Abbreviated review: Dragon Quest XI

It’s been awhile!
I completed Dragon Quest XI S to my satisfaction over two months ago, after a break of nearly three years. While I enjoyed parts of it, I was really disappointed with others.

First – the good. The fun-sized forge is an excellent little minigame, with just enough randomness (and just the right level of reward). While it does feel like its level scaling is a little funky, that does incentivize revisiting items after progressing a little in the core game. Combat is a bit of a mixed bag – at no point did any of my characters feel particularly strong, which is good (things are somewhat balanced) and bad (did I make a wrong decision in a skill tree somewhere?). The latter feeling got worse as I progressed. For example, a late-joining character had some skills with a one-handed weapon that were especially powerful leaving me to believe I had missed some nuance in unlocking spear skills for Jade. The core story is more twist-driven than most Dragon Quests, which is exciting in places but disappointing in others.

Hunting down treasures on the world map is a time-honored tradition of RPGs, but in this game it was a chore. In DQXI, these are frequently things that shouldn’t be missed – such as recipe books – rather than helpful one-off items or even marginally useful equipment. But finding these things is also particularly slow, in many cases requiring defeating a specific enemy and trundling down a lengthy side path that is plainly visible on the minimap. In other words, the actual exploration isn’t something you do yourself, it’s frequently plain to see and easy to actually find, but slow to follow and you don’t know what’s there until you open the chest. Contrast to, say, Xenoblade 3 which also has tons of side content. There it’s relatively quick to reach via fast travel and you know ahead of time what’s there (Unique monster, offseeing, ether stuff, sidequest, etc).

While the story is interesting and I actually quite liked the second act’s opening (once you’re MC), the overall story also overstays its welcome. Evidently the early “act 2” sidestories were originally DLC / added content, which makes me think that the game was paced around playing them later – they were arguably the low point of the game. When I reached the opening sections for the epilogue, I was no longer interested – and at that point I had only resumed playing for about 10 hours since my original attempt to beat DQXI.

This isn’t even getting into some of the ridiculous side quests involving pep powers – a feature which can otherwise be largely ignored. “Pepping” happens semi-randomly, and leaves the user in a pepped state for a few turns. Although you can increase the chances, it’s not like the similar condition in DQ8 – in which at least the main character could amp other people up. One particularly egregious side quest involves having three party members “pepped”, with certain skills unlocked to get the pep power, and using said power on a specific monster on an island that you cannot fast travel to. Once you have enough companions to have a front/backline, this is a little easier to manage – but it largely comes across as a time waster rather than an actual challenge.

I’m not sure whether it’s my attitude around RPGs that has changed or DQXI is particularly bad about communicating progress. The largely positive reviews lead me to think it’s the former. My game time comes in spurts of 15-45 minutes, typically, with occasional longer sessions and is frequently interrupted. It doesn’t feel great when I play a game for 45 minutes and I feel like I haven’t made progress, or even the illusion thereof. While Xenoblade 3 and Shin Megami Tensei IV are similarly long games, and frequently a play session would be simply cutscenes in all three games, there is nonetheless a sense of progress in the others that often felt missing in DQXI.

The addition of a 2D mode is simultaneously welcome and baffling. I’m not even sure what to say about it, because I didn’t play enough of the core game in 2D mode to know what all the differences are. I played a bit of the Tickington sub-areas until I became frustrated with the mandatory save and long load times, and many of the Tickington quests seemed to require other Tockles to be found (another incredibly frustrating move – especially since unlike chests there is no way to validate you’ve found every Tockle in an area).

As a long-standing Dragon Quest fan, while DQXI was a step forward in some ways it also seems a step back (or, perhaps, not enough forward) in others. It feels most like an extension of VIII, which shouldn’t be surprising and may be a recommendation. In my recollection, VIII felt epic but focused – XI feels compressed in the story but bloated in side content.

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