. Although it’s pretty hard to be angry at Toriyama’s timeless art style on the characters, the world itself is- although colorful and vibrant- very large and bland. I get that this world was designed with the ability to be played in old school top-down style or 3D, but it’s still kind of jarring to see the latter. Also, the game’s soundtrack is kind of meh, but it doesn’t grate on you unless you start doing tedious stuff like material farming. The towns have the best personality and the most thought put into them, but they seem to act like vehicles for padding the game more than anything else.
As far as side quests go, the overworld only has a whopping 26, which is way less than a lot of JRPGs I’m used to. However, there is also a side section where you find weird ghosts that unlock different areas of past Dragon Quest worlds in a special, 2D only zone. This looks like it’s going to be a pretty fun thing to work towards completing, however it seems arbitrary that you can’t save in this zone, since I assume that some of the later ones are going to get really long and difficult.
The game also has a Draconian Quest setting, which lets you custom set some handicaps to make the game harder. I chose one where NPCs can sometimes lie, because I thought they would give me false game advice, such as, “Use this ability on this enemy, whoops that actually does the opposite of killing them,” but the lies are all gobble-di-gook and the game plays a jingle whenever one actually occurs. It’s funny if it happens with a story-important NPC, but I might remove it later, since it doesn’t actually make for a greater challenge (and since I’m a filthy casual, I don’t think I want to play a game blind on its highest difficulty). Speaking of difficulty, the game shows signs of steadily getting tougher, but it seems like one of those where you’ll breeze through standard battles, and only struggle on bosses.
Current Verdict: 8/10
Dragon Quest XI is off to a shaky start, more than most JRPGs I’ve played. I truly do see potential for this to become a great JRPG, but it definitely wants you to make those risky early investments. At the point I’m at, I at least managed to obtain the designated sea vehicle, which usually marks a big turning point in quality for JRPGs in general. Probably by this time next year, you’ll hear my final thoughts on the game!