You don’t really play a Dragon Quest game for surprises. This is a series built on tradition – and on traditions that you can trace back some 32 years – so it’s always going to be angling towards a more traditional brand of role-playing game. Indeed, Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age – which marks the first mainline release for a new game in Square Enix’s long-running series in the west for almost a decade – makes a virtue of that. There’s no DLC. There’s no online. There are no expansion packs or future amendments planned, and almost certainly no patches that might alter the story or introduce whole new chapters. This is a resolutely, almost aggressively old-fashioned game, one that feels like it’s stepped out fresh from another era entirely.
And that’s absolutely fine, especially when it’s a game as sumptuous as this. Just as Dragon Quest 8 dragged the series into the world of 3D, Dragon Quest 11 does a fine job of introducing it wholesale to the HD generation (indeed, so belated has its introduction to that world been that it’s also available in 4K on PlayStation 4 Pro, where it looks absolutely splendid). Those rich blues, greens and yellows that serve as the core part of Dragon Quest’s palette, that feed into that feeling of sun-parched days that stretch out endlessly for summertime adventures, have never looked better.
Neither has its world, with Dragon Quest 11’s kingdom of Erdrea full of exquisite detail. It’s the way the landscapes dip out towards the distance, selling the scale of a game that’ll happily consume 80 hours before you see its end; the way the treetops dance in an invisible breeze, selling Dragon Quest’s stately, blissed-out pace just as well as Koichi Sugiyama’s score. It’s how Akira Toriyama’s artwork has been expertly met by Square Enix’s modellers, selling the comic menace of bodkin bowyers and lump mages with an all-new level of fidelity. It’s about seeing familiar things presented to a level you won’t have seen before.
And, in its tale, it’s also about familiar tropes being wheeled out for the umpteenth time. Echoes of an Elusive Age is about a mute hero, orphaned soon after birth who slowly awakens to his innate powers and his destiny to do no less than save the world. It’s a tale of idiot princes, evil kings, sassy mages and wise-cracking thieves – nothing you won’t have seen before, essentially, but as ever it’s not about the tale so much as the telling, and this is complete with the charm that’s always defined Dragon Quest.
Thank the localisation team in part for that, the ample voice-over work nailing the regional British accents that have long been a part of Dragon Quest’s fabric (and introducing a voice-track that was entirely absent in the Japanese release). That team has done a wonderful job of preserving the character that provides Dragon Quest’s real pull – the quirks of character, or the godawful dad jokes (perfectly embodied in Hotto, say, a spring town that’s brilliantly on the nose in its naming and in which everyone speaks in clipped haiku). It’s a whimsical world throughout, often winningly so.
Even beyond the localisation, Echoes of the Elusive Age feels like it’s been set up as an entry point for the series and an attempt for Dragon Quest to emulate the phenomenal success it sees in Japan over in the west. This is a linear adventure, but it’s one that will go out of its way to lead you along its path (one that’s lined with sub-quests and side missions, of course, as well as the welcome distraction of horse racing and gambling), and one that presents a stripped back, simplified take on traditional RPG combat.
Encounters aren’t random – you’ll doubtless be pleased to learn – but battles are strictly turn-based, the option to move around when facing an enemy having no bearing on the combat itself. You can opt to play from Dragon Quest’s more traditional perspective, and even opt to set up your party to tackle battles themselves should you want to take some of the pain out of grinding. Dragon Quest 11, if you allow it, is a game that can play itself.
It’s a little like Final Fantasy 12, but without much of that game’s depth, and it’s not the only trace you’ll find here. Characters are levelled up via a builder that works like Final Fantasy 12’s Licence Board – or Final Fantasy 10’s Sphere Grid, if you prefer – with ability points unlocked upon levelling up exchanged for new skills. Combine that with the crafting system – fuelled by a cute mini-game in which you hammer away at a forge, but hampered by the fact you’ll need to have unearthed the recipe for any given item first by rifling through bookshelves and drawers – and you’ve got some scope for customisation.
It doesn’t quite have the depth of its predecessors, though, and coming off the back of the exquisite Dragon Quest 9 – the last numbered entry in the west, with the MMO that followed it never making it out of Japan – it can feel a little flat. There’s no job system in place, the only real wrinkle in combat provided by pep attacks that allow you to unleash more power, and in tandem with other party members. Indeed, Dragon Quest 11’s big addition to the series are the mounts that come in various shapes and sizes – skeletons that’ll help you scale a wall in a dungeon to obtain an item, or dragons that’ll help you fly to a new part of the map.
It’s a cute touch, but it pales in comparison to the quirks that previous games have introduced – Heavenly Bride’s recruitable monsters, say, or Chapters of the Chosen’s episodic approach. Dragon Quest might be a series anchored in its traditions, but the pleasure of playing a new one has often been seeing how they’re subverted, or played upon. Echoes of the Elusive Age is defined by its conservatism, and even given the number of twist and turns its plot throws at you it always ends up back on the straight and narrow.
And after the boldness of past entries – whether that’s the not-so-recent Dragon Quest 9, or even the perfectly executed Builders spin-offs – Echoes of the Elusive Age ends up feeling like it’s missing a trick. This is a pointed return to a different age of RPGs, a throwback to a golden era that shines brightly in its splendour. You’ll be hard pushed to find a more lavish production this year, or one that’s so generous, though you can’t help but wonder whether it’s too much of a backwards step.