Monday, August 19, 2019

Drasilian Disappointment

Instead of dancing around it, I’m going to just come out and say it. I don’t think Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age was very good. Right now, I would rate it my least favorite Dragon Quest game, with all three entries that I’ve previously played to completion (DQ4-6, via the DS remakes) topping it by varying margins. I still did enjoy my time with it, to be fair, and I wouldn’t say it’s bad, per se, but something was off in the blueprints for this one.

One of the more important but understated components in an RPG experience is the rhythm of exploration and the beats that mechanical obstacles play in that rhythm. Battles, no matter the encounter style, work for the role of those beats, as do puzzles or other environmental interactions that must be cleared in order to proceed. Dragon Quest has, historically, used random encounters to great effect in controlling the rhythm of travel, dungeons, and progression. It’s a rather elegant solution; random encounters generally occur at a certain rate in different environments, and depending on the location’s intended place on the difficulty curve, monsters will come in different formations with different experience and gold values. This means that there can be an assumed experience progression, alongside encounter difficulty and density, for each stretch of the game.

You can suppress encounters with Holy Water or the skill Holy Protection, but it costs a resource, be it the gold cost of the item or the MP for the skill, and will only block encounters from enemies with a level lower than the Hero. If you’re under the expected level for the area, enemies will get through that suppression, forcing you to engage with them, which eventually brings you up to the expected level, or flee, which is a behavior that likely prompted being under-leveled in the first place. That this fight or flight choice is forced upon you fairly frequently is key to the value of random encounters as a pacing tool.

Dragon Quest XI, however, pivots to symbol encounters with the hi-def versions we’ve gotten in the west. (I can’t speak to the 3DS version of the game.) The symbol encounters are strewn about the world haphazardly, and you not only start the game agile enough to outpace most to all of them on foot, early on, you’re given a horse with which to traverse the field zones, which can bowl over encounters entirely or navigate around them just as deftly as you can on foot, at a still higher speed. The only encounters that aren’t easily avoided come in the form of things in narrow passages leaping from the environment or falling from the ceiling, and the mimic family of monsters. However, mimics are the only really unavoidable ones, because like Tales of Zestiria and Berseria, DQ11 insists on making the battle scenes congruent with the literal spaces the battles were prompted in, which means every area is, at minimum, wide enough for a 4-person party to stand shoulder to shoulder. The only non-boss monsters that are large enough to be unavoidable in a situation like that are never found in areas that cramped. Mimics, however, have no personally discernible difference from normal chests, so in that sense, you can’t really avoid them, and you’re bound to get a lashing or two from things you weren’t expecting to have to fight.

Another important part of RPG pacing is respite design, or the idea of how valuable, accessible, and consequential a full party heal is. It’s important to think about, and DQ’s classic grind loop is a great example of why; DQ, and, in fairness, a lot of RPGs where the player’s levels are important, are made up of many of these mechanical arcs.

When you start a game, you often have a goal you’ll need to meet, a level of power at which the first boss is realistically beatable. This can be broken down into both the player/party level, the stats those give, and the bonuses granted by their equipment. The gameplay loop begins with the party testing its power by clearing encounters until they feel their resources are drained enough to warrant a return to a place of safety. This rewards them with experience and money. The experience is, generally, not vulnerable to being lost if the party gets wiped out. The money, however, is, and it’s also the means by which the party can be healed and get new equipment, to make the next run of encounters more sustainable by lowering the margin of risk via hitting harder and taking less damage. The distance from the party’s objective and the material cost of an inn are downsides, meant to deter the party from simply wading back through encounters every time they get a little hurt. The loop, then, is a test of the party’s prowess, to see if they are capable of making it to the next mandatory challenge with enough strength remaining to overcome it. The degree to which players will seek to pad their resources for comfort and/or insurance against the unknown differs wildly, but it’s up to them to figure out their sweet spot.

Also worth keeping in mind is the value of a full party top-up like you get at an inn as opposed to the effects you can get from items or spells. Often, items that refill the resource for abilities/spells are either rare or prohibitively expensive; this can make spells an even more important resource to manage, especially if, like in DQ, one or more characters have a healing focus, which can extend your gameplay loop significantly if used wisely.

On the other side of the spectrum for respite design, DQ11 gives you places to heal for free in every region! Sometimes multiple times in the same map. This shreds the value of the inn, and the safety of the town as something to treasure. These camping spots are significantly better than inns. They’re free, they allow you to chat with your party members to get their opinions on the goings-on of the plot in a less roundabout way than using the Party Talk menu, and they allow you to use the crafting system, which is another thing that decimates the value of towns.

As I mentioned before, an important part of the gameplay loop is getting money to get equipment. However, in this game, you can just… craft your equipment. You can craft *better* equipment than the stuff you can buy in the store. You can take equipment from chests or the store and improve it yourself. I don’t know why this game needed a crafting system, and I don’t know why they had to make it an actual minigame that I can completely botch because RNG didn’t want to play and I wasn’t a high enough combat level to make a sword that’s up to par with my story progress.

I don’t know if it’s specifically why this game needed a crafting system, but I am aware of an extra layer of difficulty the game includes that is opt-in and that all sounds terrible. Draconian Quest adds assorted restrictions to your DQ11 experience. One buffs enemies, another one makes you stop gaining experience from enemies that the game considers under your level (these two do not play along), one prevents you from ever changing armor, one prevents fleeing from battle, and one makes the protagonist extremely shy! This shyness manifests outside of battle as him randomly getting too embarrassed to talk to NPCs, and manifests in battle as him randomly losing turns! Grand. There is also one more, which is relevant to the discussion of crafting and the value of gold. You are, via this Draconian Quest option, restricted from buying literally anything from shops. No items, no weapons, no armor. Having the option to make shopping obsolete makes sense in that case, I suppose.

I can’t tell if crafting was on the design doc from the start and the no-shopping mode was added later, or if Draconian Quest came first and the crafting was just cemented due to the idea of making a no-shopping restriction. It’s irrelevant, though, because the end result is the same: it fucking sucks, man. On top of encounters being almost completely avoidable due to it, the areas being huge means the ingredients that you need to craft anything useful are spread out over an unnecessarily large area, which describes every goddamn zone in the game. I have to imagine that the scope of the areas and placement of gathering points led to the decision on symbol encounters, so that players who needed to gather more garbage to make their own weapons, because they can’t shop, in the latest game in a series whose premise’s gooey heart is about earning money to get gear, don’t have to fight even more encounters than necessary and overlevel in a game that is already not very difficult.

Speaking of difficulty, DQ11 has the same rough patch near the end that the other ones I’ve played have, where bosses suddenly get a lot more turns than feels fair, but I ended up squeaking by on some crazy bullshit instead of needing to level up or plan better, which is also similar to past experiences. Unlike my earlier DQ experiences, though, I dipped my toe into the postgame of DQ11 with the promise of more story, only to be sorely disappointed. Immediately after cresting the wave of the final battle, the post-game premise is pitched as the party visiting the grave of the one party member who died, and then the entire party discovering the means to go back in time and save her instead of letting the narrative just resolve with the character growth the tragedy entailed. It’s trash. DQ11 ended for me at 45 hours, with the death of the big bad, and it’s a goddamn shame that the game does an Atlus remake rewrite to subvert the weight of its own story telling in the base game.

The story itself was fine. Not surprising, not groundbreaking. The game begins with the hero being told he’s destined for greatness, only to be thrown in a dungeon and treated as the reason a great evil will rise. He spends the first half of the game on the run from a nation he sought for help, and as a fugitive, he finds friends and family that help him through his trials. The midpoint has the big bad show up himself, consume the World Tree, and become an evil overlord instead of just a lurking schemer, after which the Hero spends some time recovering and must journey forth to rebuild his party. It’s, at the least, mildly compelling, but I spent most of it just feeling like I was going through the motions. It’s not bad, but I’m probably not going to come back to it, whereas I could see myself returning to DQ4-6. They’re shorter, less fuss, and less underwhelming.

Playing DQ11 was like returning to a familiar place, where fond memories were made, and realizing how much it’s changed because the people who made it important for you are there no longer. The passage of time has let alien forces influence this place, and now the mismatch of your memories and its current reality makes you feel like your familiarity is invalid. Only echoes of what made this place special remain. Change is inevitable; transience is what makes life worth living. But the familiar gives way to the unfamiliar and we balk at the thought of it, of the things we used to value being devalued. There is obviously no platonic ideal, no immutable design ethos, for what makes a JRPG, or even a Dragon Quest. But I do lament the dilution, the blurring of principles, the lack of coherence stemming from a lack of consideration of the designer’s tools as tools, and not as limitations to be tossed aside when technology allows.

I am, however, a small person. Often a contrarian, often bristly, and hardly listened to, especially anymore. I’m not sure my opinion matters. Dragon Quest XI is fine. It’s not outstanding, no matter its polished sheen, but it’s fine. I’m not pissed that it’s not the greatest thing to come out this decade, but I am disappointed that for all the claims that it’s the best entry in the series, or it’s one of the best contemporary JRPGs…. It’s passable at best. Its character writing is unimpressive, its plotting is functional, and its postgame is hot garbage in terms of mechanical design. All of the DQ games I’ve found occasion to play before this were originally released before the start of, in my opinion, the best currently-running JRPG series, the Tales series. DQ6 came out on December 9th, 1995, while Tales of Phantasia came out on December 15th, 1995. For all the verbosity that DQ11 contains, it’s severely lacking in terms of character interaction, which is also hindered by the protagonist continuing to be silent. I do value the series for its historical value and its gameplay style, but its weakness is that what made it strong originally has refused to change with other points of comparison in the genre. To my view, at least. I could be totally wrong, and DQ7-9 could surprise me with emotional depth, but if so, something about DQ11 is even more out of whack. I don’t know.

At the end of the day, the second coming of the Luminary is unfortunately lackluster. I’m happy he’s in Smash, though, as a karmic counterweight to Joker. And Shulk. And every Fire Emblem character.

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