For its first few hours Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is happy to just mosey along at its own pace. It's a typically pleasant jaunt through a colourful fantasy world, complete with supremely cute monsters that you whack over the head with big swords, but it's a bit... Boring. It looks lovely and everything's polished, neat, and tidy, but it's so safe and uneventful. It feels great to be playing mainline Dragon Quest on a big screen again -- the series' last PlayStation outing was Dragon Quest VIII back on the PS2 -- but the initial hype is dampened by how familiar it all is. It's been 14 whole years since Dragon Quest VIII, and almost nothing has changed.
We had a strange kind of apathy for Dragon Quest XI throughout its opening chapters, and admittedly, we were worried that it'd never quite hook us the way that we wanted it to. We knew what we were getting into -- we certainly weren't expecting wholesale changes from Dragon Quest of all things -- and we were still finding enjoyment in the traditionally paced experience, but with so many incredible role-playing titles readily available on PS4, we were left somewhat disappointed by the game's near stubborn reluctance to excite us.
That is, until we hit a point where the hero is joined by the best party to ever feature in a Dragon Quest game. XI's cast of main characters is its biggest strength, each ally sporting a kind of depth and level of interaction that the series simply hasn't offered before. With this lovable band of buddies at the heart of events, various elements of the title are elevated. The otherwise cliche plot is given surprising weight and charm, while smaller stories are fleshed out with more personality. Your pals are always chiming in with their own opinions, and you can stop to talk to them about the current situation at any time -- you end up feeling like you're really along for the adventure.
And what an adventure it is. The world of Erdrea is a pleasure to explore. It's not totally open -- there are 'zones' that are connected to one another via loading screens -- but it's still massive and full of diverse environments. Just travelling from one town to the next is a joy, and not just because the game looks picturesque at times. As soon as you step out into the wilderness and hear that rousing overworld musical theme, you can't help but get the urge to go marching off into the sunset.
Each location is beautifully realised, too. Early on, you visit an idyllic Japanese-inspired town that sits on the side of a mountain. The residents speak in haiku, and the bamboo buildings are in stark contrast to the stone structures of the decidedly European city that you visited previously. There's a quirk to every settlement and every dungeon, and the attention to detail results in a very memorable journey, even though it's likely to last around 90 hours. It's always a delight to see what's next.
Overall, Dragon Quest XI is a superbly crafted game. As mentioned, it's an unapologetically traditional experience with its turn based combat, text boxes, and somewhat basic levelling system, but it's all wrapped up in a gorgeously presented package. The character models in particular are satisfyingly smooth and bursting with life, but it's actually the monsters that steal the show. Each beast is brilliantly designed and animated to the point where you feel bad about beating them up.
Personality and charm have always been staples of Dragon Quest -- they're key factors in how the series has been able to sustain itself for so long -- but XI arguably takes its ability to woo the player to the next level. The further into the game you get, the more you begin to realise how much of an ode it is to the franchise's 30 year history. The nods and winks aimed at longtime fans may not land with newcomers, but they're perfectly placed.
Speaking of newcomers, it's worth mentioning that you can quite easily play Dragon Quest XI without ever having touched the property before. Its old school structure makes it accessible -- small quality of life tweaks are more than welcome as well -- and the story is entirely its own thing, as is the case with every mainline entry in the series. In fact, we'd go as far to say that if you're a fan of Japanese RPGs and you've somehow never touched Dragon Quest before, then this is a fantastic place to start.
Moving on, combat is the same as ever. The phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" comes to mind, and fortunately for Dragon Quest XI, battling remains a timeless endeavour. It's still relatively simple, turn based, and difficult to fault. Some silky smooth animations help sell attacks and spells better than ever, but other than that, combat sticks rigidly to what works. What's more, levelling up your party is rarely a chore since you'll be getting into plenty of scuffles as you explore every nook and cranny of the game's world. Watching your party blossom into a deadly group of warriors is one of title's most rewarding elements.
So Dragon Quest XI looks great and plays great, but it doesn't sound especially great. Perhaps we were spoiled with the fully orchestral score of Dragon Quest VIII all those years ago, but XI's music sounds disappointingly cheap. Don't get us wrong, there are still some catchy melodies here, but you can immediately tell that it's just been pieced together on a keyboard. It also doesn't help that several tracks are used over and over again throughout. If it was any other JRPG we'd probably be singing the soundtrack's praises, but for Dragon Quest, it falls below expectations.
Keeping on the theme of audio, the English dub's done well, although some characters are certainly better voiced than others, and as always, there are so many accents on display. In turn, the localisation is superb -- there's some excellent writing here, with top notch puns and consistently flavourful dialogue.
Dragon Quest XI sticks to what it does best, offering a traditional Japanese RPG experience that's simply a joy to be a part of. It's an old school adventure wrapped up in gorgeous current-gen visuals, but it's the lovable characters that win the day. The game's fit to burst with personality, wit, and charm, superbly localised and meticulously crafted. It may not push the genre forward, but it's peak Dragon Quest, and it's absolutely one of the best RPGs on PS4.