Sam Brooks has played over one hundred hours of Dragon Quest – and found it to be an act of self-care, not grinding torture. This is his story.
When it comes to J-RPGs, there are two titans: Final Fantasy, which I have slipped into enough articles on this site that I might as well be a sleeper agent for Square-Enix, and Dragon Quest, the game series so popular in Japan that it led to an urban myth that new games in the series had to be released on a Saturday because too many people were taking time off work to play it.
Of the two, Final Fantasy is undoubtedly the more popular in the West. The short reason for that is that it doesn’t, and has never looked like, an anime. Dragon Quest, on the other hand, has art handled by Akira Toriyama (aka the guy who did Dragon Ball) and looks exactly like an anime. It is also relentlessly old-fashioned in just about every way, from its gameplay to its mechanics to the aforementioned art style. It is the antithesis to everything that developers consider to en vogue about video games – there’s no DLC, it’s linear, it’s one hundred hours of storyline with very little side stuff and it’s an RPG, which haven’t been cool since the 90s.
And yet – for some reason – Dragon Quest XI manages to be the first game in the series to get a wide console release in the West since Dragon Quest VIII, a game which only did well in the West because it came with a demo disc (remember demo discs, geriatrics?!) of Final Fantasy XII. The notices have been kind but not rapturous, with the exception of an adorable tribute video-slash-review by Kotaku’s Tim Rogers – which is about as adorable as a video by a thirty-nine-year-old man can be.
I’m a grown man with two full-time-ish jobs and a range of other commitments and hobbies that do little but take up my time and provide a numb respite from acknowledging my own mortality. Also, I have enough video games to play and review that I haven’t finished, and really probably should have finished before even reviewing them. To spend over a hundred dollars on a game that I may well not have the time or energy to complete is akin to throwing money into a blender, without the dull, mildly enjoyable throb that comes from paper being chewed up in the blender.
And yet, I did it. And goddamnit, it’s been the most therapeutic gaming experience I’ve had all year. Half because Dragon Quest XI is the rare game that in 2018 has come out without needing a patch, needing extra content to fill it out, and without the begging promise of its developers promising it to be the gamechanger of the year. It’s an actual finished product and it’s shocking how rare that is in today’s gaming world.
And half because Dragon Quest XI is the gaming version of panadol.
The premise of Dragon Quest XI is enough to make the eyes of anybody who isn’t already interested or enthused about it glaze over immediately; In the fantasy world of Erdrea, which more resembles a Shonen anime more than it does the high-ish-brow fantasy of Tolkien or the grimdarkness of Game of Thrones, your teenage protagonist finds out he is the chosen one and that he’s going to save the world. Because there has to be conflict, the forces of evil decide that you need to die, and you find teammates who want you to live, and you journey to save the world. There is magic, there are monsters, there’s just about every fantasy trope in the book.
The comparison to Final Fantasy comes up again, as it inevitably must with Dragon Quest XI. Even more prudently, let’s compare it to Final Fantasy XV. Where Final Fantasy XV did its best to adhere to trends both in terms of gameplay, the open worldness and the constant stream of DLC that seems like it will continue until the end of time, it was its dark tone and bro-ness that also seemed like the developers were trying to jump on any trend that would reinvent the dusty J-RPG wheel for this generation.
Where Dragon Quest XI exists and succeeds is that it is so relentlessly old-fashioned: It’s a game that wants you to have a good time while playing it, and it doesn’t want to stress you out, it wants you to have a nice time. You hang out with your friends Serena and Veronica, the two sorceresses who want to help you save the world, or Sylvando, the sexually ambiguous circus performer with an Italian accent. You love them, and want to travel the world with them –saving that world is just a narrative of conveniene, and inevitability.
But back to the therapeuticness of it.
Modern life can be unstable – you can wake up sick one day, or even wake up to the news of inevitable climate change – and Dragon Quest XI has been a constant for me these past few weeks. I know I can fire it up, play for a few hours and be enveloped in a bug-free, robust warmth. I can look at the pretty colours, listen to the lush orchestration, and jump mindlessly around in this world. I can spend some time in the world of Erdrea, move slowly towards saving the world, and turn it off when I need to sleep. The game doesn’t punish me for it, it doesn’t punish me for wanting to play further or play longer, and the game even thanks me when I turn it off! (Genuinely, this is a thing that happens.)
We don’t get games like Dragon Quest XI often. We don’t get games that want us to play it, and want us to have a good time. We get games that try to hook us into playing more of it – into spending more and more money, or spending more time with it through half-assed DLC and patches – and we get games that are unfinished. And also, we don’t get RPGs.
It’s been a hundred hours of therapy for barely over a hundred dollars – if nothing else, that’s good value for my money.
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