For the past couple of weeks, my Switch has been pretty much nothing but a Japanese role-playing game machine. (Okay, and a goose game machine.) The system’s JRPG library just keeps growing, and following the overdue return of Final Fantasy VIII, we have two more releases — and they’re some of the best yet.
First, there’s Dragon Quest XI, which comes out today. It was the first game announced for the Switch — before anyone even knew what the Switch was. Square Enix showed off two separate versions back in 2015: a beautiful PS4 game with an expansive 3D world and a 3DS game with much simpler 3D graphics that could also be played in 16-bit 2D. A “Nintendo NX” version was also confirmed, but no one knew whether it’d be closer to the PS4 or 3DS iterations.
Here we are more than four years later: the NX is now the Switch, and Dragon Quest XI is indeed on it. It’s also by far the best version of the game.
At this point, I’ve played a lot of Dragon Quest XI across various hardware. I played the 3DS version when it came out in Japan (it was never released elsewhere), then I played the excellent PC version when it first came out in English; it’s basically the PS4 game with better graphics and performance. I thought that would cover all my bases. But the Switch port is like an elaborate Blu-ray box set, combining the best of all prior versions and adding great new features.
First off, Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age - Definitive Edition (to give the Switch version its slightly ridiculous full name) is based on the PS4 version of the game, not the technically less advanced 3DS version. It doesn’t look quite as good, of course, but unlike ambitious ports like Doom, I never got the sense that it was overloading the hardware. The frame rate is solid throughout, and although it doesn’t run at native resolution on a TV or in handheld mode, it isn’t distractingly blurry.
If this game had only ever come out for the Switch, no one would think it was poorly optimized. They’d just say, “Wow, that’s the best-looking Dragon Quest game ever.” Stick to the PC version if you want the absolute best visual experience. But if you’re playing this game for the first time, know that the Switch’s visuals are more than good enough. It’s a great-looking game, and it’s wonderful to see Akira Toriyama’s unmistakable art in HD.
It’s also wonderful to see it in 2D, which is a major selling point for Dragon Quest XI S: it includes the 16-bit mode from the 3DS version. This is the first time it’s been playable in English, and it’s a great addition. You can play the entire game in 2D as if it were designed for the Super Nintendo. It is like getting two games in one (or at least one game and its several-decades-later remake in one). Unfortunately, you can’t switch between the two at will. You need to save at a church to change modes, at which point, the chapter restarts. I’d recommend playing through one once you’re done with the other or just keeping two separate save files.
This is also comfortably the best version of Dragon Quest XI from an audio perspective. The original Western release featured fully voiced characters with exaggerated regional British accents, which some people like but… well, let’s just say they aren’t my cup of tea. On the Switch, though, you can play in Japanese with English subtitles, which I prefer. The original game was also blighted with a terrible, tinny synthesized soundtrack, which is now fully orchestrated. I still wouldn’t say the music is great, but I haven’t been playing the game on mute while listening to podcasts, which is more than I can say for the PC version.
The Switch port is like an elaborate Blu-ray box set
Other additions include new story chapters, a photo mode, and lots of little tweaks that make for a smoother experience. You can speed up battles, call your horse wherever you are, craft equipment anywhere, and so on. My favorite tweak is that when you run over an enemy on your horse, you now get a tiny, desultory amount of XP instead of none at all. And this obviously should go without saying, but the game is portable now! Dragon Quest is a perfect portable series even when you’re playing a bad mobile port on an iPad, so it’s no surprise that XI feels right for the Switch.
As for the game itself? Well, it’s Dragon Quest. If you’ve played a Dragon Quest game before, you’ll know exactly what to expect. It is deeply conservative, entirely conventional, and utterly charming. If you haven’t, it’s a great place to start. Dragon Quest XI doesn’t do much that’s new, but it’s still one of the best games in the series. It’s also the first time since the PS2 that a mainline entry has pushed technical boundaries on a home console. With the Switch version, you get the best of all worlds.
The other JRPG I’ve been playing is Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, which Level-5 first put out on the PS3 in 2011 and was released for the Switch last week. (In a possibly unique parallel with Dragon Quest XI, Ni no Kuni also had a less extravagant DS version that never left Japan.) It’s best known for being the result of a collaboration with the legendary anime house Studio Ghibli, which produced art and animated cutscenes for the game.
The classic Studio Ghibli art style helps ‘Ni no Kuni’ feel timeless
The Switch version is essentially a direct port of the PS3 original. It runs at 720p even on a TV, but the performance is solid and the art still looks great. Ni no Kuni was one of the most visually lush PS3 games ever, and the classic Ghibli art style helps it feel timeless. If you do want a resolution boost and don’t care about portability, however, a remastered version of the game also came out on PS4 and PC last week. (The Switch version doesn’t earn the “Remastered” label, tellingly.)
Although I loved its sequel, this is my first time playing the original Ni no Kuni, and the two are very different. The first game has a whole element of raising pokémon-style creatures to it that Ni no Kuni II essentially abandoned, and Studio Ghibli’s direct involvement is also apparent. The story is more emotional and grounded than the sequel’s admittedly unhinged tale of the president traveling to another world and helping a small boy take over the entire kingdom to vanquish a rat insurgency.
I vastly prefer the more dynamic combat system from the second game, and I also miss the city-building aspect that it introduced. But I’m still having fun with it right now. It’s consistently gorgeous, and it feels authentic to Studio Ghibli’s prior work, with a ton of heart and inventiveness in its storytelling. Just like Dragon Quest XI, it’s worth playing through just to see what inspired creation might be around the corner.
I know everyone says everything is perfect for the Switch, but I think it applies to JRPGs more than most. I’ve always liked playing them on portable systems because it’s easy to knock out a few battles and make minor progress whenever you have a few minutes. But when it comes to epic, beautiful games like Dragon Quest XI and Ni no Kuni, I’d rather see their stories play out on the big screen. And on the Switch, you get to do both.
Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age - Definitive Edition and Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch are out now for the Nintendo Switch. Dragon Quest also has a free demo to try, and your save progress will carry over if you end up purchasing the whole game.
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