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The Strange Familiarity of Dragon Quest XI

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Dragon Quest has never been a series of games I have particularly cared for. When the main hero from the Dragon Quest series was announced as a new fighter in the fighting game Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, a game I play religiously, I didn’t bat an eye. Dragon Quest as a series in America hasn’t been a commercial success. Dragon Quest was brought to American audiences under the localized title Dragon Warrior in 1989, a title which stayed until it was changed back to Dragon Quest in 2005. Dragon Quest in Japan rivals the popularity of heavyweight titles western audiences can recognize, like Pokemon and Super Mario. There has been a long running myth, confirmed to be true recently by a journalist at GameInformer, that Dragon Quest games are released specifically on weekends in Japan due to people calling out of work and ditching school to play the new entry in the series. 


The games are a massive hit in Japan, but in the United States have struggled to find footing, and bringing the main character from Dragon Quest to Super Smash Bros. represents a continued attempt to popularize the games for an American audience. 


Dragon Quest XI S: Definitive Edition for the Nintendo Switch is a Japanese Role Playing Game, or a “JRPG”. These games typically are notorious for being massive time sinks that delve into a deep plot, which is accurate framing for this game. The demo available for free is around ten hours of gameplay, which pulls you in through this tempting free taste. Ten hours for other games could be the entire length of the game. Just recently while catching up with my cousin Sean who had played the demo and ordered the game upon completion like I did, said “It was like handing somebody a fisfull of crack.” He was right. It all happened so fast, but now, I am a crack addict. 


The gameplay of Dragon Quest is what keeps you glued to it. The turn based battle system is simple enough for entry level players to enjoy, while equally deep enough for veteran players to never grow tired of. For most of the game, your party consists of a four character lineup that is a mix and match of damage dealers and healers that can keep your crew alive. There are a dynamic range of enemies that test your ability to learn how to fight against each of them. 


The story is a fairly simple one. The main character, who you freely name, is an adopted boy who doesn’t know much of his past, and is quickly swirled up being hunted by a royal knight who is convinced he is evil, referring to him as the “darkspawn.” The hero doesn’t speak, which is disappointing as he doesn’t have much of a personality as the story unfolds, merely reacting to events as they happen.  As the story develops, you come across eight characters who join you on your journey. As an open world game, it allows you to explore and venture off the beaten path, while always keeping your main quest objective clear with the games menu system, which has a clean user interface. The game embraces puns, as characters attacks are nicknamed “Sizz” and “Sizzle”, and the games mascot Slime character speaks like “Hey there, slime to meet you!” It would be more of an irritation in a game less charming than Dragon Quest, but as my love snowballed into a full on fandom, I embraced it. 


Dragon Quest’s artstyle is arguably the most enticing part of the game, with its environments and models sporting bold outlines and bright colors. Character designs and dynamic locations drive the desire to search every corner of the world, as the monsters you fight across the terrain of Erdrea are a pleasure to seek out and murder. These range from demonic lottery machines come to life trying to kill you, to the “Khalamari Kids” who resemble baby squids that are disgustingly adorable. The main characters of the game are lovable and don’t avoid tropes, but the dialog between the crew of characters you travel the world with enchants you into having a unique love for each of them. Sylvando, your Spanish accented circus performing partner condescends constantly, and is a hilarious delight. I got so caught up in adoring Dragon Quest that I may or may not have gone over budget to import from Japan a large Slime plush, the mascot of the Dragon Quest series, as well as stickers from various artists. Most Dragon Quest merchandise is not available in America, forcing fans like myself to have to pay a high price to import. I am poor now, but I was also poor before playing this game, so I think I will be OK.


 The game exudes a strange familiarity, something Sean had also experienced. This comes from the character designer of Dragon Quest, Akira Toriyama, also being the creator of Dragon Ball. Dragon Ball is one of the most popular anime series of all time, a show and a video game series we both loved as kids. Toryiama’s style bleeds across both series, any character from each series could cross over seamlessly into the other’s world. Dragon Ball is a huge hit with western audiences, and is one of the biggest media franchises to come from Japan to America. As the generation that grew up with Dragon Ball, we are predisposed to fall in love with anything Toriyama makes. One of my earliest memories as a kid is walking downstairs, the day before Halloween, dressed in my Dragon Ball Z Vegeta costume and my older sister laughing hysterically at me. I remember looking in the mirror and laughing at how ridiculous my big anime wig was, but I also thought it was extremely cool, even when it was not. 


Dragon Quest, for the most part, is still a diamond in the rough in America. Square Enix has done all they can to make the Nintendo Switch version of Dragon Quest XI stand out from other Switch titles. Dragon Quest XI originally released in 2017 in Japan, then America in 2018. The Switch version includes a fully orchestrated soundtrack, in game upgrades to make the experience smoother, and a full recreation of the game in 2D mode to resemble the games original look. The marketing budget was increased as well as back in September, when the game released, ads for the game were abundant. Even with all this, Dragon Quest XI S: Definitive Edition for the Nintendo Switch did not debut in the top 20 of video games sold in its release month of September 2019, and only barely cracked the top ten of Nintendo Switch titles sold for the month at number seven. 


Dragon Quest remains a fascinating case of franchises that are from our favorite creators that don’t land commercially. Now, I am a huge fan of the series, and plan on going back and playing older titles from the franchise that I missed out on. Maybe someday the games will become popular in America, and like any good consumer I will then abandon the series as anything that becomes too popular isn’t cool anymore. Until then, I will be Sizzle and Sizzling my ass to victory. 

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Image by Danielle Wilson




written by
Lawrence Scotti
January 12, 2020