Video games are, almost universally, about repetition. Think about the number of times you’ve jumped on a goomba in Super Mario or hid inside a bush in Fortnite. With a few variations, playing a game means doing the same thing over and over. This isn’t a bad thing; at their best, games manage to turn this repetition into a loop, one that can either fill you with excitement when something unexpected happens or create a warm sense of comfort as you master it.
Perhaps no genre exemplifies the latter like Japanese role-playing games — the Dragon Quest series, in particular. Over three decades, the core of the experience has remained largely unchanged. You venture out into the world, battle some monsters, visit a town, and watch the story progress. Rinse, repeat, and throw in the occasional towering boss fight. That structure has become so ingrained that even minor shifts — like when the series went portable with Dragon Quest IX — feel massive.
Dragon Quest XI, which launches next week on the PlayStation 4 and PC, feels like the ultimate form of that 30-year-old formula. Fundamentally, it’s not all that different from past entries. But the multitude of refinements and improvements, covering everything from combat to visuals to story, make it the best, most approachable Dragon Quest to date. It’s the video game equivalent of putting on your favorite sweater and settling in for the night.
Things don’t start out all that promising, however. In its opening moments, Dragon Quest XI feels like one big cliche. You play as a young man in a small village (in keeping with series tradition, he’s completely silent), who turns out to be the reincarnation of a famous hero from generations ago. Known as the “luminary,” it’s his destiny to save the world from an impending darkness. So once you discover his true identity, you set out to see the king and fulfill your destiny.
It’s a premise you’ve seen in countless fantasy epics. But thanks to a twist fairly early on, which I won’t spoil here, Dragon Quest XI manages to (mostly) stave off cliche and offer up a surprisingly engrossing story. In fact, the most remarkable thing about the game might be that it has a story worth mentioning at all. As beloved as Dragon Quest is, it’s not exactly known for its memorable narratives; I’ve played nearly every game in the series, and I can barely remember what happened in any of them. Dragon Quest XI, meanwhile, features a wonderful, if somewhat predictable, fantasy tale full of weird shifts, dramatic moments, and an absolutely incredible cast of characters.
In past Dragon Quest games, I’d usually keep playing to reach a new milestone. A new experience level, or maybe a different location. But in XI, I pushed on to see what happened next in the story, to learn new revelations about why my circus performer friend Sylvano left home, or why the old explorer Rab looks so familiar. There are strange moments involving time-travel, tense conflicts between parents and their children, heartbreak over long-lost lovers, and, of course, overly dramatic monologues about the fate of the world. It’s about as dark and gritty as Dragon Quest can get without losing its unique charm. But don’t worry: the puns are still here, and they’re in full force.
This story is important because it’s what makes enduring the game’s incredibly daunting runtime bearable. In order to see Dragon Quest XI through until the end, you’ll need to play for around 70 hours, and that doesn’t include optional side quests or the stuff that happens after the credits roll. You won’t even meet the entire main cast until 20 hours into the game. But the lengthy quest never really drags at any point. It’s near-perfectly paced, with constant turns that make the hours fly by. On more than one occasion, I found myself playing late into the night without even realizing it. There always seems to be something important just over the horizon.
The world is absolutely massive
The gameplay also feels like a slightly refined version of past games. Take combat, for instance: Dragon Quest is somewhat infamous for the “fight, fight, heal” structure of its turn-based battles. They often don’t require a lot of strategy. In DQXI, you can still play like this much of the time. But there are also new elements, including a huge range of abilities and spells and a well-rounded cast of fighters to choose from that add a more strategic element. It’s not as robust as in many other RPGs, but it’s enough to make it feel like you’re in control of your party of adventurers and that you can customize them just enough to better suit your play style. The loop still remains, but it’s more satisfying and flexible than ever.
Similarly, the world is absolutely massive; it’s so big that in order to get around, you’ll need to ride around on horseback and take shortcuts by boat. But it’s not an open world by any stretch. Just like in past games, dating back all the way to the NES original, the world is made up of a series of large spaces that are almost empty, save for the monsters you have to fight. In fact, in Japan, the game launched on the 3DS as well, and players could swap between the more modern 3D version of the world and one rendered in classic, 8-bit-style sprites. When you strip away the high-end graphics, it’s exactly the same game underneath.
But those visuals make a difference. They create a sense of scale that makes it feel like you’re on an epic quest, one that spans a sprawling, diverse landscape. The world of Dragon Quest XI is sort of like a typical fantasy setting crossed with Japanese folklore, with a few cities that are inspired by real-world locations thrown in. One minute, you’re in a remote seaside village reminiscent of Honolulu; the next, you’re trudging up a tower to find a Tibetan-style monastery. Later on, you’ll meet mermaids who speak only in rhyme, and along the way, you’ll fight fire-breathing horses dressed up like Chinese New Year floats, and undead knights riding on the back of surprisingly cute dragons. It’s a strange mixture of influences, but it’s held together by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama’s distinct visual style.
The small details make all the difference
If you don’t look too deeply, most of these elements — the story, the world, the combat — can appear largely unchanged from past Dragon Quest adventures. But it’s the small details that make all the difference. It’s a story that makes you want to push on for hours, with combat that is flexible enough that it’s fun to experiment with different fighting styles. It’s a world so beautiful and enticing that you want to explore, even if there’s not a whole lot to do besides battle monsters.
For fans, it’s Dragon Quest exactly as you want it, but in a bigger, more modern package. For everyone else, it’s the best possible version of an iconic role-playing game, one that isn’t saddled with decades of baggage. Dragon Quest XI is a slow burn that takes time to get going, but once you get into the loop, you won’t want to leave. It’s just so comfortable there.