“What can I do for you today, sir? A Slime afro? Some Dracky dreads?”

Dragon Quest XI

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (2018)

I have been emasculated again. It happens to me quite a lot in life actually, but this one was a real beauty. The scene was the Grafton Barber, a fancy place of mangrooming. Well, I wouldn’t have cared if the red carpet was thrown out for me, because barbershops are never my favourite place to be at the best of times. We’ll get onto the looks of disgust and derision that barbers usually treat me with another time, but I wanted to go on about the Russian (well, former Soviet anyway, it was a big place) lady that was to be my groomer.

You’re offered a drink while you wait, which they say is free but given you’re paying a bit of a premium rate anyway, you’re hardly coming out ahead. Can anything in the high life really be free? Chumps can elect to get sparkling water or a soft drink here; real men like me opt for beer. Though my aspirations of being a real man were summarily shattered when I was called forth to sit in the hot-seat.

For a start, it’s not very practical to be drinking a beer while you’re having your hair cut. I had to keep the mouth of the bottle covered at pretty much all times in order to stop my long greys from falling in, which added to the experience somehow. You’re usually waiting a pig’s age in there to be seen, of course, but this was one of those wonderfully pleasurable times when there was no queue. Good thing, because I had swift drinking and swift chopping to get through.

Then the session began. People talk in hushed tones of massage parlours where there may be a happy ending waiting for you at the end of it. Is that all urban myth, smoke and mirrors? A club that doesn’t exist? Like the Mile High Club or The Breakfast Club. Does a sensual massage naturally segue into an unspoken bout of masturbation? 

I’m not sure, because I’m not good-looking nor deviant enough to chase down a happy ending experience, but things were seemingly heading that way when the Slavic barber poured a lotion of some kind onto my head and began softly rubbing it in. I did what I thought she would want me to do: I closed my eyes, leaned back and thought of communism. Then the head-massage started, and it was so thorough, I thought she was using some sort of industrial strength headscratcher.

But when I opened my eyes back up and clocked her in the mirror giving my head an impassive look as she worked away, I was amazed to see that this near-robotic head-massage was actually coming from her fingers. I remember when I was trying to learn to play the guitar and I could just never build up those wretched calluses on my fingers to get used to the strings.

No problem for her, she had finger strength like a mole’s claws, and I was entertaining the idea of her vigorously (though no less lovingly) rubbing my head as if she were polishing down a bust of Josef Stalin. I didn’t have the energy for it, frankly, and it was looking quite clear that she wasn’t going to be satisfied with me. By the time she’d shaved about two kilos of hair from my hair and swept it all up again, I was utterly spent. And throughout all of this, she never said a word, and hardly made any faces either, so I had to use my own imagination here.

In particular, and I know I will be arrested for this, but I was beginning to have hopes that she’d take me round back for her version of a happy ending, which ideally for me would entail her sticking a high-heeled foot right through my Adam’s apple while smoking and berating me with a sour face and evil expression.

She would then momentarily lull me into a false sense of security with a brief slasher-smile, with maybe the faintest hint of affection in it, only to break my heart and spirit with a renewed, castrating look before the Adam’s apple impalation continued. I would know not to disrespect the Soviet Union in future.

I’m telling you all of this because I just can’t get over the Hero of Dragon Quest XI’s barnet. I couldn’t go to school the next day with that kind of a bob, I’ll tell you that. I must say though, a silent protagonist like this is fine, irrespective of haircut. But it’s no use having my guy in the middle of a heartfelt scene and he’s stood there like a pilchard, unable to talk back in any circumstances. Even Link makes more noises. Primal noises, and in some cases worrying ones, but it means he’s heaps more expressive.

We’re all sick of hearing that Dragon Quest pioneered the RPG genre. Well, yes, it did, but that was over 30 years ago. Dragon Quest struggled for relevance in the West ever since… well, the start really, but it didn’t have many high watermarks. Maybe 8 and 9 hit some notes, but we’ve been waiting for the modern classic that wasn’t visibly stuck in the past.

I believe we’ve found our breakthrough with Dragon Quest XI, one of the generation’s best. Sure, it’s a turn-based RPG that leans into what can sometimes be a dreaded word, tradition, but what you’ve got here is a great game that hits the correct JRPG notes. It’s pretty damn lengthy but not in a way that outstays its welcome.

It has a fairly compelling cast of characters and story, something that can be palpably lacking from some Dragon Quest games, and even taking into account the silent protagonist we mentioned earlier. I reckon you’ll enjoy the British dub, especially with all kinds of oo-ar West Country accents.

The game’s not without its flaws, of course. You will probably end up sick of the same repeating music themes, especially the world map theme that blares at you too often and for too long. It’s actually worse in the earlier PS4 version, but with the S upgrade you can get access to a symphonic soundtrack, though an awful lot of the tracks are reused from earlier Dragon Quest titles.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in general DQXI is a celebration of the series as a whole, but one would have liked more variety. In any case, the terrific trio that personified the Dragon Quest games came to an end with this game – after its release, the composer passed away. The chap was 90 in any case so I hardly think he was still conducting orchestras, but that’ll be the reason why.

That’s Dragon Quest XI for you then, the perfect entry point to one of the most storied series in gaming. At the heart of it all, it’s not much different from the other games, but it’s a lot less stuck in the past than its older brothers. Think of Dragon Quest XI as that haircut you just got – fresh, attractive, looks the business, but in reality it’s as David Byrne sang, same as it ever was. You didn’t come here looking for something wild, something radical. You wanted a consistent high watermark, something to set your watch to. That’s Dragon Quest XI alright, though I daresay that 90 – 100 hours is an awful long time to spend in the barber’s chair.

6 May 2022

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