It’s some time since I played Dragon Quest VIII for the PS2, but I have very fond memories of it. At the time it had the best overworld of any game I’d played, the combat was well-balanced, and Jessica’s voice actress was enchanting. Would DQXI, the first Dragon Quest for consoles since VIII, measure up to its illustrious predecessor? In a word: yes.
The story is, mostly, very simple. You are the reincarnation of the Luminary, an ancient hero who defeated (temporarily) the darkness ages ago. Having discovered your incredible destiny during a rite of adulthood with your girlfriend, you set off to the capital to see the King, at the suggestion of your adoptive mother. From there, all hell breaks loose.
Most of the story you will see coming a mile away. It’s fun but straightforward. However, there are some later twists you may not see coming, and a lot of the strength of the game in this area comes from the companions you get. This is covered in the gameplay section as well, but in story terms their contribution comes from making it feel like your character is first among equals rather than them just being appendages or minions. Each has their own distinctive character, from bossy Veronica to the, er, flamboyant Sylvando. Not only do they bounce off the (traditionally mute) player-character, they interact nicely with each other too.
There’s not much freedom when it comes to changing things, you’re very much following the hero’s story.
Combat is fantastically well-balanced in almost every way. The difficulty is enough that you have to pay attention but you won’t, usually, be flattened, and each character has varying ways to advance (everyone has at least two available weapon trees, as well as other options such as magic). Use of pep powers is important too. Characters sometimes enter a stage of enhanced power, and if specific other characters are present or are also in a pepped up status increasingly powerful attacks or defensive spells can be cast.
The characters are phenomenally well-balanced too. For example, Jade is a very powerful character but cannot heal others and can only heal herself via certain attacks, and she has no magical attacks. Veronica has powerful magical attacks but that’s almost it (until the latter stages). Serena and Rab can both heal and attack, whilst not being as aggressively strong as Jade or Veronica.
In short, you can mix and match companions in a variety of ways to create a party that works.
Enemies come in a wide range. There are some reskins, as was the case for VIII, but there’s a large selection and many unique bosses as well. The slimes, of course, make a return (if you can, defeat the metal slimes. They appear randomly and give huge amounts of XP), as do the endless puns (sham hatwitches are little pigs that wear giant witch hats).
Outside of combat, the game is easy to explore, and there are multiple large cities, in addition to a well put together overworld. Although, this has changed from being totally open, as it was in VIII, to connecting specific areas, which does make it feel smaller (it’s still large, I should stress, but there’s less freedom).
These are a range of options you can toggle on and off to make life more challenging. I’ve started a new game with a few switched on, including Shypox, which makes the player-character sometimes freeze in combat due to remembering embarrassing memories, or fail to talk to NPCs the first time because he’s afraid they’re going to think he wants to chat them up, or remembering when he accidentally called a stranger ‘mum’. It’s quite amusing, and definitely increases the difficulty. If you’re familiar with the series or want an immediate challenge, you can start with some/all of them switched on and can remove the ones you dislike in church.
The art style is very much Japanese manga, so if you like Dragon Ball Z, or videogames like Valkyria Chronicles, then that approach will be to your liking. For those unfamiliar, the heads are a little cartoony but there’s a great sense of realism in most other aspects and it looks very good.
The graphics themselves tend to be great although here and there, being finickity, you might see a short draw distance in some areas and occasionally closer shots of exterior walls/doors can be slightly pixellated, but I am being picky. In general terms, it looks fantastic, and the lighting changes (there’s a day/night cycle) works well too.
The voice-acting is infinitely better than the Japanese version, which didn’t have any. The voice actors mostly sound British (the spelling is British too, huzzah!), though there is plenty of variation, with some American accents and Aussie etc. Voice acting quality is generally good.
Music is MIDI but high quality. It didn’t bother me, indeed, it’s pretty good, but some are irked by the absence of an orchestral score which, reportedly, does exist but isn’t included in the game for some bizarre reason.
My full playthrough, including the post-game section (which, unlike the main game, involved a lot of level-grinding) took me about 90 hours. I’d guess maybe a third of that was post-game. There is no new game plus option, although the Draconian Quest options mentioned above do offer increased replayability. In my playthrough I did not do all the quests, but a clear majority of them.
I’d guess a total completionist playthrough would take about 100 hours, maybe a shade longer.
Bugs and Other Issues
I’m not sure I encountered a single bug. No hangs, freezes, lags. The closest to a problem was that if you rush into some areas the game deliberately pauses to load (usually in a city) but that’s clearly working as intended because a little slime-timer appears. Technically, that’s pretty damned impressive.
If you’re after a light-hearted, traditional RPG that offers engaging combat, likeable characters and an old-fashioned Good versus Evil storyline complete with excellent Japanese art style, this is the game for you. I do like grimdark (The Last of Us, The Witcher 3 etc) but it’s nice to take a break sometimes.