The Dragon Quest series has been around since the infancy of gaming, ushering in the beginning of virtual role-playing adventures with its first entry on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986.
22 years later and it retains that sense of old-school charm and formidable challenge. Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age is the first major console release in twelve long years, and thus it’s an occasion JRPG fans are clamouring for.
After spending two hours with the game, I’m happy to report that Square Enix is onto a fantastical winner that, while sometimes too retro for its own good, remains engagingly rewarding to play.
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Echoes of an Elusive Age is the stereotypical bread-and-butter you’d expect from a seasoned JRPG. You play as the descendant of a legendary hero known as the Luminary. He’s a silent protagonist and a bit on the generic side as he stares stoically at friends and enemies. Any bets on you’ll be saving the world by the end?
That being said, he’s a blank slate for players to project themselves onto and little more. The brief snippet I played showcased no customisation options regarding hair, clothes and gender; features I’d love control over in the full experience.
My adventure opened in the pleasant town of Cobblestone. Filled with joyous townsfolk, gorgeous fields and plenty to explore, it seemed the ideal starting point for such a massive RPG. I didn’t stick around, though. After retrieving my horse I left to venture across the open fields, eyes fixed on the towering castle in the distance. Soon after, you’ll stumble into your first battle, and it feels like being transported back in time.
The battle system in Dragon Quest 11 is turn-based, reliant on you selecting attacks and abilities which best fit the situation you’re in. In this first area, you’re completely alone, so there’s little choice but to go on the offensive and wreak some havoc. Attacks are split into standard attacks and independent skills capable of unleashing massive damage, healing and/or providing relevant buffs.
It might’ve been 12 years since the last console entry in the series, but Square Enix has returned to the well for a combat system that is thoroughly familiar. This is both a benefit and a detriment as, while I felt right at home in Dragon Quest 11, it was taking absolutely no risks or innovative departures from a tried-and-tested formula.
Things get a little more exciting once more characters join your party. The depth and personality of proceedings improved significantly as a mixture of knights and mages exchanged banter while cutesy creatures fall before them. Having to assign different roles to each member also proved a blast. They’re set to function independently by default, but I’d recommend taking control so the action is more involved.
Every character has their own upgrade tree stretching across a variety of different skills and abilities. You can choose to spec in different directions if you’re after a specialised role, whether it be a healer or an elemental caster. How far this will extend remains a mystery, as I only upgraded my party a handful of times during the demo. Like most RPGs, the true potential of its systems won’t come to light until we’ve spent multiple hours with them.
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Campfires are spread across the open world and can be used to craft and upgrade weapons, armour and equipment. This is done through a simple yet effective minigame, growing more complicated depending on the power of gear being upgraded. It’s neat, and certainly beats trawling through a menu and enhancing gear with no involvement. However, it could grow a little tiresome if you have a pile of weak equipment to sort through.
The world of Dragon Quest 11 is surprisingly grand. Exploration is helped by having a horse at your beck and call, able to be summoned from outposts spread across each region. Items can be picked up and battles engaged with while on horseback, so there’s never the chore of hopping on and off to perform simple tasks. Outrunning routine encounters is also possible, something that is far more trouble while on foot.
Following the Japanese release, Square Enix has implemented a handful of new features in Dragon Quest 11. This includes a dash button that makes traversing through towns much, much easier. The default movement speed in painfully slow when you’re traveling across the same location several times to complete a quest. Movement and camera controls are also refined, and as a result, it’s easier to control
Other new additions include an English Voiceover, which is quite a mixed bag. Certain characters are great while others feel woefully miscast. The worst example is Sylvando, a traveling performer who is meant to come across as campy and fun. Instead, he possesses a needlessly forced accent. I hope there’s an option to disable voiceover for fans who prefer the classic, text-only approach.
It’s probably safe to assume that Dragon Quest 11 will jump through the aesthetic hoops you’d expect from a traditional JRPG. You’ll see the luscious city with a wondrous royal theme alongside a sprawling desert with a regal family dedicated to gladiatorial combat and the hunting of ancient monsters.
It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but it’s clear Square Enix has honed its craft to a standard that can seldom be matched in the genre. Its gorgeously iconic with an unmistakable style. And, hopefully, there’s a surprise or two in store we’re simply not aware of.
Having already released in Japan, Square Enix has done a tremendous job enhancing Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age before it descends on western audiences later this year.
Refined controls and a series’ first in the form of voice acting, newcomers and veterans can expect a pleasantly familiar JRPG experience in so many ways.
Dragon Quest 11 boasts a retro JRPG in a world where blockbuster franchises are leaving the creative origins that inspired them behind. Personally, we love a turn-based romp every once in a while, so bring it on!