Also available on 3DS, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Stadia, and Windows
Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 05/18/2021 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night
I’m blessed with some really great friends, truly. In addition to my friends over on Racketboy, I’ve also got some amazing friends in the #SwitchCorps Twitter community, and it’s that community that starts this particular review. the 2020-2021 school year was extraordinarily rough for teachers all over the United States as we had to adapt quite abruptly to an all-online teaching format for which we were never prepared and deal with the emotional whiplash of being praised as heroes with one breath and damned as lazy good-for-nothings in the very next breath. It was with all this in mind that one of my SwitchCorps friends, K-MO (after whom I named my Hero in my playthrough) decides to up and order me a copy of Dragon Quest XI out of the blue. Obviously, this meant more to me personally than I can put into words because of how BRUTAL the verbal attacks on my profession got after the first of the year, but it also really reinforced the fact that online friends are EVERY BIT as genuine and there when you need them as “real life” friends not to mention that it’s because of him that this MASTERPIECE of a JRPG is on my shelf. So this review is definitely dedicated to him.
I’ve got to be honest that I’m a bit of a Dragon Quest neophyte. I played Builders and Heroes within the past few years, and I’ve played the original on NES, but that’s it. Everyone kept talking about how great XI was, though, so it had been on my to-get list for a while, but I just never pulled the trigger. Within twenty minutes of starting the game, it immediately became apparent to me why everyone raves about this game. The best way I can think to describe it an absolute perfection of the classic model. It’s very much a classic JRPG but polished to perfection with all of the quality of life improvements you’d expect of a modern JRPG. Driving home the point that this is, at its core, a classic JRPG is the 2D mode that you can toggle to play the entire game as a pseudo-8-bit sprite-based JRPG à la the four classic NES Dragon Quest games (or Dragon Warriors as they were called in the United States back then). Other than being slower-paced and having random encounters rather than avoidable overworld encounters, the game itself remains the same. Think the graphic shift in Halo Anniversary but cranked up to eleven…thousand.
The story involves the Hero (you know, that guy from Super Smash Bros) as he comes of age and discovers that the weird birthmark on his hand is actually a mark signifying that he’s the reincarnation of the legendary Luminary, a chosen hero fated to defeat the returned Dark One. I absolutely refuse to spoil anything for the eight or nine RPG fans out there who haven’t played this game yet, but what starts ordinarily enough turns into one of the best 100 hours you’ll ever spend with a single-player game. For those of you who, as I did, are thinking “Okay, but 100 hours is just if you’re a completionist, right?” No. No, it’s not. I only did like a third of the side quests, and my final playtime still clocked in at about 96 hours. You *could* stop at the first credit roll at the end of the informal “Act 2,” but that’s only two-thirds of the game; the “postgame” isn’t so much extra epilogue stuff as much as the actual last third of the main story, and that’s straight-up another 30 hours, *maybe* 20 hours if you rush.
There are a total of eight playable characters – the swordsman Hero, the rogue Erik, the sorceress Veronica, the healer Serena, the mage Rab, the ultimate Dragon Quest waifu Jade, the gloriously flamboyant showman Sylvando, and the other one. We’ll leave it at that. Each of these characters can be developed into a fighting style of your preference to a certain extent. Do you want Jade to use claw gauntlets or spears? Do you want Sylvando to use a whip or a sword? Do you want Serena to use a magic wand or a spear? You can’t just throw weapons willy-nilly, but you do get a couple of options for each character. It costs some gold to do so, but you do get the option to respec your characters, so if you decide you’re not so crazy about that particular weapon type for that character, you can redistribute their spent skill points into skills for their other weapon option.
It’s clear that the development team went for performance and artistic flair over cutting-edge graphical fidelity. Other than the normal resolution drop, the visuals differences between PS4 and Switch are so minimal that you practically can’t tell without a side-by-side comparison which is both a testament to how well the development team has learned the Switch’s hardware as well as how competently ported from 3DS it was that it looks as good as it does given its last-gen handheld roots. Frame rate drops were extremely minimal and uncommon in my experience, and I don’t recall a single crash. Autosaves are frequent in case you do realize you’ve made a major mistake although not so frequent that you should rely solely on autosave. One of my favorite aspects of the game is actually the music. The orchestral soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal, and while you have the option to switch to the standard non-orchestral music, I’m at a loss as to why anyone would ever want to. The orchestral music is some of the best music I’ve ever heard in a JRPG and is every bit as enjoyable to listen to as the game is to play.
As with most RPGs, what really makes Dragon Quest XI stand out from the crowd is the writing with respect to the characters. Every character is brilliantly written and developed over the course of the story especially if you take the time to do their side tasks and quests. You really get the sense that a lot of love was poured into the script for this game as well as the voice acting as the entire package is virtually flawless from start to finish. My *only* complaint about the game is a completely subjective one – it’s too damn long. It’s an absolute masterpiece of a game, and I adored it, but I had to take a few breaks to play through other games because I just got so burnt out. For a regular non-completionist playthrough to take me nearly 100 hours is excessive. To be sure, no one will ever accuse this game of not being worth your money for skimping on content (looking at you, Ultra Street Fighter II), but good lord, it’s a damn behemoth of a game. I personally think 30 to 40 hours is the perfect length for the core story of an RPG, and 60 isn’t uncommon, and that’s totally cool for a beefier RPG experience, but 80 to 100 hours is just gargantuan. I’d rather they give me too much game than not enough, but damn dude, this is a LOT of game. Still, though, considering that my only complaint essentially boils down to “they gave me too much product for my money,” it’s not really something I can justifiably hold against it.
Dragon Quest XI is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. The visuals exemplify the idea that you don’t need top-of-the-line graphical fidelity to make a game look beautiful, the soundtrack drives home the impact that orchestral music can have on enhancing a gaming experience, the writing is superb, and the voice acting is top-notch. This is everything you love about classic JRPGs from the late 80s and early 90s without the things you hate and brought into the 21st Century and modernized for today’s gaming expectations. I truly can’t find a single legitimate flaw with this game. I’m so grateful to K-MO for being such an amazingly thoughtful friend, and I’m so lucky that his pick-me-up gift was such a stellar game. It may have lasted longer than I would have ideally liked, but I can’t think of a single JRPG more deserving of such an obscenely long playtime. No matter how you game – even if it’s on that laughing stock of a platform Stadia – make sure you don’t sleep on Dragon Quest XI if you haven’t played it yet. It’s a hell of a time commitment, but I promise that it’s more than worth it even if you have to play it in small bites throughout the year.