Assorted Thoughts on Dragon Quest XI

Note: I wrote this a few years ago and never published it because it’s super negative and probably nobody cares. But rereading it now is kind of fun so I’m putting it out there. I liked the game but god damn it was full of problems.

I just finished Dragon Quest XI, and have some thoughts about it. This post is largely negative, because mostly I noticed things that bothered me, so I will start by saying I put about a million hours into the game and actually liked it quite well. However, it has a number of really annoying flaws that seem frankly amateurish.

Text

The text is bad. It writes out slowly, playing a little sound as it prints the letters, which is annoying. If you press a button, it writes the rest of the current block fast. However, if the block was short, it moves it off screen and starts writing the next block instead, so if you want to just be able to read things at a normal pace, you end up occasionally missing lines. This is a constant low-level annoyance throughout the entire game. The text should have printed immediately and silently and to a larger area of the screen. This makes certain things, like shops and inns, much more annoying than they should be.

The Menus

The menus are horrible. Very nearly everything about very nearly every menu sucks. The worst offense is the item menus. Each character has an individual inventory. The idea, I suppose, is to add a level of strategic depth to combat – make sure your characters have the appropriate healing items, or that your healer has some stuff she can throw at enemies to do damage. In practice, you always have a healer, and the combat isn’t very hard, even if you’re not grinding at all. So there’s a lot of complexity, and a LOT of extra menus, and places to lose track of things, for very nearly zero benefit.

There are, for some reason, 11 item menus. One per character, the “item bag,” the “equipment bag,” and “important items.” Keeping equipment separate from items might not be crazy, but it’s not interesting either. Especially since some equipment can be used in battle, making it more item-like, so the distinction isn’t really clear. It also means that you have two places to look when you get an item and don’t know what it does; it could be at the back of the item bag or the equipment bag. And some items your characters will put directly into their own inventories (healing items, mostly), so good luck if you clicked through that text. Despite having, again, 11 item menus, the game somehow fails to separate crafting materials from everything else, leading to tremendous clutter.

Equipping your characters is handled separately from the item menus; there’s an explicit Equipment menu. It’s annoying that if I am in an item menu and I realize I want to move equipment around, I can’t, but this isn’t really a big deal.

This is probably at its worst when shopping. Shopping goes as follows: You approach a shopkeeper, who says something that you don’t care about. Because of the text issues above, you press a d-pad button, or perhaps X or O if you’re feeling reckless, to skip past it. They ask if you want to buy or sell; you probably want to buy. You go through their list of items, and when you select one you have to confirm that’s what you want, then select the character whose inventory it will go into, then confirm that, and then if it’s gear, the shopkeeper will ask you if you want to equip it immediately and require another confirmation and some number of further textboxes to skip. It’s so much clicking! Most of the text is meaningless, I mostly want to do the same small number of things, and I end up putting things in the wrong inventory, or clicking X one too many times and starting the process of buying another one of whatever I just bought because I was trying to get through the menu quickly. When shopping for gear, it displays that gear’s main stat (attack, defense, charm, whatever) and how the new piece of equipment will affect that stat if equipped to a character. You have to go into the more info to see its effect on other stats which might also be relevant, and cannot at this time see the stats of the equipped gear. This is not the only time info that obviously should have been cross-referenced was not.

The main in-game menu has six options: Items, Equipment, Misc., and three options I used so little I had to look up what they were (Attributes, Magic, and Party Talk). Misc has a number of useful things hiding in it, at least one of which should have been promoted to the main menu, perhaps at the expense of Magic, which is useless.

Side note: Magic is a useless menu option because DQXI has a truly wonderful feature called “handy heal-all,” which uses your magic to heal but not all the way. I don’t know its exact rules, but it won’t overspend mana to top off your last couple life points. It felt very good, it had an easy shortcut, and I used it constantly.

The misc menu has the quest catalogue, which is a very useful list of all the side quests you have accepted, their current state, and info about how to complete them. It also tells you where you can go to accept new quests, if they’re available. Promoting this to the top menu would be reasonable. Leaving it tucked away is also reasonable, but it should have been the top or second option, since you go to it a lot. It also has the Character Builder, which is how you grow your characters. That should have made it to the top menu.

The misc menu also has the info page, which has info on everything and somehow still manages to suck. It has lists of items you’ve gathered and enemies you’ve defeated. For some reason, these things are not hyperlinked. For example, an item will show you what enemies drop it; there is no way to go from the item’s info page to the enemy’s. Why not? Because it wouldn’t be right if anything about the menu was good, I guess. The game includes crafting, and crafting materials do not list what items they are used for, either.  From the starting point of wanting to craft an item, finding out what I need to do to be able to requires me to go to the forging info menu, find the item, leave that menu, go to the item menu, find the ingredient, leave that menu, go to the monster menu, and find the monster that drops it. This is way too many steps for what is obviously a common usecase.

The Maps

There are a bunch of maps, and with one exception they all have clear flaws. There is a mini-map, which is fine, although not especially valuable. There is an area map, which is quite good. Everything else is dumb.

You can only look at the area map of wherever you are right now, and anywhere you can get to by navigating to nearby areas. The map of where you are right now is better than the maps of nearby areas, because it has info overlaid on it that is not present on other maps. Namely, people who want to talk to you, and a couple kinds of locks. There are two points in the game where you get special keys that allow you to access areas (items, really) that you couldn’t before, but it is not possible to search the maps for this information.

There is also a world map, which for some reason has no information on it except a picture of the world and dots for the places you can warp to. You cannot see a map of the place you’re thinking about warping before doing the warp, so if you forget the name of the place you’re going, you get to just try things until you get it right.

The fast travel options are weird. You can travel to major locations, except the ones you can’t. Namely, there are some islands that can only be gotten to by boat, and you have to sail to them every time. More on this in the section about linearity.

Movement and Buttons

Your character has a few options for movement. Normal walking/running (you get slower in cramped areas, which is actually kind of nice for being able to navigate inside houses and whatnot), sprinting, and horse. I wanted to sprint basically every single time I was moving; walking around between interesting areas is not the fun part of a video game. This meant I had to hold down R2 constantly, which is stupid. Sprinting should be the default, or toggled, or something. The options button sets you to auto-run, which is at the normal running speed but you don’t have to hold the control stick forward. Sprinting also has that feature. It’s one of those things where they added a nice quality of life feature that has almost no use, while missing an adjacent, hugely valuable improvement.

You can ride a horse outdoors by summoning it at a bell, which are placed by campsites and outside of towns, mostly. The horse is significantly faster than sprinting, but you have to get on and off, sometimes you’ll be doing something unremarkable like crossing a bridge and the game will stop you, walk the horse backwards a step or two, and helpfully pop up a warning that you can’t go that way mounted. So riding the horse is faster than running, except when it’s randomly annoying, and you can’t really predict when that will happen. I mostly didn’t use the horse because of the surprises. When you’re riding the horse you also have to hold R2 to dash, even though the only reason you’d ever get on the horse is because you want to go fast. Galloping through monsters knocks them out of your way instead of engaging them in combat, which is actually pretty fun. Except sometimes it doesn’t and you get into combat anyway; which monsters you can knock away and which you’ll have to engage is surprising, so I ended up just avoiding them as if I were on foot when I was on the horse. Overall the horse implementation is unreliable in ways that seem crazy, and the experience is mostly frustrating and un-fun.

When engaging enemies, you want to get close to them and then hit X, in order to strike first in battle. This is a silly thing to make me do literally hundreds of times, and has its own stupid flaws that should have been obvious to the designers. X is the button you use for everything, and in particular does three main things in the overworld: pick up items from “sparkly spots” (materials and occasionally items, they regenerate after a while), engage enemies that you’re close to, and fire your crossbow at enemies you’re a little farther away from. It is very annoying to try to grab an item, not notice where the little indicator is on your screen, and accidentally shoot an enemy instead, which causes it to come fight you. It is also annoying to try to attack an enemy and accidentally shoot it instead. Nothing bad happens but it’s a dumb way to waste a few seconds. There are four buttons that are completely unused on the overworld, by the way.

The controls are set up so that you can sort-of play one handed. The movement is on the left analog stick, of course. And menus are navigated using the d-pad. L2 is an alias for X, meaning you can interact with things and select options with only your left hand. However, there’s no alias for O, so you can’t go into a menu and then get out of it. L1 is completely unused. This is another thing where they half-assed a quality of life improvement but missed a huge, obvious part of it. L3 is technically used, but all it does is bring you to first-person view, which is, as far as I can tell, entirely for aesthetic purposes. That’s fine, but it would also have been reasonable to use L3 as an alias, and perhaps move the first-person camera into a menu. Maybe I’m the weird one, though, and other people loved this feature.

We have known since, at the very latest, 1994 that selecting moves in combat should be a consistent experience, requiring the same number of confirmations regardless of number of targets. That is, moves that do not select targets (either they hit all enemies, or are randomly targeted, or are powerups to the caster or whatever) should require some token click of “yes, I mean it” to keep the same cadence as other moves. DQXI bucks this conventional wisdom, and thus you sometimes enter a move you were still considering because you forgot that it was going to happen after N clicks rather than the standard N+1. A minor mistake, to be sure, but an amateurish one.

There are several times when a cutscene ends, you regain control, and then you walk a few feet forward and into another cutscene trigger. It’s annoying every single time. Just one more bizarre quality of life failure.

Linearity

The game is relentlessly linear. Unfortunately, it is not upfront about this. You can explore off the beaten path, but you are not allowed to have any fun if you do. You get a boat not far into the game, which provides you access to maybe ten or so new places. You can collect some new crafting materials – I didn’t track if you can make use of any of them, but you can grab them anyway. You can also see a bunch of locked doors, and talk to people who will not give you new quests or anything until the story has advanced enough that they’ll be interesting. You can also sail to a couple of whirlpools, which will glow and let you know it’s not time to go to them yet.

Much later, you get access to a flying whale (seriously) and a similar thing happens: there are handful of new areas you can go to, but you’re not allowed to have any fun until you’ve found and accepted the appropriate side quests that tell you to go to those locations. You can also see locked doors, but you get the key that opens them after you get the whale.

Side note: summoning the whale can only be done from a few locations, and takes forever. It plays a (boring) cutscene every single time you summon it. If you’re on the ground and want to go to a location you can only reach by whale, you have to warp to a place you can summon the whale from, which plays a loading screen, then watch the cutscene and then watch another loading screen. You can warp directly to on-your-boat, but you can’t warp directly to on-your-whale for some reason.

One particularly egregious thing is that there are a handful of books – reading books is a minor game mechanic – that when you read them, your character opens it up, then says something like “…but he realized he’s not ready for it quite yet.” So that’s fun. You have to just remember where they were, or else just re-explore everywhere later.

You will, in general, have a better time playing the game if you never, ever, ever go anywhere the game hasn’t explicitly told you to until the end of the postgame. What you find is uniform: crafting materials you can’t take advantage of, large clearings that are obviously going to have events later, and locked doors that you have to remember manually.

Gender Politics

I’m going to keep this short, because this post is huge and not really about the world of the game so much as its mechanics. However, it bears pointing out that the game has a constant stream of minor comments about hot girls. There are a small number of townsperson character models that are reused throughout the various towns in the game; one of them is a dancer girl. There is basically always a man watching the dancer girl and mentioning that she’s hot. There is a side quest that is “dress Jade up like a bunny for a lecherous old man.” There’s also the whole “puff-puff” thing; you can talk to various women in the game to perform the “puff-puff,” which has no effect on the story and is usually the set up for some kind of gag, but is also obviously a sex joke.

I have no issue with video game characters being hot. Costume changes aren’t very important to me, but they are cool, and some of them being hot is totally fine. But the game shouldn’t casually throw a stream of misogyny at you.

Miscellany

There are moves where it is hard to tell what stat is used to calculate damage. In particular, Rab is a character who can be either a physical or a magical fighter. Some ways into the game, he learns a move that, it turns out, uses strength rather than magical might to calculate damage. The game doesn’t tell you that, though; I had to look it up. Jade, similarly, has a number of moves based on her charm stat. Sylvando might, too; I didn’t check.

The game has a day/night cycle and a weather system. These almost never affect anything, but when they do it’s uniformly annoying. The day/night cycle is very long, and mostly you are just in day because when you rest, sleeping until dawn is the default option, and you’ll probably be sleeping enough that you’ll reset to day before it becomes night in most cases. I must have been 10+ hours into the game before I saw the day/night transition animation. Your camera is temporarily taken over and you stare into the sky, which then darkens. I thought it was some sort of important story event starting unexpectedly at first. It’s not elegant. The weather system is even more boring: sometimes, it rains. There are some enemies that only appear when it is raining, so if you are interested in fighting one of those enemies, you find a campsite and sleep over and over again until it rains. There are cows that tell you the forecast, but they’re not immediately adjacent to campsites, so they are absolutely useless – sleeping over and over is faster than running back and forth to the cows. You can sleep until four times – dawn, noon, dusk, and night. The only differences are between day and night, and sleeping until dusk does nothing but get you the weird transition animation faster, so there are four choices but only two categories.

Speaking of sleeping, it does not restore your dead characters to life. This doesn’t actually matter, because you learn Zing (the life spell in the game) reasonably early, and restoring characters to life is one of the functions of the (again, wonderful) handy heal-all. You can also pay for resurrection, but spending mana and then sleeping is always better. Sometimes, though, you’ll forget that some characters are dead, sleep, assume you’re healed up, and then start a battle down one or more characters. This is a really stupid gotcha, and provides the opportunity to have a feel-bad moment with no upside, because it doesn’t actually add strategic depth.

Churches (and statues, which are like churches but they appear outside of towns) provide a number of functions, most of which are stupid. They do saving, which is good. And later in the game they allow you to reassign skill points, which is cool. They also provide divination, which prints out about five thousand lines of text telling you how much exp each character needs. This information is freely available at all times, in a way that’s easier to get to and faster to read, but the game doesn’t tell you that, so until you stumble across it, if you care about the answer, you have to use a terrible interface for it. Reviving dead characters, as above, is handled badly. They will also remove poison and curses, which are dumb for the exact same reason revival is.

Good Things

Just to balance out the negativity here, I’d like to include some good aspects of the game.

The music is quite good. Apparently a lot of people took issue with the music, but it was good for me. I generally have on a stream or TV or something while I’m playing, and it was inoffensive and catchy as low-level background music.

A huge fraction of names (of items, monsters, abilities, etc) are puns, which is first distracting, and then sort of groan inducing, but is so thorough that it’s eventually just sort of part of the game, and the jokes are often pretty good.

The combat system is mostly a traditional turn-based JRPG system, but with a compelling tweak: different attacks target either single enemies, all enemies, or groups of enemies. Target-all abilities are in short supply, and having to think about enemies in groups is an interesting way to do combat. I’ve never played a Dragon Quest game before, so it’s possible this is an ancient innovation, but it was new to me and I liked it.

The game is arranged in three acts. You retread a lot of ground in the second act, and to some extent again in the third, but the game handles it well. New treasures appear, of course, and enemies power up. The atmosphere changes dramatically, as well, which helps it feel fresh, and you’re allowed to go through things much more quickly the second and third times. I thought it was very well done.

I fucking love the slimes. Drake slimes are my favourite, I think.drake slime

The third act, when you have access to everywhere and everything, is good. It’s a pretty nice world to run around and explore in, once it starts letting you rather than punishing you for trying.

The crafting system is good. It requires a little care, but not too much. If you’re good at it – or overleveled for whatever you’re making – you can make your crafted items stronger. It feels like something real, whereas it easily could have felt like a speedbump in the way of getting your gear. But it didn’t feel like something I had to master, so I think it hit the sweetspot pretty well. It does have one truly bizarre misstep: late in the game, you get access to a second category of crafting actions, and you simultaneously get the first action in that category. But… it’s the only action in the new category. It’s like the developers just forgot they started this new thing, or perhaps they had more options in there but got rid of them and never reworked it. This doesn’t make the game worse, but it’s a totally unforced error.

Early on in the game, your revival spell has a 50% chance of failing, which is pretty interesting. It’s a neat way to add tension to some early boss fights.

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