'Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age' Is PS4's Best RPG of 2018 (So Far)

With the release of Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age, Square Enix aims to bring its other decades-old RPG franchise to a larger Western audience. And it's hard to imagine how this game wouldn't draw a devoted following, as it easily ranks among the best offerings in the genre in recent years. DQXI puts an unforgettable spin on a familiar save-the-world narrative as it serves up a relentlessly endearing cast and a remarkably intricate world.

The story opens with our foundling hero in the bucolic village of Cobblestone, embarking on a coming-of-age ritual with his childhood bestie, Gemma. But a distinctive birthmark singles him out as the Luminary destined to deliver the world from darkness, suggesting he's bound for far grander things than a quiet life in the sticks. It's not long before he hops astride his white horse to learn more about his fate from the king of Heliodor, who is not a huge fan of this whole legendary hero business. The sneering monarch promptly tosses our protagonist in the dungeon, where he meets a hooded stranger who helps him escape. It's there the journey begins in earnest, as the protagonist and his growing band of steadfast companions learn more about the danger threatening the idyllic world of Eredea and set out to stop it.

veronica magic DRAGON QUEST XI review
The hero and his friends journey to learn more about the threat looming over Eredea in "Dragon Quest XI." Square Enix

Yes, Dragon Quest XI is full of JRPG tropes: an orphan boy who has a date with destiny, a floating tree, a legendary sword, a sealed evil… for all you Final Fantasy VII stans out there (me too), there's even a meteor. However, echoing my Newsweek colleague Nathalie Medina's thoughts on Octopath Traveler , there's nothing wrong with building a game around familiar tropes—provided it's done well. Playing DQXI is like eating comfort food: reassuring, cozy and soul-satisfying. But just when you think you've seen all the game has to offer, it flips the script and steers all that carefully honed familiarity somewhere wholly original.

With richly saturated Crayola hues everywhere you look, Dragon Quest XI is consistently easy on the eyes. Almost every moment of this game could pass for a cutscene, the visuals seamlessly blending Akira Toriyama's distinctive art style with modern graphical flair. The game's cities and towns are an unparalleled delight to explore, each with their own unique architecture, terrain and mood. (You can even go down wells!) The inhabitants of each city have their own accents and cultures; the inhabitants of one speak entirely in haiku. Though the Japanese version did not include voice acting, much of the dialogue in the Western release is fully voiced, with a multiplicity of accents that underscores the game's remarkable balance of scale and specificity.

Pnomh Nonh DRAGON QUEST XI review
The mountain village of Phnom Nonh is one of many intricately detailed cities and towns in the sprawling world of "Dragon Quest XI." Square Enix

While Echoes of an Elusive Age has many of the hallmarks of an open-world game—sparkle points dotted throughout the map, a crafting system for weapons and armor, sidequests, fast travel—consistently emphasizing story allows the game to avoid many open-world shortcomings. Eredea never feels excessively sprawling or empty, but consistently rich and dynamic. You'll revisit places, sure, but those places persistently grow and change with the events of the story. While most of the sidequests on offer aren't particularly deep, they also don't feel like a transparent attempt to bloat gameplay time.

An impressive slate of thoughtful quality-of-life features make DQXI's epic scale seem less daunting. Every save is accompanied by an impressively up-to-date summary of recent events in the story. When you level up, you'll have the option to go immediately to the skill tree straight from the battle screen. Purchased and crafted items can be auto-equipped without the need to navigate additional menus. It's easy to get around the massive world map from the start: you're given a horse immediately to make traversing the countryside (and avoiding enemies) a breeze, shortly thereafter you acquire fast-travel magic, and eventually you acquire two additional forms of transport. If you need to grind for levels, you can use the canny A.I. to control your party members until you're where you need to be. A number of these handy features, like the ability to dash and overhauled UI, are exclusive to the Western release.

Erik hero dragon DRAGON QUEST XI review
Erik and the protagonist hide from a dragon lurking beneath Heliodor in "Dragon Quest XI." Square Enix

Combat in DQXI is of the resolutely old-school, turn-based type, with team and individual special moves known as Pep Powers adding an element of random chance and variety. The game eschews random encounters by allowing you to run past enemies, though they will occur when you're traveling by boat. Most run-of-the-mill baddies won't give you too much trouble, unless you activate some of the Western-exclusive Draconian Quest features to limit your EXP gain or make monsters stronger. As you progress through the game, however, boss fights become considerably more challenging. You'll find yourself strategically tag-teaming party members in and out of the fray, or switching up your equipment after a disastrous first attempt. Each of your characters can equip two or three different weapon types, and you can redo your skill tree at any time (for a fee), allowing you to change up your tactics from one fight to the next. Be warned: the home stretch of the game has a considerable difficulty spike, and if you're the type who's inclined to book it through dungeons and get through boss fights by the skin of your teeth, you're going to need to spend a bit of time grinding to make it to the end.

If you're an RPG fan, don't hesitate to pick up Dragon Quest XI. You'll definitely get solid value for your entertainment dollar, as my very non-completionist "speedrun" through the game took more than 100 hours. But more importantly, you'll find an adventure bursting with charm and heart that you won't want to put down. Expect to see this one on a lot of "Best of 2018" lists once the end of the year rolls around; it'll certainly have a place on mine.

Dragon Quest XI- Echoes of an Elusive Age Player
Rocco Marrongelli / Newsweek