To the untrained eye, Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age looks like ... any old Dragon Quest game. Square Enix sees it differently, of course. To the publisher, this latest entry in Japan’s reigning role-playing series will be the one to capture the West too.
“As someone who enjoys the Dragon Quest games, I wanna make sure people understand what it is, and that there aren’t any preconceived notions that might not be 100 percent correct,” said Neal Pabon, Square Enix’s manager of product marketing, during a PAX East demo of Dragon Quest 11.
Those preconceptions stem from Dragon Quest’s traditional trappings, which haven’t changed much over the years. You play as a silent hero. There are party-based, turn-based battles set in a high-fantasy world. There are inns to sleep in, armor to trade for and lots of Slimes to slash up. Although the Western version adds full voiceovers to cutscenes, they’re as text-heavy as the oldest RPGs. And while Dragon Quest 11 is a stunning game — lots of beautiful colors and textures — artist Akira Toriyama’s style prevents it from looking much different from the last 10 games, design-wise.
While series like Final Fantasy — always the more popular major JRPG franchise in the West — have rapidly evolved since their first entries, Dragon Quest has always stuck to its guns. But Dragon Quest’s reluctance to react to or reflect modern gaming interests and trends hasn’t seemed to do it many favors overseas. 2005’s Dragon Quest 8 was the biggest game to really click with a wide audience, Pabon explained during our demo.
“Everyone at Square sees 11 as the opportunity to go big and wide,” he said, “[with] Dragon Quest 8 really being the last time that the series has done quite well in the West.”
So what makes Dragon Quest 11 different? Pabon says it’s the story and characters, which he referred to as both classically lovable and far darker than one would expect. In our conversation after the guided gameplay session, however, we came to what may be a better explanation.
“[The developers] want to expand the Dragon Quest audience in the West, and 11 is the best opportunity to do that,” Pabon said. “For 11, the PS4 and Steam version gives us the best opportunity to do that.”
Aiming for the broad audiences of PlayStation 4 and PC — the first Dragon Quest to launch on the latter platform — have done well for another series that, until now, hasn’t made much of an impression with non-Japanese players: Monster Hunter. Monster Hunter: World seems to prove Square Enix’s hypothesis about using consoles to attract newcomers; it’s become one of Capcom’s biggest games ever, elevating Monster Hunter from a niche, hardcore series to a console powerhouse, and its Steam release won’t debut until later this year.
And Dragon Quest 8 on PlayStation 2 was followed by Dragon Quest 9 on Nintendo 3DS — a well-received game that could only go so far with a smaller, stereotypically younger install base. Japan got a Nintendo 3DS version of Dragon Quest 11, but it won’t be coming westward; Square Enix seems to be using this game as a chance to refocus Dragon Quest to a bigger, even more adult crowd than the Nintendo 3DS player base. (A Nintendo Switch version will arrive much further down the road for Nintendo fans, at least.)
It’s important to note that Square Enix had similar aspirations of Western expansion with Dragon Quest Builders, as the team told us at E3 2016. But then, the pitch was that spinoff’s genre: It was a Minecraft-esque adventure game, and it managed to do pretty well for itself. Dragon Quest 11 doesn’t stray from the classic model, making it feel like a bigger gamble, strangely enough.
Dragon Quest 11 will be out Sept. 4, giving Square Enix time to try to reignite Western interest in the mainline series after years out of the spotlight. We’ll see then if eleventh time is the charm for the franchise, at least overseas. Watch eight minutes of English-language gameplay below.
Update: The story above has been updated to clarify which information is attributed to Square Enix.