Review – Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
After it’s hugely successful release in Japan over a year ago, Dragon Quest IX was finally brought stateside this summer. Being completely new to the series, I was very excited to give the game a try. And I was not disappointed–quite the opposite, in fact. Dragon Quest IX, although a bit of a departure from older titles in the series, is easily one of the best RPGs I’ve played on the DS. It’s classic combat system, simple yet engrossing story and nicely cell shaded visuals (3D renders based on the series’ signature Akira Toriyama drawing style, most notable in Chrono Trigger) really captivated me, especially with how well it functions on the dual screen hand held.
As mentioned above, Dragon Quest IX has revamped and adjusted several elements from it’s older games for this installment. Abandoning the fixed first person camera view of your enemies from Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride, the camera now shows your party as well, and rotates around the battlefield during combat, showing whoever’s turn it is when you give them an action. Also new to the series, is the game’s multiplayer. While we have a much more limited version of this than the Japanese version, (which is basically a full blown MMO on a handheld, and I really do wish we had this feature as well) the Wifi linkup with any friends nearby is still pretty fun, provided you know others who own the game as well. This isn’t necessary to enjoy Dragon Quest IX however, as I found purely playing offline to be extremely fun, especially if you’re a fan of traditional dungeon-crawling RPGs.
Dragon Quest IX opens with your created character, the newly appointed Guardian of Angel Falls (replacing your mentor, Aquila) and apprentice Celestrian (think Guardian Angel) of the Observatory. By guiding and protecting the mortal inhabitants of your appointed city, Angel Falls (the mortal realm is called the Protectorate) you earn “Benevolessence” which is used to nourish the world tree, Yggdrasil. After your character earns enough Benevolessence for Yggdrasil to produce fyggs, the Celestrians of the Observatory then celebrate with the appearance of the Starflight Express, (a magical train run by faeries–I’m not kidding) to finally move on to god’s realm. Something goes awry however, and the Observatory is attacked by a mysterious force. Your character is knocked down below to the Protectorate along with the seven fyggs Yggdrasil produced, and the Starflight Express. When you awaken in the waterfall of Angel Falls, your wings and halo have mysteriously vanished, and your hero is now seemingly a mortal. Your adventure begins as you attempt to use what little remnants of the power you have left to find out what what happened exactly at the Observatory, and more importantly, why these events have taken place.
You can fully customize your hero’s appearance, with categories ranging from body type, facial features, hair and skin-tone and appropriate color choices for each one. I gave my Celestrian, Vespaa, a flowing, wavy pink ponytail with deep blue eyes and pale skin. Your character starts out as a Minstrel (which can do a little bit of everything) but can change to one of the six starting vocations available by default shortly into the story. Later on, there are an additional six unlockable vocations available through quests, equating twelve jobs in total. Every job retains it’s own individual level and you can freely switch between them from an NPC without penalty. Your party members are entirely created by you, and you can select what job they are as well. Every aspect your created party is your choice, including names and appearances. You create them in the same manner you create your hero, and can have up to a party of four, with another four characters in reserve. I would definitely suggest taking advantage of this, because although it’s possible to beat the game with only your character, it would be extremely challenging. This option becomes available to you when you reach Stornway, the location of most focal points of the game, including how to initiate mutliplayer.
The combat in Dragon Quest as mentioned, above is turn based with the camera changing perspective to show your characters during actions you’ve taken. I was really glad they made this change from previous installments, because a completely fixed first person view of enemies would have made the combat grow stale pretty quickly for me, personally. Another aspect of the combat system that I really appreciated is it’s highly intuitive encounter system. Enemies spawn randomly throughout the open world and dungeons, and will aggro you, or you can choose to engage them, depending on the type of enemy and level. The fact that they spawn randomly around you, but you’re not forced into random encounters and can avoid them most of the time, gives you a sense of freedom in what you wish to fight, without having to leave the area to reset enemies. As you level up, you gain skill points for each individual vocation you level. Every vocation has a set of skills, four of which are weapon types, and one specialized set of skills for that job. You get skill points at set level intervals and can allocate them to wherever you wish. They also carry over between jobs, so if you level Minstrel and Warrior, which can both use a sword, any skill points you put toward sword will be shared between the two jobs. It encourages players to level vocations on each character that compliment each other. (Like Mage and Priest, and so on.)
Dragon Quest IX has a ridiculous wealth of content rarely seen in RPGs this generation anymore, especially on the DS. Level-5 really went above and beyond with insuring players would have the rewarding feeling and sense of accomplishment you derive from a game of this genre. The best way to describe the experience is that you’re basically playing an MMORPG on a handheld. Every piece of equipment and weapon you find has a unique appearance to it (and there are thousands.) The variety of armor is extremely vast; you can don an awesome suit of armor or wear more comedic things like bunny ears or a pair of boxers. The gear only has vocation requirements, NOT level, so you can look however you wish at any level. Every thing you find will have it’s own unique graphic. This was definitely my favorite aspect of the game, and I couldn’t help but find myself collecting as much equipment as possible or simply buying vanity pieces of gear to keep my Celestrian and her team’s look ever changing. In addition to finding items, Dragon Quest IX has it’s own item creation system–the Alchenomicon. This allows players to combine items they find with components you can harvest from around the world to create new items, or upgrade existing ones.
As you advance through the game, your hero’s first real objective is to find and locate the seven fyggs that fell from Yggdrasil. You quickly discover that these heavenly and magical pieces of fruit are causing quite a bit of chaos for humans of the Protectorate. Your character travels from town to town (in an exploration style very similar to a super obscure, but old school favorite of mine, Sword of Vermilion) helping mortals that have fallen victim to the power of the fyggs, whilst recollecting them. The game also makes wonderful usage of the DS’ signature dual screens. When in combat, your command list is on the touch screen (so you have the option to play with the stylus) while the upper screen displays the action. During roaming, the lower screen shows your characters traversing the world (which you can also control with the stylus by drawing the path they’ll walk on as you go) while the upper is your map. Deeper into your adventure, your character will inherit a ship that allows you to freely explore the Protectorate and dock at tiny islands you wouldn’t normally be able to reach. (Think Chrono Cross.)
As mentioned earlier, Dragon Quest IX is basically an MMORPG on a handheld. And while we don’t have access to the full infrastructure mode of the Japanese version (which allowed players to connect from anywhere in the country) you can still link up through the Wifi and play with friends nearby who also own the game as well. Up to four players can form a party in the host player’s world, and help them through dungeons or with boss fights. You also retain any items or levels you obtain in the host player’s world. For those who have access to a Nintendo Wifi USB Connector, can update their game weekly with Nintendo’s support. Every Friday, you can add unique quests and access the special item shop to buy rare items, along with adding unique NPCs (some from previous Dragon Quest games) to your character’s Inn, that will give you unique armor under the right conditions. You can also leave your DS idling in Canvas mode, which will allow you to exchange treasure maps with other players who’s DS’ come into radius of your’s.
Even if you don’t have anyone to play the game with, the main storyline is still very enjoyable. While it employs a few RPG cliches, I found the story to be strangely engrossing the further I progressed. It’s presented in a very simple, light hearted manner, yet deals with issues we can all resonate with, like regret and the loss of loved ones. The game has a delightful sense of humor, also. There are many play-on-words, puns and parodies of pop culture. Such as a school for children wishing to learn magic, called Swinedimples, and finding weapons with names that don’t take themselves seriously (a pole called “Optimistick.”) Dragon Quest IX is far from over upon completing the game’s main story. A myriad of content, new dungeons and treasure maps become available, as well as special quests to gain certain story characters as party members.
Level-5′s RPG is easily one of the best I’ve played in a long while, especially on the DS. This is the kind of game that has so much content, you’ll be able to pick it up again months or even years from now and still have something to do. It’s simple and nostalgic interface and combat engine make it enjoyable to play while on the go as well. It has a solid yet approachable learning curve to make it very pick up and play even if you haven’t played it in awhile. The story isn’t convoluted to the point where you’ll lose track of what’s happening either; you can figure out where you left off at any time by pressing the Y button for a brief refresher. Dragon Quest IX is a must have for any RPG fan looking for a fun, yet old school, stream lined gaming experience. This would also serve as a wonderful introduction to newer fans of this genre as well.