IGN Review of Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
It always amazes me when I hear stories about how popular the Dragon Quest series is in Japan. The entire country seems to react feverishly when the game hits store shelves, similar to how college frats shut down when a new Halo is released (just on a much larger scale that doesn't involve Jagermeister). But Japan's love for the series isn't unreasonable; Dragon Quest is one of the grandfathers of the Japanese role-playing game genre, and the franchise has had great success in the United States as well.
The latest member of the series, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, is headed exclusively to the Nintendo DS and introduces impressive multiplayer functionality to the canonical series. The game also features character classes, item creation and -- as you might expect -- plenty of slimes to defeat. I was frustrated by certain aspects of Dragon Quest IX, as the game's by-the-books battle system is almost too traditional for its own good and the focus on multiplayer hurts Dragon Quest's otherwise enticing story. But Dragon Quest IX is ultimately a charming game with plenty to do.
In Dragon Quest IX, you begin your adventure by creating your own hero through a simple but cute creation system. This system allows you to select your character's size, face type, hair style and more through a series of straight-forward menus. Once your hero has been created, you quickly enter the world as a member of an angelic race of guardians that watch over the mortal realms. From their cloudy home known as the Observatory, the guardians protect mortals and collect the manifestation of their thankfulness and faith (glowing seeds of light) that are then offered to the great tree Yggdrasil. The guardians' goal is to coax Yggdrasil into bearing fruit, which signals their imminent ascension to the throne of the Almighty.
Unfortunately, as Yggdrasil finally bears fruit, something goes terribly wrong and the hero is cast down to the mortal realm, stripped of his wings and halo. Players are tasked with wandering the world in search of answers and a way to get back home.
Dragon Quest IX is about as traditional as it gets when it comes to JRPGs, which shouldn't surprise Dragon Quest fans. Players control a party of up to four characters and journey through towns, dungeons and all the world map forests in between. When you get into a battle, you'll issue orders to all the party members under your command (unless you have an AI pattern assigned to someone) and then the action plays out on the top screen as each combatant takes his or her turn.
Battles boil down to selecting things off of a menu on the bottom screen (Attack, Magic, Item, etc.) and managing your party's health and status. The most exciting conflicts are obviously the boss fights because your party is in a constant state of danger, but otherwise the battle system in Dragon Quest IX is a little too traditional. I imagine this won't bother the gamers out there that want to relive the text-heavy, turn-based games of the past, but there's no hook to the battle system that drew me in and kept me excited. I have no problem with turn-based games or menu-driven RPGs, but Dragon Quest IX is missing that special something that encourages you to get into every battle possible just for the fun of it.
Fortunately, the systems built around the combat are all great. There are a number of character classes (called "vocations") in Dragon Quest IX, including the Warrior, Mage, Priest, Thief, Martial Artist and Minstrel. The default class for your hero is Minstrel, but later in the game you'll be able to change vocations at Alltrades Abbey. Parties will usually consist of a Warrior who dishes out physical attacks, a Mage for magic-based attacks and a Priest for healing. For my fourth party member I created a Martial Artist, as they use abilities to power-up their attacks, which is handy in a pinch. There are also bonus vocations to unlock along the way.
As Dragon Quest IX is a multiplayer-focused game, all the characters in your party are created in the same way that you create your hero. This is mainly to fill in empty spots if you don't actually have three friends that own a copy of the game, because trying to conquer the campaign with a single hero is a terrifying feat. If you do have a couple friends that are itching to quest, you can team up with them via local connection and journey together.
I strongly suggest that people check out the game's multiplayer, even if you're only interested in the solo campaign. One player acts as a host and up to three guest players can join the host player's world and help out in battles. This is an excellent system, as visiting players are not forced to follow the host around. They can wander the world at their leisure and they can even open up certain treasure chests. If the host needs help, he or she can send out a call to arms and request that the guest players jump to the host's location.
If the host initiates a battle without the presence of a guest player, the battle will play out normally, but a guest player can run up to the host's character on the field and join the battle in progress. It's a painless system that I really appreciate, as each player need only worry about his or her own hero. And although guest players can't advance the main story or complete side quests, they keep the experience and money they earn in battle, which keeps the game rewarding -- even if you're only helping out a friend.
But one of Dragon Quest IX's most troubling issues comes from this focus on multiplayer gameplay and what it means for the game's narrative. When playing Dragon Quest IX on your own, your party will be a bunch of created characters with no personality whatsoever. As these characters have no dialogue to offer, the characters you journey with won't develop emotionally as you play. I'll admit that I did grow attached to certain non-playable characters like the sassy fairy Stella, but it's not enough to keep me emotionally invested in the experience.
But this lack of personality and the aforementioned generic battles are overshadowed by Dragon Quest IX's charms. There is an abundance of side quests available to players and the game keeps careful track of your progress on these quests. The game also has a massive set of achievements, or "accolades," which are awarded to players at certain milestones, like defeating monsters or collecting armor.
There's also a robust item creation system that lets you synthesize your own weapons, armor and items out of raw materials found in the field. Recipes for these items can be found by reading books in libraries and dungeons, which encourages players to explore and interact with the environment.
One of the impressive aspects of these items is that they change the way the character model looks in-game. That means all the different weapons and armor you collect will have a different appearance, which is rare in a DS RPG. It's a shame that the environments weren't given as much attention, as most of the locales you'll visit on your quest are uninspired. As I traveled through the world of Dragon Quest IX, I felt like I was working my way down the JRPG checklist. Grassy field? Check. Forest? Check. Desert town? Check. This is all too familiar to fans of the genre.