Dragon Quest is the granddaddy of the JRPG, and in Japan it has been consistently one of the most popular series ever, with each new entry or remake selling in the millions. Meanwhile, its western fan base has been considerably smaller, though it’s no less dedicated. Perhaps it has to do with the series’ steadfast adherence to the same decades old gameplay, or maybe it’s too kiddy for some. With the international release of the first new entry in the series in five years, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, the series has another chance at catching on with a whole new audience. But after failing to catch on with the English-speaking masses before, can this one to do the trick?
A traditionalist with some new tricks
When comparing the two giants of Japanese RPGs, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, DQ has always been the more conservative of the two. While FF embraced new graphics, gameplay mechanics, and story-telling techniques, DQ had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future. DQIX, despite being on a portable, is a major step forward for the series in so many ways.
Though the core grinding and battle mechanics are incredibly familiar, DQ has caught up with its competitors by finally displaying the enemies on the world map. This may sound small or even expected, but it fixes one of the series biggest issues: the incredibly huge amount of random battles. Sure, the monsters might chase after you, but at last you aren’t damned to be continually fighting weak enemies when backtracking old areas, and you actually have a chance of escaping more powerful baddies you aren’t ready for.
Another biggie is incorporating the insane amount of customization you have with the characters in your party. Not only is there a deep class system with skill points to assign to differentiate your character from all the others out there, but every single item your character can wear or use actually appears on the model. Instead of equipment just being a bland set of numbers, your fashion choices actually contribute to the character’s, well, character. Instead of every mage or warrior looking exactly the same, each has their own look.
This game is pretty hard on obsessive collectors, thanks in no small part to the alchemy system. Hundreds of items you either buy, gain in battle, or find just sitting there in the overworld can be combined to create a multitude of other items, including new weapons and armor that can’t be found anywhere else. Since you find the recipes on bookshelves all over the world, it finally gives a reason to check every single bookcase you find, which previously gave story hints or a cute joke at best. Yes, this was in DQVIII so it isn’t entirely new, but the feature has only deepened since.
And unlike the recent Dragon Quest DS remakes, this one is out to push the system about as far as it can go graphically. Every monster, environment, character, everything is in full 3D, which makes the amount of customization and the insanely deep bestiary even more remarkable. Longtime Quest fans will be happy to see that even though the series took a technological step backwards from the eighth entry on the PS2, it’s still one of the most advanced in series history.
Square-Enix was smart to take the series to a handheld, and not just for business reasons. These days, the older DQ fans don’t really have as much time to sit in front of a TV to play 50 hours of one game. But on a handheld, not only do the short bursts of play fit the system nicely, staring at the DS screen for that long, especially on a commute, just doesn’t seem as taxing. And were this on an advanced console, we might be less forgiving of the game’s anachronisms.