Review: Dragon Quest XI S: Definitive Edition (Sony PlayStation 4)

8 mins read

Review by Matt S. 

We’ve already reviewed Dragon Quest XI twice – once on the original release on PlayStation 4, and then the enhanced version on Nintendo Switch. That second, enhanced version, is now on PlayStation 4. It doesn’t do much more, so this is going to be a short review, but it is also one of the best JRPGs that has been released in the last decade, so I did want to mention it just in case it got lost among the many other releases that are dropping right now. Basically, if you haven’t played Dragon Quest XI yet, you should. If you’ve only played the original release, you need to play S… if only to experience the game in that alternative “2D” mode.

Dragon Quest XI looks gorgeous in 3D. The bold, cel-shaded character models couple up with a wonderful sense of scale that gives the game an epic feel. And yet, despite this, the 2D “retro” mode still feels more appropriate for Dragon Quest. This is partly nostalgia speaking. I still regularly play through the original Dragon Quest and will, one day, find the time to work through the IV-VI trilogy in one go. Those were all primitive sprite-based games, and I love them in no small part because of that. But the appropriateness of 2D to Dragon Quest goes beyond nostalgia, and is also due to the resistance to change that this series has. Dragon Quest has always stuck to turn-based combat and a similar narrative formula throughout its existence, and that approach feels more at home with the 2D art and random combat. 
The 2D option in Dragon Quest XI is an amazing example of pixel art, too. It’s not really 8 or even 16-bit, since the character models and environments are far too detailed for anything the SNES, let alone the NES could handle, but the artists have worked hard to keep the mirage rather than allow the sprites to become so detailed that they look too modern. It’s also fun to see how some of the more complex cut scenes in 3D have been redesigned to work in 2D, if you’ve already played the game through in “standard” mode once. There are some fascinating insights in those comparisons into how developers used to have to compromise with the technology in order to convey their narrative beats. 

It was a few years ago now that I was in Japan for a Dragon Quest Anniversary (it was celebrating 30 years, perhaps? 35?). To celebrate, Square Enix held a special exhibition of art and Dragon Quest culture. One of the things that I found most interesting at the exhibition was a series of giant paintings that depicted epic scenes, and then, next to them, a tiny screenshot that highlighted what that scene looked like in the original Dragon Quest game. As someone that has always been fascinated with the creative process, seeing how these visions were turned into those games is something that I’ll not forget, and what’s impressive about Dragon Quest XI is that, in giving players the opportunity to transition between 2D and 3D seamlessly, the developers have built an entire game around this curiosity. The 3D mode is effectively unrestricted in the way that the developer can bend the engine and character models to their will, and therefore represents the unfiltered creative ideas. The 2D mode highlights how you can get creative to turn even the most epic moments into something that can be built in RPG Maker. I love it.
For all that I’ve written above, Dragon Quest is also at the point where the developers are very self-aware of the series traditions, and that awareness has now been built that into its renowned humour. Just as in titles past, the enemies are cute, silly, and have hilarious names, and each town and city that you visit has a regional dialect and mannerisms that are amusing to experience. But Dragon Quest is also infamous for starting quests off with a benevolent king asking you to go on an adventure, for no other reason than you’ve been pre-determined to be the hero of the story. In Dragon Quest XI, the moment you’re introduced as the hero, the king throws you in prison. The overall game is anything but subversive, but it’s not above using character deaths and events, major plot points, and so on to drop the occasional surprise that long-time fans will nod and chuckle along with. 
I can also confirm that despite being a longer game, Dragon Quest XI is also a highly replayable one. It’s not because of character customisation or the ability to play the game in different ways by making different choices – it’s actually quite limited in that regard. Rather, I’m having a great time playing this through for the third time now simply because there aren’t many other JRPGs that are produced these days that are this stridently traditional. Sometimes you just want a grind and don’t want to memorise massive trees of abilities and spells. Sometimes you want a JRPG that is happy to punch through the narrative efficiently rather than try to explain complex ideas over half-hour-long cut scenes. Sometimes you just want Dragon Quest. 

The reality is that at this point Dragon Quest XI is an older release, and Dragon Quest XI S: Definitive Edition is itself not really that new. I have no idea what percentage of prospective Dragon Quest fans have somehow avoided playing this yet, but I imagine it’s a now a very small number. With that being said, that “8-bit” mode really is a breath of fresh air to the original 3D game, so if you don’t own a Switch and haven’t had the opportunity to play this game that way yet, then it’s actually worth the upgrade and replay even if you own the original.

– Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

The critic was provided with a copy of this game for review.

This is the bio under which all legacy articles are published (as in the 12,000-odd, before we moved to the new Website and platform). This is not a member of the DDNet Team. Please see the article's text for byline attribution.

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