The long standing and long titled RPG series, Dragon Quest makes it's ninth appearance to gamers in the form of Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies. Developed by Level 5 and published by Square Enix, Dragon Quest IX is a delight for either hardcore RPG fans or just passer-bys. It's a great game.
If you have ever played any Dragon Quest game, the gameplay will be no doubt familiar to you. It’s the same turn based system we are all familiar with and that’s quite alright. The system works well and while it does show its age against other modern games, it’s a perfect fit for the DS, where stop and go gaming is king.
Six base classes, along with six more classes that become unlocked through side quests are included in the game. The unlocked classes, while different, aren’t “better” in a sense as they are just an addition to the game. My party consisted of a Martial Artist, Warrior, Mage, and Priest, a prototypical RPG party. At any point you can create another NPC companion with a brand new class and experiment if you wish, however this leads to the problem of impersonality in your party. The story does exclusively focus on you, the hero, and your NPC buddies just happen to be a part of the ride. I did play Dragon Quest VIII and the NPCs you gathered along your journey had great personality and stories behind them and I found myself missing that the most while playing DQIX. Is it something that took me completely out of the game? Absolutely not, it’s just one of the very few gripes I have about the game.
As classes level up, they get access to skill points which can be used to upgrade abilities tied with it. Want your Martial Artist to be a claw fighting madman who dabbles a bit in the fighting fan? Or maybe you want your Mage to be a whiplash of a whip master? The game affords you all the customization you want. That’s what Dragon Quest IX is all about: Customization.
Every class has access to a special ability, called the 'coup de grace', which is class dependent and they all have a nice use. The Martial Artist can scare every enemy into submission and boost his tension, adding a nice damage bonus to his next attack. The Priest can perform a full heal and eliminate all negative status effects, the Mage can cast spells without expending MP, and the Warrior can make his next attack be a critical hit. Each ability ties well with the class and can definitely turn the tide of battle around in your favor. I can’t tell you how many times the Martial Artist’s ability saved me in a battle, just to be able to have that one free round made a huge difference.
Combat plays out in a slightly cinematic way. Gone are the days of enemies on one side of the screen with heroes on the other. The battles in Dragon Quest IX are dynamic, characters run around to get closer or move away depending on the corresponding action. A small change, but it definitely makes the battles less like work and more fun to watch.
The multiplayer aspect of the title is expansive and wears many different hats. Players can open their own game world up to have visitors (other players) who they can either adventure with, or so low level players can have a peak of what's to come. The nice part about the title is guests in the world aren't confined to what the host is doing. If a guest wants to go monster grinding to get a component for alchemy, he can do that, then when the host needs aid in battle a 'Call to Arms' option is available in the menu to teleport your guests into battle. The downfall being the guest having to go all the way back to where he was.
You can also "canvass" for guests for a hotel you come across early in the game, adding more guests (fellow DQIX players) to your particular hotel, through this method, it is possible to exchange treasure maps which are used to locate monster grottos. The problem with this particular feature is being able to find other players of Dragon Quest IX who also have their game in canvass mode. Dragon Quest's popularity in Japan works for the title, but here in the states, where the population density is a bit smaller than it is in, say, Tokyo, it's a bit harder for American fans to take advantage of the feature. Unless you were at a convention or something similar.
In addition, there are special sales for items made available through a Nintendo Wi-Fi connection, so once expensive armor or weapons might become a bit more affordable. The deals change each day, though, so you would be wise to check on a consistent basis. Group adventuring is the big attraction here, though, as being able to battle monsters with friends and strangers alike hearkens back to that classic table-top RPG feeling. Definitely a plus, in my book.
The music and sounds will be familiar to Dragon Quest fans. The music does vary from town to town in addition to a single battle anthem that plays during your fights. The soundtrack does add a bit of flair to the mini-cutscenes and it isn’t wasted or misplaced. Ranging from simple town jaunts that reflect the town's innocence or up-beatness or oppressive anthems during boss fights, there's nary a tune in DQIX that doesn't have an application somewhere. The sound effects aren't something too spectacular, but they're not bad. In fact, the sounds do add to the somewhat campy nature of the game.
Speaking of campy, one of the big sellers of the game, which went along with the absence of storyline NPC companions, was the ability to completely customize your hero and your NPCs to whatever you wanted them to look like. Want your mage to look like she’s constantly unshowered? You can do that. Want your warrior to have that Dragonball Z look to him? You can do that too. In fact, it shouldn’t be too hard for you to emulate a figure that looks exactly like Goku because Akira Toriyama (creator of the Dragonball series) is back again to do the character artwork. His touch truly shines and he does create some awesome looking monsters and gives you enough tools to create some really awesome or funny looking characters of your own. However, with the big sellers of this particular incarnation of the Dragon Quest series being customization and multiplayer, the story took a relative backseat.
The story felt a little light to me. I understand that you can only do so much with a DS RPG storyline, but it felt very cookie cutter. Fallen “angel” that has to set out on an epic quest to get back in good graces with the “upper management” and this eventually requires him to save the world. Standard JRPG stuff, but the story is still something you want to pay attention to and it does have some genuinely interesting moments dotted throughout. An NPC you meet in the town of Bloomingdale, I felt, had the most interesting story at all, I won’t spoil it, but it riled up some emotion in me.
In addition the main story line, treasure hunting and side quests dot the gameplay to break up the time you commit to the story. During the 50 or so hours I ended up playing, I knocked out about 30 side quests in addition to grottos that contained extra bosses to defeat. The grottos are definitely tough and add extra hours of gameplay in addition to providing challenges for even the most experienced RPG player. In fact, the grottos are meant to add extra gameplay when you complete the relatively straightforward campaign.
Dragon Quest IX is definitely a title that fans of the series and fans of RPGs will come to enjoy. In terms of a portable game, it is incredible, allowing gamers to attempt a side quest, level grind, or just continue through the story at your own convenience with the aid of a handy quick-save feature. If you do pick it up, you’ll come to enjoy the simplicity and quirkiness of the world and have trouble leaving as soon as you enter it.
Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies is available now for the Nintendo DS for $34.99.