In all honesty, one of the best RPGs in recent memory. I wrote this review in March, right before I beat the game.
My Review- Dragon Quest IX : Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS)
The Dragon Quest series is one of the most famous in RPG history, right up there with Final Fantasy. Created by Square’s rival company Enix, the Dragon Quest series began on the NES and is widely seen as the first ‘console-style’ role-playing game. The series was taken over by Square Enix (the two rivals having merged), and with help of developer Level Five (creators of Dark Cloud and Rogue Galaxy), they brought the series into the 21st century with Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, which is often recognized as one of the best role-playing games on the PS2.. Journey of the Cursed King had a massive open world, superb voice acting, and a lengthy quest, while keeping series traditions intact. It was surprising, then, when series creator Yuji Horii announced that the 9th installment would be on the Nintendo DS rather than a modern console. Dragon Quest IX continues the trend of obscenely long subtitles, but does it live up to its respected name?
Like in the majority of Dragon Quest games, the story of Dragon Quest IX is simple, yet epic. Your character is a Celestrian, essentially an angel, whose job is to watch over a peaceful village of mortals. In exchange for protecting the mortals, Celestrains receive Benevollescence, which is the essence of mortal gratitude. The Celestrians offer the Benevollescence to the World Tree of Yggdrasil, and legend says that when they gather enough, the tree will bear fruit and the Celestrians will ascend to their rightful place in the heavens. You are the one who causes the tree to bloom- however, something goes horribly wrong, and a massive earthquake tears through both the mortal and Celestial realm, causing the Fyggs to fall to the world below. Stripped of wings and halo, your mission is to track down the fyggs and prevent them from falling into mortal hands, for they are too powerful for mortals to use. At the same time, you are presented with a disturbing possibility- that the Celestrians are merely being used for a far more sinister purpose…
Dragon Quest IX deals with both the problems and rewards of true faith, and it is an intriguing tale initially. However, the storytelling here is rather weak- as your primary task is to gather the Fyggs, most of the game is an extended fetch quest. The story picks up near the end, but the slow pace hurts it. The cast of characters is weak as well, and because you play with a player-generated party, there isn’t the engaging personality of a Yangus or a Torneko to accompany you. The only permanent character you travel with is Stella, a fairy who acts like a more foul-mouthed version of Navi from Ocarina of Time, who uses ‘flapping’ as her f-word of choice. On the plus side, the characteristic Dragon Quest humor is present, with puns aplenty to accompany the lighthearted Akira Toriyama art style, so ultimately, the weakness of the story is forgivable, for the most part. It really has the same problem I felt Dragon Quest VIII had- the story’s least interesting moments are unfortunately the longest parts of the game.
Nobody should need too much of a description of Dragon Quest IX’s gameplay- the game is traditional RPG through-and-through. Of course, the Dragon Quest series established many of these RPG basics, so it’s adherence to tradition is actually rather refreshing. The extra real estate afforded by the dual screens helps smooth out a lot of wrinkles (such as Dragon Quest VIII’s horrid inventory system), but it’s still immediately recognizable as a Dragon Quest game.
The two biggest changes to Dragon Quest IX have to do with your party. You create your character at the start of the game, which is something all future installments should do (every DQ game has a silent protagonist, so customizing ‘your’ appearance is easy to implement). However, your other three party members are created in the same manner. This could be considered a throwback to old dungeon-crawlers like Wizardry (a known inspiration for Yuji Horii), but after great casts like VIII’s, having a personality-less party is somewhat of a drag. The good news is that you can create as many party members as you want with different classes, although your party can never be bigger than four.
The other addition is the return of the Vocations, the class system from Dragon Quest III and VI. After a certain point in the game, you can change any character’s vocation to a different one. There are six initial classes, and more are unlocked over time. As you level up your characters, they gain new skills appropriate to their vocation, and any new abilities and skill points earned carry over to new Vocations, allowing you to multiclass chracters. There are a few problems with the system, however. First of all, you can only change vocations from one location in the game, which is hard to access after you leave until you get a ship midway through the game. Secondly, changing classes resets your characters level back to 1, forcing you to incessantly grind to catch up. On the plus side, you can always switch back to your old vocation with your old level intact, and maxing out vocations allows you to mix and match skills from each one. Still, this requires a lot of tedious grinding.
Alchemy also returns from Dragon Quest VIII. However, the process is greatly improved by the fact that you no longer have to wait for your materials to ‘cook’ before a new item is alchemized- alchemy is instantaneous. Also, there are a lot more item recipes to be found early on, making it easier to synthesize powerful items and equipment. While not necessary to beat the game, synthesized weapons and armor are extremely useful. Unfortunately, you can only use your alchemy pot from one location, from which you are cut off from for a good portion on the game.
Dragon Quest IX’s combat is pretty much the same as VIII’s. There are no more random encounters (an improvement from VIII), as you see all enemies in the field, and they will either attack or flee based on your level. The concept of ‘tension’ returns, although tension can only be boosted by a Minstrel’s ability, and isn’t as useful as VIII. Characters can also perform a limit-break style ‘Coup de grace’ at certain points in battle, which differs based on their Vocation- the Priest’s Coup de grace can fully heal all party members, for instance. The game is also much easier than it’s predecessor- I’m thirty hours into the game and haven’t died once.
Dragon Quest IX does feature a multiplayer mode, but I never review those, and I’m not breaking that trend here. The multiplayer features are supposedly the reason for the player-made party members, because the developers intended for other players to fill those slots. It’s a fun idea, but I’ve always seen RPGs as a solo effort, and weakening a game’s story to make room for so-so multiplayer wasn’t a good idea.
Dragon Quest IX features some of the best 3D on the handheld- however, the framerate sometimes stutters when too many people are on screen. Wierdly, while enemies and character models are in 3D, some NPCs are 2D sprites, which is odd. You can see every single piece of equipment you have on your character, which is both interesting and unintentionally hilarious (sometimes, the best equipment may be a slime-shaped hood and a fur poncho, for example). The true star of the game’s presentation is Toriyama’s fantastic artwork, which once again perfectly suits the humorous tone of the game. The enemies in particular are imaginative and well designed. The music reuses a lot of tunes from Dragon Quest VIII, and while the original tunes are up to the task, they aren't composer Sugiyama’s best work.
Don’t get the idea that I didn’t like Dragon Quest IX, because I enjoyed the game. The game’s series is responsible for a lot of things I love about video games, and those elements are intact here. However, the only really big difference in this game is that it’s on the DS- it’s doesn’t do any better than it’s predecessors, nor does it do worse. In the end, Dragon Quest IX is just another Dragon Quest game. That’s all it needs to be.