Dragon Quest X Play Report*

*Hey, if the title’s good enough for Famitsu, then it’s good enough for me!

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People have been asking me what Dragon Quest X is like ever since I downloaded the PC benchmark test in… 2013 (eep!) - when they’re not too busy pelting me with rocks for be able to play it (and Phantasy Star Online 2 too – sorry!), that is. However game mechanics have never been my forte and I find they’re not really all that interesting to talk about, so I’m going to attempt to describe more how Dragon Quest X feels than the nuts-and-bolts of how it actually plays. I’m currently a level 41 43 44 45 Weddie human priest that’s getting towards the end of finished the original main story, so while I’m not up to date on the latest plotlines, events, and the extras that I know are out there I think I can at least pass on a bit of information that might qualify as “vaguely interesting”.

Oh, and I’ll be spending a fair bit of time comparing this game to Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV, because they are:

  • Square-Enix’s other big MMOs
  • Other big MMOs that occupy the relatively unique position of being console-led and not free to play
  • Probably MMOs you’ve played
  • Definitely MMOs I’ve played

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If you’re after a snappy soundbite-ish description of Dragon Quest X try this one – it’s how Final Fantasy XI used to be. Sort of. Perhaps “How you think you remember how Final Fantasy XI used to be” would be more apt. In any case levelling is relatively slow by modern MMO standards - you are not going to be done with the main story and at the level cap by the end of an energy drink fuelled weekend in this game - but while you’re left with the feeling that Dragon Quest X isn’t afraid to make you work for your progress never acts as a game that doesn’t respect the time you invest in it either. In general things aren’t as easy or as streamlined as we’re used to with other mainstream MMOs, but for every “problem” the game presents a reasonable solution: There are no handy “!”marks to lead you through convenient quest chains, but NPCs are marked on your map and a quest list is available at all times. Travel isn’t as straightforward as Final Fantasy XIV’s aetheryte teleportation system, but there are items, trains, stones, and mounts that can all be unlocked and then used to whisk you away from dungeons, travel across the map or return to your home point. The enemies that roam the land aren’t piƱatas filled with XP, gold, and loot; but there are XP-boosting items, lucrative tradecrafts and the ability to hire yourself out as an NPC to other players so you can even earn a bit of XP and gold without even having to be online. As such the game feels “challenging” more than it does “punishing”, and every problem or inconvenience you’re presented with has a reasonable solution if you care to go and sort it out.

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The social aspect of the game is again different – this time from MMOs old and new. It’s all a bit “hands off” – you can get through the entire main storyline using only hired offline player characters from the pub (this is actually how I played the game) and this doesn’t require excessive grinding to compensate for your AI helpers either. Maybe having the option to play an MMO solo sounds a little weird, but as someone who likes the genre but doesn’t have guaranteed clear blocks of time to go raiding I very much appreciate being given the tools to progress without having to hope there are some other people around that don’t mind helping out. This also means that playing older content isn’t any more of a problem for me over two years after the game launched than it was for people doing it when is was all fresh and new, in contrast to Final Fantasy XI where until quite recently making real progression through older content required either an incredibly patient friend clearing a path or grinding yourself to tears so you could steamroll over everything by yourself. This isn’t to say that Dragon Quest X doesn’t want people to socialise – in my experience the towns are always full of people chatting, organising a team, or trying to flog their wares – but how much interaction you have is left entirely up to you.

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In keeping with the “like a proper JRPG but online” theme that seems to run through the entire game Dragon Quest X’s story is as charming and well written as anything I’ve seen from the rest of the series and the characters are memorable, funny, and bursting with personality that really shines through in every well-directed cutscene. In terms of player importance you’re surrounded by strong storyline characters a la Final Fantasy XI but not totally drowned out by them, while at the other end of the scale you’re really very important to the overarching plot yet not Super Amazing Saviour of the Known Universe and Everything In and Out of It the way Final Fantasy XIV tends to portray the player. It’s a nice balance that made me feel good about myself for achieving things and bashing monsters without leaving everyone else in the story with little room to breathe.

As for the monster bashing itself, that’s an interesting and successful attempt to bring old-school JRPG menu battling to a modern real-time setting. The battle menus are traditional JRPG boxed menus with not a hotbar or cooldown timer in sight (although the battle system does appear to be run on a hidden ATB-style timer to determine when your next turn appears). You think this would feel limiting to a woman who’s used to four active battle hotbars when she’s playing as a Scholar in Final Fantasy XIV but it honestly doesn’t, by and large it feels just like playing a typical console JRPG. Bosses do have area of effect based attacks and you can avoid them by moving out the way (apparently some attacks can be avoided by jumping at the right time too, but I can’t say I’ve tested this myself), but the effect areas are “invisible” and the reactions required (and punishment for not avoiding them) are nothing like Final Fantasy XIV’s infamous Titan battle. Hired NPC party members can be issued basic orders in battle, either individually or as a group, so you can make them save precious MP or go all-out on a boss (amongst other things). These hired hands will also automatically move out of the way of avoidable attacks and can be trusted to keep themselves out of harm’s way and make a real contribution to battle – I’ve died a lot playing Dragon Quest X, and I’ve honestly never felt it was due to the AI of my team. Other fun little additions include the ability to push enemies away from more delicate team members (think of a tank keeping a monster away from a healer) and the built-in option to switch between weapon sets during battle, at the cost of a turn. For me that meant keeping a wand and shield ready for casting healing magic and siphoning MP off of enemies but having a staff on standby for more straightforward physical damage if the situation required it.

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If all this online malarkey really is too much to bear then there’s always offline mode – although this still plays very much like its full-fat online counterpart. I must admit I’ve not actually played this companion story to the main game yet mostly because I know that the expansion didn’t add a further offline quest and I want to save it for a rainy day. I do know however that it’s not particularly long and while apparently not bad by any means it appears to have been created to try and appease those that really, really, couldn’t stand an online-only Dragon Quest game: it would appear that the lack of any further offline quests perhaps indicates that Japan’s fine with online Dragon Quest after all.

Square-Enix do get a lot of flak for not translating this game but I can’t really blame them for not bringing it over: Dragon Quest isn’t an ironclad guaranteed million-seller outside Japan the way Final Fantasy is, and appealing to the MMO crowd with a game that doesn’t really play much like a typical MMO is going to work about as well as trying to sell an online-only Dragon Quest game is to long-time fans of Japan’s most stubbornly retro RPG series. You kind of need to be exactly at the point where “Likes playing old JRPGs” and “Likes playing MMOs” intersect on a Venn diagram for this one, and that’s a rather small group as it is. This is before we even get to the part where I remember to say that the game’s major formats are Wii, Wii U, and PC – with supporting (and by user accounts, rather poor) 3DS and tablet releases for Dragon Quest X-ing on the move – not exactly traditional territory for this sort of game at the best of times. As it stands Dragon Quest X is profitable, successful, and popular where it is and it’s better to have it Japan-only than not at all, which is exactly where a Dragon Quest MMO would be if it required projected global success to be greenlit. Dragon Quest X is ultimately a brilliant, beautiful MMO that does as it pleases and isn’t interested in conforming to any standard other than being the best Dragon Quest MMO it can be; and in my opinion it’s utterly succeeded.