Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age - Definitive Edition Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox One and PC
Dragon Quest XI harkens back to an age of gaming when all the bells and whistles of modern AAA titles were simply non-existent. There were no microtransactions, no overly complicated progression systems, no Day One patches to fix endless bugs, no GAAS online models. You simply picked up a sword & shield, set out into the world, and became a hero. But while nostalgic for a simpler time, that doesn't hold the game back from being one of the most polished, well-written, and gorgeously rendered fantasy JRPGs in many years. Bursting at the seams with heart, it perfectly streamlines JRPG systems such as turn-based combat, skill trees, and looting new gear from fallen foes into a game that is so easy to pick up and play at any time, ready to whisk you away into a fairy tale worthy of legend.
When the game was first released in 2017 in Japan, it was treated as a historic event, essentially being declared a national holiday in its home nation. The legacy of the Dragon Quest series is one of reverence in Japan, and the game was rapturously received, with praise for its story, score, and timeless art direction by legendary manga artist Akira Toriyama. It would later go on to be released a year later in the west on PS4 and PC, the latter of which was designed to increase awareness in those markets. It would go on to be one of the most celebrated titles in a year packed with other such successes as God of War, Marvel's Spider-Man, and Red Dead Redemption 2. Standing alongside those titans, it stood out for its dedication to a bygone era of gaming, while successfully modernizing many core elements of traditional JPRGs.
A year later, the game would be ported to the Nintendo Switch, dubbed "Dragon Quest XI S: Definitive Edition". The new release was not a simple port. It included many quality of life changes, most importantly, the option to replace the MIDI file soundtrack with the fully orchestrated score, a vast improvement on an antiquated method of music delivery. The reasons for which are another story for another time, but I'd encourage readers to research the history of franchise composer Koichi Sugiyama. It's not pretty, and fairly complicated. The new release was praised for these additions, though with the natural caveat of running one of the most beautiful games of the last generation on far less powerful hardware, taking hits on resolution, in particular.
A year later, Dragon Quest XI S has finally come to current-gen consoles, allowing Playstation and, at last, Xbox players to finally experience the definitive version of the game. So how does it hold up? Well, it's a bit more complex than one might expect.
To clarify things right out of the gate, this is not a patch that brings the changes over to the existing console releases. This is a port of the Switch version of the game. Square Enix made it clear that this was a choice to keep the cost of porting the game over down. So what does that mean for console players? Well, the first thing you'll notice is the visuals take a hit from the previous versions. It runs at a locked 1080p resolution, but textures on characters and environmental details are more blurry than before. If you were expecting the incredibly detailed textures of the PS4 base version, you might be disappointed. Luckily, the game is far from ugly, and still retains the magical beauty of Toriyama's artwork. It's a case of timeless art-direction outliving the technical limitations, much like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. So you'll be getting a beautiful game, just not as sharp as it could be. On the plus side, the game now runs at a locked 60fps on consoles, which balances out the resolution dips. It's an interesting tradeoff that will help the game age better and run more like a modern title for years to come.
The good news is that all of the content additions from the Switch version also make their way onto the new console version. The fully orchestrated score sounds amazing in surround sound or good quality headphones. The 2D mode is a lovely stroll down memory lane, and the text font size issues that plagued the Switch version appear to have been fixed. It's a purely nostalgic mode, meant to evoke memories of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy entries before their transition to 3D, and should make old school fans very happy. In addition, there are story additions that continue to flesh out the already stellar cast of supporting characters, as well as some cosmetic items such as the Troidan outfit from Dragon Quest 8, the most popular entry in the franchise.
The wealth of additional content and quality of life changes here certainly live up to the "Definitive Edition" moniker, and for those who have never played the game before, this is easily the version to go with for your first adventure. Which brings us to the million-dollar question: should you play this version of the game, particularly if you've already played before?
For Xbox users, it's a no brainer. It's the first time the game has been available on that ecosystem, and if you are subscribed to Game Pass, it comes free of charge. There's even a demo on all consoles that covers the first ten hours of the game, and your save will transfer over if you decide to purchase the full version.
For Playstation and PC users, the question really comes down to how much you value the visual fidelity of the original release, and whether or not it is a worthwhile tradeoff for the content additions. If you're like me, you played through the game at least once on those platforms, then again on the Switch, and now you have it available on console again, just running superior to the Switch with a higher resolution and framerate, with the natural benefits of a home theatre or high-end PC setup. Fortunately, this is not a full-priced title for Playstation or PC, so you have a financial advantage there.
For me, Dragon Quest XI remains one of the best games I've played in the last decade, and easily one of the best games of the last generation. Its sincere and heartfelt approach to classical fairy tale RPG storytelling and gameplay made me feel like the same kid who picked up Ocarina of Time 22 years ago, setting off into an impossibly wide world of endless possibility and adventure, with nothing but a sword and shield, ready to save the world.