Dragon Quest XI Performs its Best Puff-Puff: Joey has an Enormous Grin on His Face

Dragon Quest VIII is high on my list of favorite games of all time. I bought it on a whim while on vacation, and I spent two solid weeks playing it for hours and hours. I hunted down and crafted all the best gear, I beat all of the post-game quests, and I took down the most difficult optional bosses. It was the kind of game that made me want more, even if it was just merchandise, so I ran out while I was still playing it to buy the official strategy guide and this beautiful and completely ridiculous controller:

DQ Controller

That was almost fifteen years ago. Since then, I have been desperate for a new console DQ game. I’ve played DQ IV, VII, and IX on the DS/3DS, and I bought but haven’t yet played V.  These portable versions of the DQ experience are excellent. They vary slightly in mechanics, but they all capture their own version of the classic and magical DQ formula. But I have always preferred my RPGs on console. It would be easy to say that it’s because the graphics are often better, allowing for more fully realized and visually stimulating worlds, but I think it goes beyond that, in a way. For some reason, I forget about portable games more easily. Sometimes I even have trouble remembering which portable DQ game was which. I still loved them, but there was something missing, and only a new, full console entry would satisfy that craving I had.

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And Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age did indeed satisfy that craving. It scratched that itch. Satiated that hunger.  It was big, beautiful, familiar and fresh.  This isn’t a formal review, but I want to get some of my thoughts down, so there will be some spoilers. First, I want to say that, as with DQ VIII, I was consistently impressed with the graphics. Both games are obviously highly stylized, with VIII using the then-fairly-new cel shading approach. That was a good choice, as it allowed Square Enix to create what looked like an anime or a comic book in a 3D space, which was charming and surprisingly immersive. The graphics in DQ XI are more refined and advanced, of course, but they are similarly successful in using crisp black outlines to make the game look like a really good cartoon realized in 3D. They used the Unreal Engine, which I guess explains some of the realistic lighting and water effects, which adds an interesting element and makes the world feel a bit richer and more real. Technical stuff aside, the art style, colors, shadows, enemy animations, environments and more were gorgeous and I found myself in awe of one scene or another all the way to the 200 hour point, which is when I stopped playing.

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There have been some complaints about the soundtrack, since the orchestral versions of many tracks that were already recorded were not used. I can understand and agree with this to some extent, but contributors to two different popular podcasts used words like “atrocious” and “terrible” and “horrible” to describe the existing digital recordings, which I think is ridiculously overstated and hyperbolic. They aren’t as good as the orchestral versions used in DQ VIII, true, and maybe the composer is a raging, closed-minded asshole, but the tracks themselves are as solid and classic as they always have been. It seems odd to retroactively evaluate them because they aren’t the better versions.

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I had my doubts about the cast going into the game. Though I successfully avoided most discussion of the game, I had heard from one person that this was the best cast in the series. Being so fond of the cast from VIII, of course, I was unsure how anyone could top them. And looking at the designs of these new characters did little to alleviate that concern. But, once again, I was taught the valuable lesson that you have to experience something fully in order to appreciate it, for better or worse. In this case, it was for better. Between each character’s backstory and their excellent voice acting, I quickly fell in love with this cast. They may look like fairly typical anime types on paper, but the game’s writing and performances elevate them, as is the case with many an admirable anime or video game. I’ll talk more about some of the characters later, but whether it was the lustful old nobleman, the stoic and loyal-to-a-fault knight, or the sassy little witch, I adored my friends and travel companions.

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In a blog post I wrote for 1UP.com ages ago, one of the things I talked about was how fun the combat was in DQ VIII, despite its old-school design and the usually-annoying random battles. Well, even though I was okay with random battles in VIII, they got rid of them in XI while maintaining the straightforward yet still strategic turn-based combat, which just means that it was that much more rewarding. I found myself actively seeking out new enemies to fight, just to see how they looked and fought on the combat screen. I also liked that you could see your characters, and though I didn’t use it, the option to move around the combat field (or revert to classic, first-person mode) was also nice. And the fact that you could team up with teammates to do combined attacks was pretty cool, and reminded me of a certain other game that pioneered these kinds of attacks in RPGs: Chrono Trigger.

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M-Magus’ castle? No, but…

It’s no surprise that these games share design elements. It’s in their DNA. Chrono Trigger was the product of a collaboration between some key designers of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games, including artist Akira Toriyama and writer/designer Yuji Hori, who created the DQ series. So I’ve seen some familiar strands in all of the DQ games that I’ve played, but this game was by far the most Chrono Trigger-esque of them all. Some of what they shared: Silent protagonist. Character who sacrifices their life to save their friends, only to be saved by breaking a time egg/sphere and travelling back in time. The aforementioned double/triple(/quadruple, now) techs. The need to upgrade your air “ship” to break through the final enemy’s outer layer/shield. Floating islands inhabited by ancient beings. A monarch who is corrupted by the final boss. The main character being thrown in jail (by a different corrupt monarch in CT), only to escape (I should note that you fight a dragon tank to escape in Chrono Trigger and there is a dragon in the caverns beneath the prison in DQ XI that chases you as you escape). The daughter of the corrupted monarch is a tom-boyish princess who shuns the normal trappings of royalty, and in both cases there is a scene where they share a moment of understanding and open up to their father, who returns the sentiment. The main character is fatherless. There’s a scene in a dark wizard’s castle where a doppelganger of a familiar character asks you to die for them. There is a mythical sword that you need special, ancient material to transform into a weapon that can pierce a major boss’ defense. And aside from the standard design elements that you’d expect from Toriyama (spiked hair, earrings everywhere, etc.), there are a few specific artifacts that seemed far more Chrono than the other elements. Namely, the places out of time in the two games:

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The End of Time, a stone island in a sea of dark fog (source: http://www.onrpg.com/news/editorial/retro-review-chrono-trigger/)
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The Realm Between Worlds, a stone island in a sea of dark fog

And the final boss in both games begins in what looks to be a space suit, and has a right arm/pod and left arm/pod that you have to destroy (and that he can revive).

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Lavos, inner core: large creature with an exosuit and arms that you have to attack separately in order to destroy the body
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Lavos, final form: creature with what looks like a space helmet, with two pods that you have to attack separately in order to destroy the body
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Calasmos: large creature with an exosuit and space helmet, with arms that you have to attack separately in order to destroy the body

And I’m probably missing/forgetting a bunch of other parallels. Look, I’m not saying this is so close in design as to be a near perfect DNA match, but there are enough similarities that I found myself wishing Square Enix would assign this team to whatever future Chrono Trigger project they deem worthy of development. They won’t, because the DQ series is still huge in Japan and I doubt they’d even divert a notable portion of the team to something as risky as a new Chrono game, especially given that the most recent entry in that series came out twenty years ago. But, still. It was enough to stir up pleasant memories, and enough to make a fella hopeful.

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One last similarity between the two games, and one that relates to another topic I want to discuss, is the female characters. While there are valid criticisms about gender representation in both games, they also both have lots of interesting, varied, and strong female characters. And because I’ve been spoiled by the romance mechanics of series like Mass Effect and Persona, I couldn’t help but find myself wondering who I would romance if I had the chance. I must not have been the only one, either, because Square Enix is adding the ability to marry characters other than Gemma (or live with, if same-sex, which is disappointing but not unexpected) to the upcoming Nintendo Switch version of the game. With that said, I will now spend an unreasonable, borderline creepy, amount of time going through some of the ladies I would date, if possible, in the Switch version of the game.

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Krystalinda, the feisty ice witch of Sniflheim, is as good a place to start as any. I mean, she’s a feisty ice witch. That descriptor alone would make her a nominee for romance in an RPG that gave me the choice.  She’s powerful, smart, flirty, and she seems to have a deep and interesting backstory that the game barely touches. She has crazy, cute hair, she’s curvy and sexy, and she’s a reformed bad girl but current badass. I guess there’s a chance she might freeze me or trap me in a book forever or something, but I think I might be willing to take that chance. Feisty. Ice. Witch.

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Frysabel is Krystalinda’s current BFF. She is also queen of Sniflheim, and as queen she is graceful, thoughtful, and willing to make hard choices, like forgiving Krystalinda for attacking her queendom despite her people’s reluctance to trust the (feisty ice) witch. She is also impossibly cute. I have a bit of a thing for glasses, so maybe that’s it, but I couldn’t stop myself from visiting her court every now and then just to see her, with the hopes that I might be able to help her once again and see her warm smile.

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I’m going to pretend she was preparing to hug me DON’T JUDGE ME OKAY I’M LONELY

You know what else I might have a thing for? Queens. Because I was also head over heels – head over tails? – for Marina, the queen of the mermaids of Nautica. I mean… come on! It’s almost unfair. She’s the queen. Of the mermaids. She has such a presence. Her people love her, she is firm and decisive, she’s powerful and wise, she looks strong as hell, and she thinks I’m cute even as a fish. If this game did have a romance mechanic, I would feel so torn and weirdly guilty for not choosing her. There’s a point in the game where it seems like it’s hinting that she might not come back from her mission to protect her queendom, and I actually felt myself starting to get misty-eyed. Yep. I know. We don’t have to say it. Let’s move on.

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And while we’re revealing patterns, maybe I also have a thing for mermaids, because one of my favorite quests in the game centers around Michelle, a pink-haired, love-struck mermaid. Like the other mermaids, she spoke in rhyme, and she did so with an adorable accent. And pink is my favorite color, so she is extra visually appealing to me. Her tale is tragic, but I can’t help but admire how absolutely unshakable is her dedication to Kai, the sailor she saved. Because of that dedication, I doubt she’d be a possible dating choice, even if the game allowed it, but she would totally be on my list otherwise.

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Grand Master Pang is the head of Angri-La, training grounds of the most disciplined and skilled martial artists in the world. And who trained and disciplined them? That’s right. Grand Master Pang, the baddest of asses. Nothing seems to phase her, even death, and she is a master of all of the moves that even the legendary Luminary has yet to learn. She’s strong but never seems to break a sweat, she is gorgeous, witty, and supremely wise. In fact, she might be the most intimidating of any character in the game to romance, if she were ever even an option. But would that stop me from trying? No. Even if it meant a few whacks from the discipline stick. Heck, maybe because it meant a few whacks from the discipline stick, ho ho, ha ha, okay moving on.

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Miko. The hottie from Hotto. She is yet another badass warrior, though I wish they’d done more to actually show that side of her. We do see her being a firm and commanding leader of her village, and making an incredibly tough decision, but we only hear of the ferocious battles from her past. We do see her as a mother willing to sacrifice everything, including her life, for the chance to save her son, though, and I took the fiery heat beneath Hotto to be a metaphor for Miko’s passion, so she has plenty to offer as a romantic partner. Plus, again: hottie.

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So far the list has been in no particular order, but these last two are in categories of their own because they are party members, so I spent a lot of time with them and learned much more about their personalities and histories. At first glance, I wouldn’t have expected to be into Serena. Her beauty isn’t as explosive or apparent as the other women I’ve mentioned. She comes off as fairly timid, soft-spoken, pretty, and… safe? But I really loved her backstory, and I especially dug her metamorphosis after Veronica’s funeral. She doesn’t maintain the attitude, powers, or look once you go back in time, but I understood that transformation to mean that she had those underlying traits within her.  Even with those aside, she is selfless, compassionate, sweet, charming, and often surprisingly funny. If I had to make a split decision about who I was going to date, I might have chosen her in the scene where she cuts her hair short. She went from vulnerable and defeated, to determined and resolute. And that accent. *swoon*

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But, ultimately, who would I probably end up pursuing at all cost? Who would I peek at a guide or an FAQ to make sure I wasn’t messing up my chances with? The answer, of course, is Jade, but I never would have expected it, myself. With her huge boobs and long ponytail, she seemed in danger of being a stereotypical sexpot character. At least that’s what I thought when looking at the game art, before playing the game. But her introduction in the game, as a seriously kickass martial artist who takes no shit and has a kind of jaded mystery about her, made me rethink my assumptions in short order. She was almost always the first to attack the most powerful foes. When Hendrik showed up and tried to cut me down, she leapt into action, literally, relieving him of his horse and riding off with me on the back. When Jasper arrived at the Tree of Life, she again jump-kicked right at him with no fear. She always had my back no matter what, she is brave, fierce, and intelligent, and she can even transform into a dark and somewhat more risqué, sexier version of herself. She was my most powerful ally, too, so she never left my side in battle. So, yeah. If I ever find another 200 hours to sink into the Switch version, which I am definitely buying, my first choice for a romantic partner will be the supremely divine Jade.

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Okay, phew. I’m all tuckered out, like I just finished a lengthy Puff Puff session. I have many more thoughts about the game, like why not just say that Sylvando is gay? Why hide it under the subtext of a carnival? What is this, the 1960s? And yes, I know Japan is behind the times a bit when it comes to LGBTQ representation, but this could have been a huge stride forward for them. He’s a great character and I think they did a fairly decent job making him well-rounded and deep, but don’t just bury his sexuality in a vague journal entry in his father’s house.  They could have done it in one line. But that is one of my very few minor complaints about the game. As I did with VIII, I became obsessed with Dragon Quest XI. I hunted down and crafted all the best gear, I beat all of the post-game quests, and I took down the most difficult optional bosses. And, because of the miracle of modern console gaming, this time I got a platinum trophy for my trouble. But it wasn’t trouble. Every single minute of it was fun, and I seriously, seriously, seriously hope we don’t have to wait fifteen years for a console sequel. If Square Enix doesn’t hear my prayers and have this team work on a new Chrono game, at least let them iterate on the excellence of this game, as it itself is an iteration on all of the best parts of the games that came before it. VIII, for me, has the benefit of fuzzy, warm, magical nostalgia, but ultimately I think XI is a better game in almost every way. But I love them both. A whole heck of a lot.

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