If you can’t already tell, this isn’t the first time Dragon Quest XI has been released; the first time gamers in the west were able to play was about a year ago - but only if you had a PS4 or a PC, as the 3DS version didn’t make the trip from Japan and the Switch version (this version) was still in development.
To make up for the gap between platform releases, the developers added a lot of “quality of life” tweaks that made some of the battling and story bits faster, if you wanted, and tweaked various in-game systems to make them more fun or convenient. There’s loads of new content, too, most notable of which is probably the option to have “16-bit” (think: Super Nintendo-era) graphics, ripped from the 3DS version we never saw, instead of the fancy visuals the game uses by default. This is a neat option - especially for retro-freaks like me - but even with my proclivities, I found myself using the modern graphics 90% of the time, although certain aspects of the game are actually more efficient using the simpler presentation.
There’s loads of other new stuff, of course, like costumes, quests, a photo mode, etc, but far and away the best feature is the one you get by default on all Nintendo Switch games - portability. I actually received the game at the same time as I received my new Switch Lite, so I installed it on that so I could assess both the game and the revised Switch model at the same time. As a result, I have only played it in handheld mode, and have no idea how it performs on the TV (my copy of the game was digital, so I couldn’t easily pop it into another switch to compare).
If you’re not familiar with Dragon Quest, it - like Final Fantasy - is a series with a storied history and legions of fans. Originally made by Enix (where Final Fantasy was made by Square) they’re now both made by the same (now merged) company - Square-Enix. Amazingly, however, the two series have managed to maintain their own identity, and that’s no less true here. XI S (honestly, that title up there is too long to repeat in full) feels to its core like a DQ game, which is great news to me as I prefer the series to FF. The characters are somehow serious and cute - without being “super deformed” or otherwise weird looking - and the various enemies have strong silhouettes and other visual cues that keep them distinct and memorable.
The gameplay itself is a wonderful combination of exploration (both “overworld” and in towns), adventure, action, role-playing, and even - albeit mostly lightly - puzzle genres. It largely feels fresh from minute to minute, charging you with such a variety of activities time just disappears while playing it. The story is very neatly integrated, too, and the Japanese dialogue - my preference, wherever it’s available - is extremely good. The music, too, is beautiful; a rich orchestral score that really helps to bind together the other elements into a cohesive whole that is suggestive of a much larger reality than is actually portrayed in-game.
Visually XI S is an absolute triumph; it doesn’t just look good “for a Switch game” - it looks good, period. Characters are incredibly varied in appearance (no body-normative fat-shaming here) and so beautifully animated you’ll be struck by them even if you’re not a reviewer. Facial animation, for example, is sublime, with not just lip-synching but also strong reactions and genuine emotion really helping to sell the excellent story.
The world itself, while not open or freely explorable, is richly detailed with a strong sense of scale and gravity to most of the environments. Exploring cities is fun as a result, and peeking around every corner is also often richly rewarded with various secrets, treasures, and awesome views to be found if you take a look around.
Combat is a traditional affair, which I found to be a breath of fresh air in amongst what feels like an ocean of games that are trying to reinvent the core gameplay loop of the JRPG. If you like, you can get right in and issue instructions turn-by-turn, but I found myself leaning on the auto-fighting options (of which there are several to choose from) as that actually worked pretty well most of the time.
It’s also super long - how long I can’t tell you as, despite having spent a huge amount of time with the game (sorry Dan), I still haven’t finished it. I’m far from bored of it either - which is one hell of a compliment, especially given how jaded and bitter I’ve become after decades of game reviewing (not really).
Basically, this is the JRPG done right; not only is it brilliant, but you can put it in your bag and take it out at break time - or on the bus or whatever. It looks, sounds, and is wonderful to behold, richly rewarding no matter which of its many and varied tasks you’re currently engaged with. One of the best JRPGs (or RPGs for that matter) I’ve ever played, one of the best games on an already jam-packed-with-awesome-games console, and just flat out awesome experiences you can have, this is a must-buy for all but the JRPG allergic.
+ Stubborn traditional approach to JRPGs.