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Dragon Quest 11's localization is the most brilliant, underappreciated writing of the year

I've never had a talent for haiku, or any poetry, but for Dragon Quest 11, I just have to give it a try. Here goes: 

Towns bursting with life
Charming chats slime after slime
So many accents 

It's not unusual for RPGs to draw inspiration from real world locations, but it is unusual for them to have this much variety or follow through as fully as Dragon Quest 11 does.

Okay, look, writing a good haiku is hard. But the localization team behind Dragon Quest 11 make it look like second nature, and that's one of many reasons why I find their work on the game so stunning I have to gush about it. We don't have a game of the year award for localization, but if we did, Dragon Quest 11 would win it. I can barely write one haiku, but to create the best localization in gaming this year, Dragon Quest 11's English writers had to write dozens, maybe hundreds. And that's just one of the many ridiculous challenges involved in translating this massive, text-filled RPG.

In one town you visit early on, which is styled after a Japanese hot spring resort, everyone speaks in haiku. Everyone. Doesn't matter if it's a crucial part of the story, or some kid you talk to out playing in the grass. This is a good example of what to expect from the rest of Dragon Quest 11, which wants you to feel like you're taking a journey across a vast world. It doesn't convey this scope with a massive open world that takes hours to cross. Instead, it gives every city and town a vivid personality, usually along with regional accents in both voice and text.

The city of Gondolia is blatantly Italian. Puerto Valor is a Spanish port city. Dundrasil is Scotland. Lonalulu is basically the Hawaiian islands. Arboria looks like ancient Greece. There are many more.

It's not unusual for RPGs to draw inspiration from real world locations, but it is unusual for them to have this much variety or follow through as fully as Dragon Quest 11 does. Voice actors in every city speak in regional accents, and the designs of the cities themselves are radically different. They're lush, sprawling locations that Japanese RPGs have rarely mustered since the PS2 days. The voice acting is what makes this all especially impressive, because the Japanese version of Dragon Quest 11 has no voice. That was entirely added for the English version.

Dragon Quest has a very silly sense of humor, which the English localization team knows very well. They play that up with exaggerated voice acting that would work well on stage, but without going into full caricature. It's not cockney Dick Van Dyke 24/7, in other words.

Here are a couple kids being Very Italian.

I've never been to a French school, but I bet they're all exactly like this.

This is just the normal, all-the-time dialogue in Dragon Quest 11. The game doesn't point at this stuff like look at the special voices we did here—every new town simply brings a whole new set of accents with it. I'm just picturing someone playing the Japanese version of this game as a translator at Square Enix, slowly loosening their collar after reaching each subsequent new area, sweating more and more at the thought of adapting all of it into English. Then getting to Hotto, the Japanese haiku town, and whispering oh, fuck you under their breath.

Just a few of the haikus they ended up writing in English:

Beneath Mt. Huji,
Like snowstorms on summer days,
Visitors are rare.

Our forge is our pride.
It stands there atop the stairs.
Go—glimpse its wonder!

Child gone, mother's fear.
Panic like ice, then relief—
The guard has found him!

The part of Dragon Quest 11 that floored me, though, was its undersea city of mermaids, who all speak in rhyme. Again, the game knows this is silly, but it fully commits. Hours and hours into the game, one of its most dramatic and emotional moments comes when the sea queen is giving a rousing speech about the doom of her people, a sacrifice she's making so that you can save the rest of the world. It rhymes without fail.

It's hard enough to make cliche JRPG story beats compelling at the best of times. To manage it with rhymes, translated from one language to another? Incredibly impressive. At this point I couldn't stop thinking about how much work it took to make Dragon Quest 11 work in English, with every new accent and flair of personality I ran into. And this is an RPG you can put 80 hours into just following the critical path. There's an immense amount of text here that needed to be translated, and it's all done with such love and care.

And there are so many puns, in the names of monsters and characters and locations.

  • There's a boss called Dora-in-Gray, the spirit inside an evil mural.
  • The town holding that mural (a famous tourist attraction) is called Phnom Nonh.
  • Mount Huji is a tall, snowcapped mountain.
  • The snowy Scandinavian city is called Sniflheim
  • There's a pig-in-a-pointy-hat enemy called a sham hatwitch
  • There's a very buff enemy called Jerkules
  • The damn subtitle of the game is alliterative as all hell

I could go on and on, because the game goes on and on. I'd love to see someone fluent in both Japanese and English break down in fine detail the creativity involved with translating puns, rhymes and haikus into English, and how clever other parts of the game are that I didn't even notice. But at least I can tell you that regardless of how you feel about traditional turn-based battle systems or very slow save-the-world stories dribbled out over a hundred hours, there's writing in Dragon Quest 11 that makes the nearly impossible seem effortless.

Wes is 50% features editor, 50% pizza. You'd be surprised which half is cheesier.