Dragon Quest XI: Loss when least expected
[Astronomically massive character spoilers ahead for both the main and post-game! Also, this article talks about personal reactions stemming from my own emotions and experiences. If you’re uninterested or cynical to such stuff, this article may not be for you.]
For my enjoyment of JRPGs, these games often have many design caveats and traits that come with the territory that are easy targets to riff on. Dragon Quest XI is no exception: Hammy voice-acting by those not in the main cast, villains nefariously laughing long enough to make a snack, sexualization that’s fobbed off for plot purposes but downplays a character’s strengths… But it’s Dragon Quest, a series that doesn’t do a lot between entries with its core gameplay, but does enough to make that core gameplay solidly reliable through its many campaign hours. I mention all this because, for the Dragon Quests I’ve played, the stakes have never escalated beyond doomsday, apocalyptic scenarios where the protagonist needs the holy macguffin to punch the big bad square in the nose. Dragon Quest XI raised those stakes to a degree I hadn’t been expecting, all through the loss of a single snarky, combative character*.
While I haven’t written my full review on the game yet, one of the positives I took away was how much I liked the cast on the good guys’ side. Hero* being effectively an automaton is expected Dragon Quest, but the crew that tags along with more than make up for his lack of character. Sylvando is a force all of his own, Jade’s unwavering commitment to the point of concern, Erik being the best guy ever, Serena’s naivete concealing how sharp she truly is… I have to stop myself before this becomes a piece on the playable characters instead. Who I didn’t like initially was Veronica, Serena’s duty-bound sister and offensive magic-user of the team. As you might imagine when it comes to siblings, Veronica is the antithesis of Serena: The latter is understanding, soft-spoken and generally passive, while the former is quick to anger with a hostile tone. In her defence, Veronica’s anger is frequently correct and justified, but she delivers it with the same effectiveness as two motorists with road rage narrowly avoiding an accident. I tolerated such an abrasive character since her offensive magic made encounters easier. Admittedly, this is a shallow opinion, but having dealt with people like that in my life? It was hard to view her in many cheerful lights.
At the midway point of the game, the plot had popped off to an incredible and unexpected degree, with the ensuing apocalypse the crew was trying to delay occurring anyway. Veronica then casts a spell to whisk the gang off to safety to avoid succumbing to the destruction — Well, ‘safety’; the following chapters involve the team overcoming their own obstacles to meet back up and return to their whole world-saving quest. I found it odd that Veronica didn’t have a chapter of her own, but I cynically figured she was off bad-mouthing monsters who had taken her captive or something. Upon returning to Arboria, the sisters’ home, we were ready to put the band back together when Veronica was found conked out under a tree. I figured she was utterly exhausted from the effort needed to send the team and herself to safety away from the ensuing cataclysm — How utterly, foolishly wrong I was.
Veronica didn’t make it out as unscathed as the others, as she then fades away into nothing amidst an ether-like light show. Suffice to say, the gang and I shared in our gobsmacked bewilderment, and disbelief started to settle in when talk of Veronica being gone began to spring up. Disbelief then turned to denial, and because I was streaming at the time, that denial was vocalized that the game wouldn’t axe a team member unceremoniously. Hero then took time to ‘talk’ with Serena (credit due, he’s a good listener), leaving her with an inflamed resolution to see things to the end, cutting her hair down in a new style and taking Veronica’s staff, and by extension, her mantle. It didn’t officially hit me until the game advised that Serena had adopted Veronica’s spells and opened up new segments on her character builder:
Veronica’s gone. For good.
No magic macguffin to bring her back, no new primary quest to get some elixir of revival. Deceased. My stream continued, and wrongly, I was still trying to be an “‘entertaining host’” while trying to process this development, struggling to keep my nerves together as sadness and anger filled my eyes and chest. Compounded by this was the ensuing regret because despite Veronica’s mouth being bigger than her brain most of the time, she was still there for the quest. To see the big bad kicked square in the teeth. To save the world as all Dragon Quests’ go, help the crew, help Hero — And, by extension, me.
As I touched on in my No Man’s Sky piece, loneliness hits me in distinct ways because of my life experiences and disabilities. What upset me in this instance is related because that loneliness means not having people I can confide in; talk to, vent my pains, do stuff with regularly — In other words, someone to have my back and vice versa (figuratively and literally). This being a video game, of course, Veronica could only support me in that virtual environment, but it doesn’t change the fact someone who had my back was gone. Mechanically she remained due to Serena absorbing her spells and abilities to become (I would argue) the teams’ strongest magic user, but no longer would we get to hear that snarky vitriol and overly confident scoffs post-victory.
The game had my number, and I was prepared to ‘repay’ this personal attack by overpreparing the team and giving Mordegon (the primary antagonist) a swirly, wedgie and royal beatdown in no particular order. And so I did! First try, I might add, leaving me feeling exhilarated from winning a dicey, harrowing finale and exacting vengeance for some semblance of closure. So ran the credits, and I was ready to set down my controller and call Dragon Quest XI wrapped… And then came the epilogue. And then came the discovery that Hero could travel back in time not only to keep the apocalypse from happening, but also change the course of history so that Veronica never had to sacrifice herself.
I saw this one of two ways: For one, this meant getting a primary character back and not having to deal with that loss whenever I think about the game. Secondly, however, this felt like the developers weren’t able to commit to such a strong decision to axe a party member for good, whether for design purposes or their own judgment. In either case and with nothing else to do for objectives, Hero zip-zoomed back in time well before Veronica’s death, leading him to have a brief one-on-one conversation (again, he’s a great listener) with Veronica in the Arboria temple. I won’t lie; hearing her angrily squawk over such minor inconveniences once again had the biggest relieved smile on my face, all while trying to avoid choking up. I really did miss that lil’ crabby goon.
Admittedly I haven’t finished the epilogue and any other post-game content, so I’m bracing myself for any other catastrophic occurrences. Still, it left me astounded how much I reacted and was affected — By Dragon Quest, of all things. Credit due to the writers and voice cast for being able to make me give a damn so much and making Dragon Quest XI not just be a robust and enjoyable JRPG like its predecessors, but also one I’m going to remember.
*” But there are other character deaths, too?” You might point out, yes, but I didn’t respond as strongly to them as they’re briefly met incidental characters or didn’t have the same amount of time to build them up.
* We’ll just call him Hero for the sake of ease. I know his title is Luminary, but writing ‘the Luminary’ repeatedly feels too wordy and formal for my liking.