'Dragon Quest XI' Is A Blockbuster Game That Doesn't Deliver
Like many recent JRPGs, 'Dragon Quest XI' is interested in capturing the magic of nostalgia. Unfortunately, this devotion to the past holds it back.
All screenshots courtesy of Square Enix
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes Of An Elusive Age is weighed down by history. After all, it is the most recent entry in a franchise that has been going since 1986, and that’s a lot of time to build up a reputation as being a certain kind of game. And, to the relief of many people who care about what the Dragon Quest games do in their bulk, Dragon Quest XI doesn’t break a lot of molds. It is a turn-based RPG with a big, epic story that follows all of the plot and gameplay movements that anyone familiar with the franchise, or even the genre, can see coming from a mile away. The eleventh Dragon Quest is a blockbuster that takes few risks, doubles down on what it believes works, and makes sure you’re as comfortable as possible.
When we talk about “blockbuster” franchises in video games, we’re talking about bankable names: Call of Duty, Battlefield, Final Fantasy, and Madden are some of those names, and I’m sure you can rattle off a dozen more. Each of these is a particular piece of intellectual property that is associated with a particular brand, and players can identify with them at their leisure; I’m certainly more of a Battlefield player than I am a Call of Duty player at this point.
But video game blockbusters are a little different from film blockbusters, where the term originated. When we talk about blockbuster films, especially in the past couple decades, we’re really talking about intellectual property tied up in a story formula. Notable characters with clear motivations run into challenges and overcome those challenges as the stakes of their possible failure escalate over time. Then they win. These films are promoted as much as possible to generate the maximum return for a studio. They are complicated entertainment math problem that are as “solved” as they can be. There’s a reason that Fate of the Furious feels so much like a Marvel movie with cars in it. They have a shared body plan.
But I’d argue that, despite being blockbusters of their respective media, each entry in the Call of Duty franchise has more experimentation in it than each sequel in the Fast and Furious franchise. That goes double for any of the Marvel films. In video games, the brand might unite the games, but the actual gameplay and narrative stakes are often quite different from entry to entry.
The maelstrom of marketing, consumer interest, and genuine desire on the part of developers creates experiences that seem to jump with more regularity than films. In games, “blockbuster” or “AAA” is less a promise that you’re getting a specific structure than it is a way of signaling that you’re going to get something splashy and big with a lot of production value behind it. Just track how often the Final Fantasy series has changed its battle systems and settings from entry to entry, a kind of general constant riffing on a big set of ideas that really do get refreshed and changed up from entry to entry..
Dragon Quest XI is the promised media object that unites these two forms of blockbuster, the film and the game. It is all of the qualities that I listed above: video game production value; a recognizable franchise; a well-worn plot; a number of stock characters with clear motivations. It brings together all of the senses that one can summon up with the descriptor “blockbuster.” It is the blockbuster concept honed to a razor-thin edge, perfectly executed and wholly adherent to a genre, where every plot beat is seen from a mile away and nothing is out of place.
Unfortunately, that makes for an experience that is generally just flat and dull.
I played a lot of Dragon Quest XI. I made it to the “post-game” content in about 40 hours, give or take, and there was not a single moment in that time that I was surprised, thrown for a loop, or really given anything that wasn’t a standard JRPG or anime trope. There’s some irony in the fact that I don’t want to spoil anything about the game in this review paired with the fact that I’m not sure there’s anything to spoil. I’m pretty sure we could play a game of “JRPG Bingo” and basically hit every plot point.
In typical Dragon Quest fashion, you’re a special boy who is tasked with a mission to destroy a dark lord. You travel across a big fantasy world to accomplish this mission. You go to different kingdoms and do little sub-quests that kick the can that is the big quest down the road a little bit. Each of these kingdoms are loosely based on a real-world culture, with fantasy France being right down the block from fantasy Cambodia, Persia, and Italy, and it all has that slight tinge of Punch-Out!! racism where the characters are broad caricatures of specific peoples. It is, in the light of 2018, uncomfortable at least and incredibly gross at most.
Each region has its own quest, and these all daisy chain together to serve as a way of gathering party members, equipment, and, of course, giving you the opportunity to grind levels. When it comes to RPGs, I am generally a golden path player: I don’t like to waste a lot of time, and in a game like Dragon Quest XI, that can get you into trouble. Each boss exists as a way of measuring how much time you’ve put into killing enemies and upgrading your equipment. If you’re down by a couple levels, or you don’t have the newest sword, you could smash your head up against a boss for a lot longer than you would have had to if you went and harvested XP for twenty minutes.
I spent more than a couple hours of my playthrough of the game getting to a boss, realizing that I couldn’t defeat it yet, and then going back to fight random monsters for half an hour to get the levels that evened things out and allowed me to jump the next hurdle. There was not thought, no strategy, and certainly no real active consideration on my part of how I needed to upgrade my characters or what specific choices I needed to make in the fight. Levels solved the problem every time, so I just got a couple levels.
To be clear: this isn’t fun. It isn’t engaging. I listened to a lot of podcasts while playing this game.
It’s like if you were watching a Transformers film and Mark Wahlberg figured out where the bad guy was, ran up to him, and then the bad guy turned around and said “no, actually, you need to manually kill eighty monsters so that we know that you’re powerful enough.” The game’s plot builds and tells you that there are big, important things that need to happen right now, that these big boss creatures are existential threats in this moment, but the game’s tight focus on classic RPG leveling and progression means that there is never any sense of urgency in the game. It’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait.
To give some context to these statements, I played Ni no Kuni II earlier this year, another JRPG with familiar story beats, grinding, and a focus on gathering both equipment and party members to outfit with that equipment. But that game is fully committed to making those experiences fresh at every point, and I got the feeling while playing that it was more about riffing on the genre touchstone concepts than it was about delivering a throwback experience. That is what I want from these games.
If there’s a core to the legacy throwback nature of Dragon Quest XI, then it is the battle system. For the most part, it feels like the combat in this game could be plucked out and placed into any game from 15 years ago. Each character has a small set of abilities and spells, you choose them, you target enemies, and you repeat. As a way of making the grind feel less, well, grindy, you can set each party member’s “tactics” with some broad strokes like “don’t use MP” or “use a mix of abilities” and then combat is fully automated. Once you figure this out, you’re really ready to listen to some podcasts, as it means you can just run around and auto-battle for a long time before heading back to a camp fire, healing, and then jetting your way right to a boss.
Bookending all of this is a familiar narrative roadmap. There’s a betrayal, of course (this is not a spoiler). There’s a moment where an old man drops a porn magazine during the middle of a rousing speech, embarrassing everyone. There are powerful magical spells and martial abilities beyond the knowledge of the human that must be wrested from the afterlife. There are mysterious characters who no one knows until it is revealed that, yes, they are the missing character from earlier in the game. It is a greatest hits of plot devices, and they are all here in a linear row, spread throughout a big fantasy world.
It’s rote and repetitive, but there are a handful of stand out sequences where individuals in the game break out of the big, broad story beats to have small, personal moments. Dragon Quest XI neatly and effectively sells how Erik, our surly rogue, got to where he is in life. Similarly, some non-player characters get their own subplots that unfurl to teach us something about themselves; a warrior who fights in an arena for money to support an orphanage who appears a few hours into the game is particularly interesting..
There is also Sylvando, a character introduced early in the plot and who claims that his only mission in life is to spread joy through the world. Sylvando is gendered male, but he has heavy eye makeup, calls everyone “honey,” and eventually wears a Cher-like costume while surrounded by assistants he calls his Joy Boys. On one hand, that’s a lot of gay-coded tropes that are reductive and often played for laughs; on the other hand, Sylvando is constantly valorized in the game’s plot as courageous, skilled, and generally just more wise than everyone else on the team. He gets to be on the good end of basically every solid joke in the game, and an early moment where he rescues the entire party from certain doom is one of the best-timed sight gags that I have ever seen in a game. Sylvando is in stark contrast to a lot of the played-out old standbys of the game, and he really is the difference between some scenes being watchable or not. The game is almost always worse when he’s not the focus, and in that way he is just like the occasional, surprise breakout star of summer popcorn fare.
I don’t know if I think that Sylvando is progressive, but at least what the game is trying to do with him as a character is interesting, and it is one of the rough patches that at least gives the game some heart. He also has to be understood in the context of a game that is otherwise firmly regressive when it comes to anything near sex. We get horny old men characters whose sole joke is that they are horny old men, a side quest where a man asks you to dress a party member up in a bunny suit so he can gawk at her, and women hiding in caves asking if I want “puff puff.” In fact, lots of women all over the world who are asking if I want puff puff. Oddly, this is one of the things that contributes to that blockbuster feel, the way that you know you’ll get certain stock angles of women in low-cut tops in a Michael Bay film; it comes with the territory, it’s so predictable, and I don’t know why it exists.
So many of my feelings about Dragon Quest XI come down to wondering why. Thematically, it feels like a retread of the past. Mechanically, it is a retread of the past. If you want to play a video game that is only slightly different than a video game you have played before, then this is the game for you. It is well-executed repetition. Inside of it, you will do repetitive tasks while fighting the same monsters and using the same basic strategies to defeat bosses that are visually interesting but mechanically dull.
In the same way that the film blockbuster has morphed into a predictable set of plot beats and action timings, Dragon Quest XI is the perfect execution of a formula. If you are keyed into that formula, or if you’ve never experienced it before, then I think the game will be rewarding for you. If you yearn for the past, for the snuggly comfort of the Dragon Quest experience, then you will enjoy the game. And I have no judgment; you, or a person who has never played an RPG before, are the target audience of this game. Both of those groups of people are going to have an awesome time with the game, and I’m glad!
I’m not meaning to be a downer about this game, I’m really not, but I felt that people like me, who have enjoyed lots of RPGs over the years but are not dedicated Dragon Quest superfans, are not present in the Dragon Quest XI equation. I felt like the game was actively trying to rob me of enjoyment, both in in the story and in the combat strategy, at every moment. It is a well-crafted, perfectly playable video game that certain has all the pieces of a Dragon Quest game. But in uniting the plodding story predictability of the film blockbuster and the complete adherence to intellectual property of the video game blockbuster, it has filed off any of the edges that might make it interesting as something beyond its existence as a new Dragon Quest game.
Dragon Quest XI is an amazing monument to the fact that there is a new Dragon Quest game, but I don’t think it’s much more than that.