It’s fascinating to see how much the JRPG genre has changed over the years, as countless new studios and designers have come up with a seemingly bottomless amount of ways to riff on battle systems, narrative styles, and world designs. In many ways, one could say that a JRPG is judged by how well it subverts genre expectations, but one series is seemingly exempt from this push for innovation: Dragon Quest. As the de facto godfather of the whole genre, Dragon Quest has remained staunchly conservative over the decades in how it adheres to genre conventions, offering up what many could say is the ‘purest’ take on a JRPG.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age doesn’t do much to reinvent the wheel, then. Especially given the diverse range of other modern RPGs available on the Switch, Dragon Quest is a rather fascinating outlier in how old-school it feels. The narrative is set in a high fantasy world, centered around a chosen hero of light who alone has the power to defeat an ancient, dark evil. The combat system is based on straight, no-frills turn-based battling. Your party levels up via a linear leveling system, with a minimal amount of customization available to differentiate them. Viewing it from a purely objective standpoint, it would be easy to dismiss Dragon Quest XI as a relic of bygone times, but to do so would be to miss out on one of the greatest RPGs of this generation. It may not have much in the way of innovative mechanics, but Dragon Quest XI consistently demonstrates an impressive mastery and control in nearly every aspect of its experience, reminding us time and again just how this series has remained such a juggernaut for so many decades.

As mentioned above, the narrative is just about as straightforward as you can imagine. You—the silent, nameless hero—grow up in the sleepy and pleasant village of Cobblestone, unaware that you’re the lost son of royalty who hid you away there as an infant. Not soon after partaking in a 'rite of passage' celebration, it’s revealed that you’re the Luminary, a reincarnation of a fabled hero who is destined to do battle with the mysterious Dark One. Armed with this knowledge, you set out on a sweeping adventure across the land of Erdrea to gather a team and learn more about your past, while also helping out whomever you can along the way. In raw terms, this narrative doesn’t prove to be terribly interesting, but what saves it in the end is the fantastic pacing and the interesting cast of characters that you build as the hours roll by.

Although there is always the looming threat of your impending battle, Dragon Quest XI is more a collection of self-contained chapters that all ultimately pay into the larger story. When you arrive in a new town, there’s usually a small conflict or sub-narrative that you get caught up in which immediately demands the next few hours of your attention. For example, in a memorable early instance, your hero is asked to assist a cowardly prince in fulfilling the high expectations put on him by the king. After winning a horse race for him, the king is so pleased by the performance that he asks his son to go out and subdue a horrifying beast that’s been terrorizing the town. Not all of these little sub-narratives are as compelling or emotionally gripping as the next, but we rather enjoyed the diversity of experiences that they offer, particularly in how they deepen your connection to the world of Erdrea. Towns are elevated from being simple stops along your journey to meaningful and memorable landmarks that help to make the adventure feel that much grander. It helps, too, that plot twists are thrown in so liberally, with many seemingly solved conflicts suddenly taking an unexpected left turn that launches the team into another dungeon or boss fight.

Dragon Quest XI features an awfully substantial story, too, with a runtime that can easily run into the triple digits if you want to see everything on offer. One would think that such a length would become exhausting after a certain point, but your attention is anchored by an ever-changing pace dictated by all the sub-narratives and the charm offered up by your varied cast of party members. Whether it be a vaguely feminine male circus performer, or a set of twin sisters with polar opposite personalities, each one of your party members has something unique to bring to the table and their personalities are fleshed out to a satisfying degree as you get to know them better through all the small, heartfelt interactions along the way. By the end of the journey, you’ll no doubt find that you’ve developed a sort of intimate connection with this cast, which stands as a testament to the quality of writing from the localisation team. Dragon Quest XI may not be pushing the boundaries of storytelling in JRPGs, but it’s such a well-paced and excellently written adventure that you’ll hardly be aware of the dozens of hours rolling by.

As a traditional JRPG, Dragon Quest XI follows the same tried and tested loop of exploring a vast overworld, visiting towns along the way, and usually delving into a dungeon or two not far from each town. In a rather bold move, the overworld is designed in a relatively linear fashion, wherein isolated zones are segmented from each other via brief loading screens. Though you are, for the most part, kept on a reasonably straight track to carry you through the story, it never feels as restrictive as, say Final Fantasy XIII. Each zone has a substantial amount of ground to cover, packed with hidden treasure, oodles of enemy mobs, and NPCs that offer up helpful side-quests. It’s a fine balance, too, as it never feels like you’re tripping over another collectable every three steps, but neither does it feel like any of these areas are too empty. And though the world is sprawling, it remains nicely traversable by the inclusion of mounts and fast travel points to get you between destinations quickly.

Combat unfolds in a straightforward turn-based set up, though it blessedly isn’t marred by random encounters. Enemies wander about the overworld itching for a fight and will attack you if you get to close, but you can preempt the battle by swiping at them early to get in some extra damage on the first turn. Outside of boss battles, which require a little more strategy, most battles are admittedly rather mindless, but this is where the robust quality of life features of Dragon Quest XI shine brightly. Via an easily accessible menu, you can set the behavior of each member of the party to automatically fulfil certain roles, removing the need for you to actively order each character to act each turn. In our experience, the AI does a great job of managing resources well and fulfilling the roles it needs to, which makes cutting through those fodder enemies that much less of a hassle. This is made even better, then, by the introduction of multiple different battle speeds. To cut down on grinding even more, there’s an option to increase the overall pace of a battle by up to three times, effectively making encounters only a few seconds long before you’re back on the road. While it may be true that a more directly engaging battle system could’ve made for much more interesting moment-to-moment gameplay, Dragon Quest XI offers up a suitable compromise in how it lets you have as much or as little control (or as many battles) as you want.

Boss battles naturally push the limits of the combat system, however, and this is where the more strategic side of combat is brought out. After characters have dealt or received enough damage, they’ll become ‘Pepped Up’, which boosts several of their stats and turns them into a temporary powerhouse. This state only lasts for a few turns, but it can be ended whenever you choose via usage of a Pep Power, which acts as a limit break style super attack that can drastically alter the course of battle. We rather enjoyed the additional layer of strategy offered up by this Pep system, and though it really only has reasonable usage in a boss encounter, it nonetheless introduces a more varied gameplay style to the otherwise rote cycle of taking turns hitting each other until either you or the enemy goes down.

After felling enemies, your party is then awarded with gold for shopping and experience to build up their levels. You don’t have much control over the rate of how you acquire these materials, but you do have more agency with how you distribute skill points after each character levels up. Everyone has a multifaceted skill tree that allows them to specialize in different roles and weapon types, comprised of a series of interconnected hexagons that each represent another buff. As you’d expect, all the really good stat jumps and abilities are located at the ends of branches, so you have to invest a fair bit into a path to reach them, but this introduces interesting questions the player must answer. It may be in your best interest to build towards those deeper buffs, but you could also instead invest those surplus skill points into other, cheaper abilities on other branches of the skill tree to round out a character more. There’s not a ton of decision making that has to go into skill trees—and you do have the ability to re-spec (for a fee) if you’d like—but we rather enjoyed the light specialization options that they offer up, giving you just enough choice that investing points feels suitably important.

To further help with character customization, you’re given an item relatively early-on called the ‘Fun-Size Forge’ which allows you to create and rework weapons and armor for the team. New recipes are introduced at a relatively brisk pace via sidequests and reading books in towns, which deepen the range of items your hero can make. When using the forge, a fun little mini game is played in which you have to manage limited ‘Focus’ resources to try and get various gauges into narrow zones; the closer you get to the middle of each zone, the more ‘perfect’ the item will turn out. Loot that you naturally find in the overworld and in shops is certainly strong, but this forge is your ticket to an impeccably buffed up and effective team. It’s not easy to get items to that coveted ‘+3’ status, either, and considering how limited resources are for crafting, the Fun-Size Forge proves to be an engaging, ongoing challenge that helps to break up the flow of gameplay.

In case you haven’t inferred it yet from the language of this review, Dragon Quest XI isn’t exactly a difficult game. In fact, it’s rather devoid of challenge if you go even a little bit beyond merely coasting from plot point to point. Those of you looking for a challenge, however, can raise the stakes more when starting a save file by the usage of “Draconian Quest” settings, which tune various parameters to make the game harder. You can do things like turn off the option to buy things from shops or have your team sometimes not act when you tell them to, and if you dare to turn all the modes on, it makes for a deliciously punishing experience. The key thing, however, is that these features have to be enabled from the very start of your file; though they can later be turned off one by one in a church if you want, they can never be re-enabled again. In general, we would’ve liked Dragon Quest XI to be a little more challenging in its ‘base’ state, but the introduction of Draconian Quest is a fitting compromise for those who need a game with teeth.

The main art for Dragon Quest XI was handled by none other than the legendary Akira Toriyama, and his signature art style shines through in nearly every character and monster design present. Big, expressive eyes and spiky hairstyles are the norm here, and there’s something so be said about how overwhelmingly ‘friendly’ these designs make the world feel; even the monsters and evil characters have a certain cuddly quality to them that almost makes you feel bad fighting them. Character designs aside, the world itself is cast in a bright, optimistic, and almost Ghibli-like tone, characterized by plenty of sunlight, bright colors, and diverse landscapes. It looks utterly fantastic whether you’re playing docked or handheld, though we do feel it bears mentioning that performance issues arise every now and then. There’s nothing game breaking here, but the occasional drop in framerate, pop-in texture, or juddering shadow indicate that the Switch hardware is wheezing as it runs this game. Those of you that expect a flawless, silky experience will be disappointed, but we’d like to reiterate that the performance issues are minor at their very worst.

Various little tweaks, balances, and additions have been made for this Switch release, but one of the bigger additions is the inclusion of a full-fledged 2D mode. If you so please, you can play through the entirety of Dragon Quest XI as a 16-bit SNES-style RPG, complete with its own music arrangements, environment layouts, and UI designs. In effect, this ‘demake’ feels like an entirely separate game in itself, and you can toggle into it whenever you’d like via a church. In addition to the main world, you can also visit slices of areas from the preceding ten Dragon Quest games via an elaborate series of ongoing sidequests, offering up plenty of fanservice to those of you who’ve been with the series since the very beginning. We were rather blown away by how much effort was put into this 2D mode—in many ways, it feels like its own separate game within the game—and we would highly suggest that you do a second playthrough to see all that it has to offer.

We’d be remiss not to mention the absolutely incredible work that’s been done on the soundtrack composed by Koichi Sugiyama and performed in its entirety by the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra. Square heard the complaints about the initial release’s MIDI quality music loud and clear, and though you can still listen to that if you’d like, the symphonic replacement they’ve recorded is among the best we’ve heard in a JRPG yet. From stem to stern, this is a soundtrack that’s sure to give you goosebumps on more than one occasion, and it’s bolstered by the inclusion of 3D sound when using headphones. If you have the chance, we’d highly recommend you play through Dragon Quest XI with headphones on; it’s a transcendent experience that’s sure to immerse you in the world like you wouldn’t believe.

We feel it bears mentioning, too, that this is the most feature complete version of Dragon Quest XI yet available. Along with headlining features, like dual audio, 2D mode, and the new soundtrack, this version also unifies all the content from previous versions and adds in various balancing and quality of life tweaks on top of that. Considering you get all this in a package that can be played both at home and on the go, we’d say that Dragon Quest XI for the Switch is easily the version to buy if you haven’t yet. Now, if you’ve already bought and played through on other platforms before, it’s obviously a matter of whether all the extra content matters enough to pay for the full game again. This is where it gets a little murkier; taken on their own, we don’t think the various additions justify sixty bucks alone, but your opinion may differ. Either way, if you’ve yet to experience Dragon Quest XI, do not pass up buying it for the Switch; any minor performance issues are easily outweighed by the enormous bang for your buck that you’re getting with all this content.

Conclusion

Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age - Definitive Edition is an achievement that Square should be proud of; this is one of the best games they’ve put out in years. A heartwarming, well-paced narrative supported by a cast of fantastic characters, a dense and interesting overworld packed with dozens of hours of content, and one of the finest soundtracks we’ve heard in a JRPG combine to make this an unforgettable modern classic. Whether you’re a newcomer to the JRPG genre or a returning vet, do yourself a favor and buy Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age as soon as you’re able. This is the epitome of a gift that keeps on giving, and it more than deserves a spot in your Switch library.