matt makes stuff
Dragon Quest XI is the best JRPG I’ve ever played.
On its surface, the story is a very traditional “chosen one vs. ultimate evil” plot, like every other DQ game and most JRPGs, and as someone who’s tired of that sort of thing, I understand why someone would hesitate to get invested. But it’s more than the sum of its parts. The tired good vs. evil narrative is just a framework on which the game tells dozens of short stories. It’s about the friends you make, and the people you help, and the places you visit. The towns are beautiful and intricate. The characters are endearing and multidimensional. Each of your party members will have their own challenges you have to help them overcome. All of the characters grow both narratively and mechanically in really interesting ways. For the 80 hours it took me to finish the main game, I was never bored or frustrated.
The mechanics are perfectly balanced, because it allows you to do as much or as little preparation as you want. With the exception of bosses, every combat encounter in the game is easily avoidable (except for one area which features random encounters, but the time spent there is relatively tiny, and as always there are spells and items to help you avoid those as well.) I didn’t feel the need to grind through the entirety of the main game, and with none of the “Draconian Quest” options turned on, I felt like it was the perfect difficulty balance. I only fought enemies the first time I saw them, and when needed for a quest. I avoided the rest of them. This left me majorly underleveled for a lot of the bosses, and overcoming them was a satisfying challenge that involved using all of my characters and the tools at my disposal.
The combat is the best it’s ever been. It borrows a feature from Final Fantasy X that allows you to swap any of your four active characters for ones in reserve at any time. They have to wait a turn before they can act, so there is some risk to it. Likewise, you can change as much of your active character’s gear as you want when their turn comes up, before they act. This made combat more tactical than any JRPG I’ve ever played; I was frequently swapping characters in and out and swapping their equipment to adapt to whatever the bosses threw at me. Every boss felt like a major accomplishment. It nails that satisfying feeling of “you did it, but just barely.” Because my party was under-leveled through most of the game, the XP from each boss invariably led to at least one level-up for each party members (characters in reserve gain XP at exactly the same rate as your active party.) Like with FFX, I never felt like any four of the characters were my “main party” - I would even find myself swapping out the “hero” when I felt like there was a better option.
If I felt a little underpowered for what I was trying to accomplish, rather than grinding, I would take a break to work on some equipment upgrades. You find books scattered throughout the world that contain recipes for better gear for your characters, and you forge them in a fun little mini-game that had a surprising amount of depth. You collect materials to forge equipment at random spots throughout the world, from enemy drops, and in stores. It never feels overwhelming - a lot of modern JRPGs really overdo it with the crafting mechanics, with hundreds of crafting materials that you can only get by fighting a monster that drops it or collecting it in the world. In DQ11, the vast majority of materials you need can be bought in one of the shops, until the post-game. The ones that don’t aren’t hard to get ahold of - you have an in-game list of every item, in what areas you can find them, what enemies drop them, and where those enemies are located. With some story-related exceptions you can cast a spell to instantly get to any previous location.
All that said, none of this stuff feels super essential to enjoying the game - if you’d rather chill out, put all your characters on auto-battle and just grind monsters until you can obliterate the bosses with zero effort, you can. If you want to turn on the Draconian options and really make the game miserable for yourself, you can. I think anyone who likes turn-based JRPGs will find something to enjoy here.
Post-game info follows (contains some pre-postgame spoilers)
I absolutely recommend everyone start the post-game after finishing the main story. It continues the story in amazingly novel and surprising ways. It has new cutscenes and writing, and feels essential in a way a lot of postgames don’t. In some ways, it feels like an entirely separate game. As Tim Rogers said in the excellent Kotaku review (go look it up,) Dragon Quest games often “contain their own sequels”. I’d have to agree, although I’m not as positive on Dragon Quest XI-2 as I was the main game.
For the first 40 or so hours, it feels exactly like an extension of the main game. I didn’t alter my play style, I finished uncompleted side quests, I got new (very important) story quests to complete, and all was well. At some point, though, I found myself with nothing else I wanted to do. So I said, “alright, time to beat the game.” I went off and started the fight with the final boss, which you have the option to do at any point during the post-game. And I got annihilated. The final boss was on another level of difficulty. I wasn’t even close to prepared for it. We’re talking “kill the entire party in two attacks before you even get to act” territory.
Which on one level was exciting - it meant I had a much greater challenge ahead of me than I thought. But I didn’t know what to do. I had finished every quest I was able to. Which meant, well, time to put my nose to the grindstone.
There were two side activities I didn’t engage with because I didn’t find them fun. The first is a horse racing minigame you unlock very early in the story. The game forces you to do it once, and it makes it easy on you. After that, I never touched it again until I had literally nothing else to do.
It sucks. For as many things as DQ11 gets right, why won’t anyone get the memo that nobody wants to go snowboarding, or play blitzball, or engage in a nonsensical tactics minigame, or dodge 100 lightning bolts, or play an inane racing minigame. No one has ever liked them. That’s not why we play the games. Why does anyone still do it? Why do they want to punish their players for being completionists? “Oops, you like our game too much, sorry! Here’s some dumb horse trash for you to do.”
The second is a set of combat challenges. The “battle arena”, in which you take on a series of increasingly challenging unique enemies for greater and greater rewards, is a JRPG tradition, and it’s not always bad, but DQ11 messes it up by forcing you to complete them in a limited number of actions. There are four challenges of increasing difficulty, and each one has four different tiers of completion. The first tier, you always get the reward just for completing it. The other three tiers each requires you to finish the fight in a small number of turns. In addition, you can’t use your entire party. Each challenge is broken into stages, and each stage can only be completed by one or two party members. The final challenge is four separate fights, with two of your 8 party members facing off against each. You don’t know what the fight will be until you start it, so you have no idea which characters to pit against which monsters. It’s just trial and error.
I don’t find this fun. It completely disrupts the tactical combat I described in the first half of the review. I want to swap my party members. The time limit feels like a burden, and it makes surprising elements that the later fights throw at you (such as respawning monsters) feel incredibly frustrating.
I’m running out of space but basically I just started listening to podcasts and grinding for 20 hours until I could beat the last boss. I’m glad I did but I wish some of the endgame was better. The end!
Post-word limit addenda
To address some common concerns I didn’t have space to get to:
The PC port was flawless for me. I’ve heard that some people are having crashes, corrupted saves, and other technical issues, and it sucks. I didn’t experience anything like it. I’m on Windows 7 with an i7-6700k, 8 gigs of ram, and a GTX 970. It ran consistently at 1080⁄60 with only occasional hitches. I turned the shadow quality down a bitt and it got rid of the hitches. I have a 21:9 monitor, and while the game doesn’t support it natively (which isn’t surprising) it letterboxed and centered it just fine in borderless fullscreen mode. I played with an xbox 1 controller.
The voice acting is fine, but I turned it off after a couple hours because I read much faster than they talk. I hate when games with this much writing have voice acting, because constantly cutting them off after the first few words when you press the button to advance the textbox is incredibly annoying. I was grateful they gave me a chance to opt out.
The music is… regrettable. I wouldn’t say it’s BAD, outside of being several decibels too loud (I left the sfx volume at default and turned the music down to 3.) It’s extremely disappointing that they didn’t use the symphonic soundtrack, and I understand why new players are put off by it. To me, it just sounds like Dragon Quest music. It’s fine. But seriously, Koichi Sugiyama can go eat out of a toilet. Dude’s a horrible fascist who’s been past his prime longer than most people reading this have been alive. I’m sure after DQ8 used the orchestrated soundtrack in the US, he threw a fit and renegotiated his contract to make sure it could never happen again, because he’s a sniveling little Mr. Burns-ass hobgoblin. The sooner he returns to the world tree, the better.
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