Recently, Square Enix released an eShop demo of the long awaited Nintendo Switch port of Dragon Quest XI S.
Having not played the PlayStation 4 release a couple of years ago, or any Dragon Quest games at all for that matter, I was really excited to try it out.
Despite my lack of familiarity with DQ, I am aware of it’s ‘classical or… antiquated stylings. As a grandfather of the RPG genre, the game design deliberately holds on to hallmarks and traditionalisms which have helped maintain the series’ popularity in Japan. While that’s all well and good for nostalgic sound effects or recurring monster designs, the late 90s feeling character control and silent protagonist are the kind of retro elements that I can do without. Of course, this had a large influence on my opinion.
However, the demo itself is extremely generous in welcoming you to DQ XI, covering not just game tutorials, but allowing you to venture well into the wider areas of the early story. You can level up extensively and explore the first major city, which amounts to 3 hours or more of questing if you take your time.
You start out in Cobblestone, a small hometown with plenty of natural beauty and chatty NPCs to teach you how to play. After performing a rather standard coming of age ceremony, you quickly learn that “you are the reincarnated hero of legend”…! There are some little moments of drama here and there, but nothing really raises an eyebrow if you’ve played any RPGs before – and again, that seems to be the point. Though it was during the mountain climbing segment that I noticed just how ‘PS2’ the movement felt. Animations remain rigid for walking, running and climbing, as though they’d been taken wholesale from the year 2000. This paired with the lack of dialogue from the Hero himself didn’t really endear me to him as a character.
You have a mother and a childhood sweet heart, who must inevitably be abandoned as you ride out to meet the King and kindly explain to the world that you are some kind of messiah. But other than that, your avatar remains very plain so far. The real fun begins once you leave town though, battling monsters (some well-known) and finding little trinkets in the wilderness. The full game will include a mode allowing you to play the entire quest in a SNES style 2D version, though sadly no part of that is included in the demo.
Once you’ve levelled up a bit, you’ll start learning magic spells to dispatch the wicked creatures and heal yourself afterwards. If you’re strong enough, you can also charge your horse right through lesser enemies. Quite the murderous time saver, and while you’re not awarded XP for this you can cash in rewards for trampling whenever you hit a milestone of crushed corpses.
Eventually you’ll reach the city of Heliodor, where you can visit the King and find out that, actually, you are hell-spawn and should be persecuted for your very existence (very much like the other famous messiahs of history and RPG video games). I don’t want to spoil every detail, but it’s worth mentioning you will meet your first companion before the demo’s end. Erik, with his typical Akira Toriyama look, is another deliberate call back to past Dragon Quest adventurers. He also has one of the most peculiar English voices I’ve heard in a game for a few years. Not quite Irish, not really Brooklyn… Just kind of ‘new world-ish’ for lack of a better term. The acting itself isn’t poor, but trying to locate his real world origins certainly distracts from the fantasy. I may try out the Japanese voice acting ahead of the game’s full release.
All this progress can be continued if you do go on to make a full purchase, so the demo is more a chance to start early than anything else. If you’re just looking to get a feel of the game, it might seem a bit grind-y, even from the get go. Not in the sense you need to level up to beat enemies, more that the opening story chapter is a grind… Despite playing for a number of hours, I’m yet to uncover anything I haven’t seen before, but I’m still curious about the series.
Granted, if these tropes exist, it’s only because of being popularised through Dragon Quest, even a lay person such as myself can see that. But the fact remains DQ XI poses itself as a greatest hits of both it’s own franchise and RPGs as a whole. The demo is definitely the best way to make sure you’re onboard for such a celebration before dropping the cash later in September, and it’s something I’ll have to ruminate on a little more. Overall I enjoyed it, but would proceed with caution … This is a 100 hour plus investment and not to be taken lightly give the levels of traditionalism in place.