Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age has finally been released in North America. For many of us, this is the first “proper” new Dragon Quest game we’ve gotten to play since the 2010 release of DQIX on the Nintendo DS, as the online installment, DQX on the Wii, wasn’t released over here. That’s eight years we’ve been waiting!
DQIX was a great game, but I absolutely loved DQVIII on the PS2, having sunk over 100 hours into it, and I’ve been waiting for another experience like that. I haven’t played enough of XI yet to determine if it lives up to my memories of VIII, but so far it’s headed that way.
The thing I really love about Dragon Quest, and the reason I’m writing about it here, is its solid connections to the past.
Indeed, what a suitable title “Echoes of an Elusive Age” is for a new DQ game, as each entry in the series — updated to modern standards though it may be, and DQXI is unquestionably a gorgeous game by those modern standards — retains elements that have been in place since the very first Dragon Quest game on the Famicom in 1986.
Starting with the first thing you hear when booting up a DQ game, the title theme song has been the same for over 30 years, and has definitely reached “iconic” status.
Yet it never feels overplayed, and it still has the power, particularly near the end, to give me chills. To me, the Dragon Quest main theme clearly suggests courage, heroism, adventure, thrills, reflection, and even love — and it doesn’t even have any lyrics. It’s really one of the greatest pieces of music ever written for a video game. Likewise, the many jingles in the game, such as the pieces that play when you level up or rest for the night, have remained the same throughout the entire series.
Although the world of each DQ game is populated with many memorable characters, the player’s own character is only named by you. Often referred to generically as “Hero,” your avatar always carries your name, or whatever name you choose to use. This is in keeping with the true meaning of a role-playing game: YOU are playing the role of the Hero. You don’t have to play a guy named Cloud, or Chrono, or Ness — even though you are usually free to rename your characters in any video game RPG, my point is that in Dragon Quest, the Hero’s name is never decided for you. It can be your name, you can name him after your dog, or your favorite rock star, or whatever. Currently, my DQXI name is, of course, SuperHyper.
The low-level enemies that you encounter when you first venture into the world are pretty dependably always going to be blue Slimes and Drackys. At this point, these characters are seen more as charming old pals rather than fearful foes, and I, for one, am always happy to see them.
I also look forward to squaring off against some Golems later in the game — and that’s kind of what I’m talking about here. Do I know for a fact that there are Golems in this game? No, I don’t know. But if I had to put money on it, I would bet it all on not only Golems showing up, but Gold Golems too, which will pad my character’s pockets nicely. Traditions abound in Dragon Quest, and if by some chance I complete the game and don’t encounter a single Golem, I will be well and truly shocked.
Speaking of combat, this brings us to possibly my favorite throwback feature of the DQ games: the sound effects! Many incidental sound effects, such as the ones played for an attack, a magic spell, and battle victory, are actually still the original 8-bit sounds, and I absolutely love the juxtaposition of those old-school noises against the rest of the realistic sounds that are used in the game. I was hoping that DQXI would continue this little wink and nod to the DQ veterans, and once again, it doesn’t disappoint.
And beyond just the graphical and audio details, even the basic battle system itself has remained largely unchanged throughout the entire franchise. You can fight, cast spells, or run away. It stays simple and it works. Some modifications have been made, but if you’ve played any Dragon Quest game at all, you’ll know how to go about fighting enemies in the new one — or in any other entry in the series you may pick up.
And that may be one of the things that gives Dragon Quest its longevity and huge popularity: its dependability. I’ve played most (but not all) of the Dragon Quest games since the first one came out in the US as Dragon Warrior back in 1989. No matter what the story of the latest DQ game is, no matter what characters we meet, what boss enemies we fight, or what environments we find ourselves in, these traditional DQ details make us feel at home, even if it has been eight years since we’ve played the last one — or maybe it’s been 32 years since you played the first one, and these iconic flourishes bring it all back to you. They’re certainly appealing to us old-timers and retro-gamers, as any reference to the past tends to be. It’s also just nice to know that no matter how far a franchise might evolve, it doesn’t forget its roots. It’s comforting, it’s fun, and when you defeat that little blue Slime and hear the ascending flutter of notes signifying your victory, it reassures you that you were there back then, and you still belong in this hobby.
No wonder Dragon Quest is so beloved by its fans. It’s not just about playing the game, it’s about being a part of a phenomenon.
Hope you’re having fun with DQXI!