Familiarity breeds contentment. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age hits all the notes that fans of the Dragon Quest series have come to expect, from the retro sound effects that signal your victory in battle or your transition into a new area, to the relatively straightforward turn-based combat, to that distinctly optimistic tone that never dissipates even in the darkest of moments. But even those who find appeal in the series's more traditional approaches may find it hard to ignore how this game's weaknesses become as magnified as its strengths throughout the lengthy main quest.
Dragon Quest XI's protagonist is—wait for it—destined to save the world from a mysterious evil force. After being thrown in prison by a corrupt ruler, the hero pairs up with the thief, Erik, who helps him escape. The two then gain a handful of allies and learn that they must collect six orbs to have a chance of bringing peace to the planet. The game attempts to lessen the predictability of this plot with various characters who seem good-natured, until they're revealed to be corrupt or malevolent. Dragon Quest XI, though, handles its theme of people not being what they appear to be with varying degrees of success. At times, the storytelling is intriguing, as in the tale of a martial arts champion who turns out to be an anti-villain cheating the system in order to support orphaned children. But more times than not you can see the revelation of a person's true colors from a mile away, as with a king who gives off a cartoonishly conniving vibe from the very moment you meet him.
Your party members are largely uninteresting, and sometimes downright intolerable, in no small part due to some silly writing. Outside of a moment where he alludes to the importance of faith, Erik says little that carries emotional significance. Jade's toughness is one-note, while sisters Veronica and Serena are often insufferable. Veronica, trapped in a child's body, shows aggression toward those who perceive her as a kid—what does she expect?—and is always looking for a fight, while Serena speaks with an unbelievable level of cluelessness, as when she, a spellcaster in a world full of magic, expresses surprise about the existence of a witch: “My goodness! That sounds like something from a fairy tale!” Sylvando, the flamboyant showman, isn't unlikable, though the game leans hard, and risibly so, on his effeminate demeanor, like his usage of the term “darling,” for comic relief. Only Rab, the elderly mage, feels three-dimensional, but one scene in which he drops a dirty magazine reduces him to a caricature out of a low-rate anime.
Though visually sumptuous, the game doesn't do much to strike a bolder, more mature path within a tired series.
These characters are more satisfying to take in when they're in the midst of battle, thanks to the game's exquisite animation and Akira Toriyama's highly refined design work. But it's your enemies that prove even more entertaining to behold. Although many of the foes here have appeared in previous Dragon Quest games, Dragon Quest XI's smooth visuals bring new life to their quirky features: the pigs with oversized wizard hats, the rabbits with unicorn horns, the rabid sorcerers who look as if they're about to commit indecent exposure, and so on. Half the fun of winning is relishing the kinetic brilliance of enemies falling, dissipating, crumbling, or losing their equipment upon defeat.
The actual decision-making in the turn-based skirmishes will make you feel as if you're back in the '90s, though many two-decades-old RPGs boast combat options that are more innovative than the ones offered up in Dragon Quest XI. The most original idea here is the Pep system, a mix of Final Fantasy VII's Limit Break system and Chrono Trigger's combo techs. Pep allows characters to gain stat bonuses and perform combos after they've taken enough damage. The problem is that there's no Pep gauge that would enable the player to methodically avoid or absorb enemy hits in order to set up stronger attacks for tougher adversaries, so the system is more random than useful until you get the ability to instantly “pep up” a character later in the game.
One of the game's surprisingly strong aspects is its item-crafting system. Unlike most such systems in gaming, Dragon Quest XI's blacksmithing feature, which originally appeared in Dragon Quest X, requires skill outside of gathering materials and makes for fun experimentation as you adjust the temperature and the placement and strength of hammer strikes. Indeed, the more care you take with the process, the better the items turn out. You can also use this crafting system to improve your existing weapons and armor.
The one thing that irrevocably sets the Dragon Quest series apart from similar works is its undying positivity, and Dragon Quest XI is no exception. Composer Koichi Sugiyama's soundtrack is as touching and life-affirming as his prior work. Throughout the game, the townspeople you encounter will speak and behave with an enthusiasm that's nothing short of infectious. Elsewhere, the numerous churches throughout the journey continually reinforce the notion that faith is essential to inner peace. These elements, while familiar, make it easier to swallow the more trite RPG conventions that the game leans on, as well as its hackneyed sense of comedy. Still, it's a shame that Dragon Quest XI, despite being the most visually sumptuous Dragon Quest title to date, doesn't do more to strike a bolder, more mature path within a tired series.