Beyond PAX East: A Dragon Quest for Fans and First Timers

The less you know about this franchise, the more I hope you’ll read on.

Quick, what do you know about Dragon Quest?

For many of us in the West, the answer is somewhere in the ballpark of “Not much.” We might know that it’s a single-player RPG presently developed and published by Square Enix, or have some vague notion that it’s beloved in its native Japan. Perhaps as a player of Final Fantasy XIV you’ve even taken part in the crossover event and remember that Dragon Quest definitely contains something about slimes…or “puff puff”…or…something.

Slated for a presentation of Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age at PAX East, I revisited this amusing anomaly. Many of us in the West know that the series has a long, successful history and a robust reputation for quality. We’re just not playing the damn thing, and I don’t think most of us are aware of why.

The more you learn about it, the more odd that seems…

The scenario and design of virtually the entire series has remained in the hands of Yuji Horii, part of the “Dream Team” behind Chrono Trigger. The character aesthetic has remained consistent since 1986—when designed by none other than Akira Toriyama, creator of Dragon Ball (incidentally also part of the Dream Team). And the soundtracks have been continually composed by Koichi Sugiyama, a man credited as an inspiration and “big boss” by the godfather of the Final Fantasy soundscape himself, Nobuo Uematsu.

…until you realize…

Dragon Quest actually did enjoy some popularity in North America back in the late ’80s and early ’90s as Dragon Warrior on the NES. After the release of IV in ’92, the mainline games stopped coming west until VII on the Playstation in ’01 and VIII on the PS2 in ’05. Since then, the series has been filled in with a string of mobile ports and Nintendo handheld releases, but keeping up with the franchise requires effort and attention, and opportunities to inspire that dedication have been few and far between. (And that’s not even to mention Dragon Quest X, the Japanese-exclusive MMORPG.)

In the end, Dragon Quest’s foothold in the West relies on fans either from bygone ages or who were sucked in by word of mouth or a chance encounter. The rest of us have at best a vague idea of its pedigree and perhaps assume that it’s meant for children (despite being a hodgepodge of nostalgic design elements going back 30 years) or that we’ve simply missed the boat (despite the fact that, like Final Fantasy, most of the titles are stand-alone).

But what if, with all of this in mind, someone hit the reset button on Dragon Quest and the West? Would we give it a chance? Could the franchise again enjoy the same success it does in Japan on a larger scale if only we were offered the proper introductions? Square Enix wants to know, too.

Enter Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age

While the game will have been out in Japan for a little over a year when it comes west on Playstation 4 and Steam this September, everything about Dragon Quest XI seems to suggest that the first mainline installment released on consoles in thirteen years has all along intended to—while maintaining core features that have brought it decades of successseize upon a theme of rebirth. Even the protagonist knows little of his own past only to begin his journey with the revelation that he is a hero of legend reincarnated.

Like most DQ games, the narrative is stand-alone and features a new cast of characters on a new world—Lotozetasia. It retains many of the most popular design concepts from its forebears, such as: turn-based combat, story-focused progression, skill trees, spell collecting, and crafting. And in keeping with tradition it also earned a slew of accolades upon release including Playstation’s Platinum Prize and becoming the twenty-fifth game to secure a perfect 40/40 from Famitsu.

In line with the spirit of the times, the eleventh installment promises over 100 hours of content even while eliminating random battles. Currency loss upon death is eased by the banking system. And the game is complete on day one, with no post-launch DLC planned.

Coming West, Bearing Gifts

Of course, themes of renewal and a finger on the pulse of what best to pull from past and present might be enough for a strong return in Japan, but bridging the gap with the West isn’t so simple. Even with strong foundations—a stand-alone experience, nostalgic-but-polished mechanics, and some suggestive elements to offset the juvenile atmosphere—Dragon Quest XI seems determined to express its commitment to winning over new players abroad.

Localization of the 3DS version has been scrapped in favor of a simultaneous release on Steam, the first time a mainline game has ever been released on PC, and while the Japanese version kept with tradition in being text-only, the Western releases will include voiceovers (with accurate lip movement).

The user interface and menus have been overhauled to be more aesthetic and intuitive. An additional, more challenging difficulty setting has been added. The new “dash” function allows for fleeter exploration. And a “camera mode” has been included to better take in (and take screenshots of) the graphics and landscape.

A Rare Opportunity

In short, the latest installment of an acclaimed franchise created by a star-studded team with a three-decade pedigree is making a sincere effort to reach out to those its series has passed by and left behind—a stand-alone, hundred-plus hour, traditional JRPG that was deemed near-perfect upon its release in Japan and polished still for Western consumption to ensure that after years of numerically disordered releases and mobile ports that there is an obvious point of reference for where to dive in and give it a chance. The only question is: Will we?

I will. Worst case scenario, if I never play another Dragon Quest game for as long as I live, at least I’ll know why.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age will arrive on September 4th, 2018 on Playstation 4 and Steam (Nintendo Switch release date TBA). More information will come in the near future, but for now, here’s the opening sequence and some gameplay footage.