Old habits die hard in safety-first JRPG Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age.
From its glossy CG intro to its quaint villages, its range of British dialects to its tinny MIDI soundtrack, Echoes of an Elusive Age is a Dragon Quest game, all right. With the series finally making its debut on PC, it’s an opportunity for many to see a Japanese phenomenon in action – and yet you might well wonder what all the fuss is about. This is a stubbornly orthodox JRPG: even if you’re not familiar with the series, you’ll get the feeling that you’ve been here before.
For some of you that might as well be a glowing recommendation. Like pulling on a tatty old jumper you’ve just found screwed up in the bottom of your wardrobe, there’s every chance those early hours will give you a warm, enveloping feeling, perhaps even a few misty-eyed memories of happier times. Sure, the story might be a little threadbare (young male hero with a mysterious power sets off to save his home) but there’s an abundance of cheer in this world, right down to the first enemies you meet – those iconic blue slimes bouncing up to greet you with a welcoming smile before you promptly slice them to bits.
There are a handful of forced fights, usually boss battles, but there aren’t any random encounters: you can see monsters walking or hovering around, letting you choose which ones you want to engage in battle. This is one of those JRPGs where you explore a large, but not-quiteopen world, with enclosed areas
connected by loading screens and cutscenes. Nevertheless, they’re roomy enough to stretch your legs and offer plenty of distractions from the path. It’s a pretty, inviting world, too: the towns are pleasantly busy, with a diverse range of architectural styles that helps give them extra personality, while outside you’ll find flourishing fields and tangled caves.
Enemies are nicely drawn and brilliantly animated, and their names are often glorious. But for long stretches of the game, you can breeze through the lot of them, automating your battle strategy so you can simply press a button to kick things off and then watch as your party of four wins without breaking sweat. You’ll likely have to take the reins for boss fights, but most of these are a doddle, too. Only towards the end are you invited to think more tactically, but by then you’ll have unlocked the more powerful moves on everyone’s skill tree, so you’ll often find yourself repeating the same attacks to get by.
Again, that won’t be a problem for everyone. But if streamlining the usual JRPG grind sounds appealing in theory, it doesn’t stop the game from being interminably slow at points. It’s not so much the fault of the cast members, who make for fine companions: with a few exceptions the characters are well-written and the voice acting is great. And it finds clever ways to add spice to the generic ‘find the magical orbs’ objectives: in one section, you’re forced to cover for a timid prince, while another sees you enter a tournament where competitors keep disappearing. But everything drags on longer than it needs to, piling setback upon setback, or stopping a cutscene so you can walk forward ten steps to trigger another one.
Only towards the end are you invited to think more tactically
Middle of the road
Given the series’ success in Japan, you can understand why its makers would be reluctant to mix things up. There are a few attempts to change things, but they’re all slightly half-hearted, and one is a total bust. The default combat camera lets you adjust your viewpoint with the right stick and reposition your characters with the left, yet there’s no advantage to doing so. So why bother? Stick with the classic camera and battles seem far livelier. If this is the kind of half-hearted addition that passes for innovation, then maybe it’s for the best that Dragon Quest XI otherwise sticks to the script.
And plenty of players will no doubt be glad it has. If the idea of spending 60-plus hours with an extremely old-fashioned and undemanding RPG sounds appealing, then by all means fill your boots. But this is a distinctly unadventurous kind of adventure.