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Review: Dragon Quest IX

This review was originally published August 18, 2010, and is republished here for your convenience.

Oh, Dragon Quest, how they love you.  In Japan, anyway.  With the recent release of Dragon Quest IX for DS, however, Nintendo hopes to change that.  Through a careful combination of old and new, Nintendo, Square Enix, and Level-5 hope to make the West crazy for (or at least more familiar with) the iconic, “smiling slime” RPG.  Still, as gamers, we all know that while avoiding innovation can make a franchise feel stale, changing things up too much can ruin the core experience (just ask Sonic).  So has this group of developers and publishers succeeded in crafting something that can be successful outside of Japan?  An experience not just for the die-hard few, but something perfectly palatable for a wide-range of Western gamers?

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Dragon Quest is insanely popular in Japan, and has widespread recognition among even non-gamers, sort of the way Mario is in this country, only the Japanese are a bit more fanatical about their games on a wide-spread level than we are.  As a result, the release of Dragon Quest IX last year was  a huge event, with millions of copies sold and gaggles of gamers gathering on street corners to participate in the game’s multiplayer and tag modes.  Obviously, most Westerners may not even know what a blue slime is, and may be surprised to realize this game, which is being widely promoted in North America, is the ninth in the franchise.  Nintendo stepped in to publish the game, hoping to promote it and help make the Dragon Quest series at least as familiar to Westerners as Final Fantasy, its one-time rival.

Although the reason for DQ‘s failure to catch on in the West is multi-faceted, one of the biggest gripes many had was that little seemed to have changed since the first game debuted in Japan in 1986.  Although we did recently get two NDS remakes,  Dragon Quest IV and V, the games were mostly graphical upgrades with little gameplay changes from their Famicom and Super Famicom origins, and the series still was more than a blip on most gamers’ radars outside of Japan. A new entry in the franchise, Dragon Quest VIII, released on PS2, also failed to make a significant splash in western waters.  Obviously, something had to change if the series was ever to be truly successful in the rest of the world.  The result of that experiment is Dragon Quest IX, which, while not perfect, is certainly one of the best RPGs available for Nintendo’s handheld.

Dragon Quest games are typically very traditional, “old-school” JRPGs, with a silent protagonist, a minimal story, town-field-dungeon organization, and plenty of random turn-based battles.  Dragon Quest IX modernizes things a bit.  You’ll still have plenty of exploration in towns, fields, and dungeons, you’ll still have a relatively simple story, and you will still be battling it out in turn, using menus to select your next move.  Fans of the series will recognize the overall character, town, and monster designs as Akira Toriyama’s familiar work, and the opening score will be instantly recognizable, as will many of the spell names.  However, that is just about where the old ends, as DQIX is filled with new elements, many of which greatly enhance the experience.

Before I continue further, I should note that I have played both IV and V on DS, and they are some  of my favorite games (I haven’t yet had a chance to play more than a few minutes of VIII). So, needless to say, I have been following DQIX for a long time now, eagerly anticipating the opportunity to play it for myself.  I honestly didn’t think I could enjoy a Dragon Quest game more than the previous DS releases, and as a big fan of “old-school” or “retro” RPGs, I was a bit nervous about the “new” elements being introduced in Sentinels of the Starry Skies.  Let me say that my fears were completely unfounded.

Every new element, while not necessarily perfect, only seeks to make DQIX even more fun to play.  For example, with the exception of sea encounters, the game has no random battles.  Instead, you can see the enemies around you (they will drop out of the sky or pop up out of the ground at random), and you must run into each other in order to commence a battle.  Some enemies will ignore you, others will give chase (and nearly always catch up), and some will run away if you are a significantly higher level than them.  This new system has its advantages and disadvantages.  The biggest advantage is it makes exploration easier (a new map system also helps), as you can generally choose how many battles to engage in, or avoid most entirely if you are searching an area.  The second advantage is you get an idea of what monsters you will be battling, as you can see different types on the field (unlike, Persona, say, where monsters are just black blobs).  This means you can easily attack only certain enemies if you want (i.e., if you’re working on a quest or need a specific item drop), minimizing some of the tedium.  Overall, although the nostalgia in me missed the random battles, this system works well for the most part.  However, I did find two faults.  One problem with this new system is (unlike Persona) the enemies on the field give you no indication of their relative strength or numbers.  You could engage one enemy and fight only one, then engage the same enemy a moment later and fight a group of three, four, or five.  Also, enemies aren’t as aggressive as in other games with this style of engagement, meaning you can easily avoid too many battles, eventually finding yourself grossly underleveled come boss time. However, all in all I think it is a good change, as random battles are a relatively archaic feature that often bars entry for newer and younger gamers into an RPG.

Another major change is character customization.  Although a few games in the series would allow you to choose between a male or female protagonist, Dragon Quest IX allows you to create your own avatar from a handful of options, including body shape, hair color, eye color, hairdo and eye shape.  Additionally, you can customize your full party of four by choosing either pre-made characters or creating your own using the same system.  In this same vein, weapons, armor, and accessories are more plentiful than ever before, with each having their own unique look and appearing on your sprite.  As a result, you may find yourself holding back on upgrading some of your armor if you find an outfit for your character(s) that you just love.  If that isn’t enough expansion and customization for you, the game also has a full class system, which each class having access to its own skills, spells, and equipment.

The game starts with six vocations, and your character will always start as a minstrel.  After you progress to a certain point in the story, you unlock the ability to switch vocations (for your character or any of those in your party).  You also can undertake certain quests to unlock new vocations (5 more) and a final class will be available once you finish the main story, giving a total of 12 vocations, so the completionist will have plenty to experience throughout the story and even after.  And that is really what  makes Sentinals of the Starry Skies stand out so much from its predecessors: you just have so much to do.  The game introduces an alchemy system, which can be used minimally (if that isn’t your thing), or addictively (if you’re like me).  Part of what makes this addition so great is it rewards you for exploring every nook and cranny of the world (for ingredients or recipes), it gives a real purpose to your thief’s “half-snatch” (steal) skill, and it also means that grinding (and you will have to) is less of a chore, because you can use the opportunity to gather materials.  Besides, the discovery and fun of filling up your alchenomicon is exciting and entertaining.  It’s a great way to make equipment you might otherwise not be able to purchase at that point in the game.  I found myself spending hours collecting ingredients and searching shops in order to complete various recipes.

Sentinels of the Starry Skies also introduces a side-quest system, meaning you aren’t just moving from point to point through the main story; you have dozens of other little projects to keep you busy.  As you travel around the world, you will encounter various people who need your help.  If you’ve played an RPG with quests, you know the drill.  A monster stole their item, and they want you to get it back.  They need a certain item manufactured via alchemy, or their pet has gone missing and you need to find it.  While you won’t experience anything truly revolutionary with these quests, they do have a decent amount of variety, and often mean you can kill two birds with one stone as you grind for experience or money while working on completing a quest.  I really like this system, because not only does it extend gameplay and give you the chance to get some good equipment, but it also gives you an excuse to return to previously visited areas, as some quests will only become available after you’ve reached a certain part of the main storyline.  Likewise, blue treasure chests, pots, and barrels will restock after a certain amount of time, meaning going back to visit earlier towns can pay off in more ways than one.  At first, I thought this concept was added to make the game easier, but the more I played the more I liked it.  In most RPGs, especially the DQ games, you really have no reason to ever return to most towns.  However, DQIX not only encourages you to revisit often, it rewards you; in fact, some NPCs will react to you differently when you return, which I really liked and helped enhance my enjoyment of the game.

If that isn’t enough, then the game also has a treasure map system, whereby you can extend the game further by playing through extra dungeons.  The best way to get these maps is through tag mode by exchanging with others, although you can occasionally purchase maps in the DQVC.  The DQVC is another element I really liked: once you reach a certain point in the story, a woman will open up access to a “shopping channel” of sorts.  Each day, you can connect via WiFi and download a new set of items to purchase.  Many of these will be hard-to-find pieces of equipment or alchemical ingredients, so it really incentivizes you to load up your game every day to see what’s new.  Likewise, for each week for a year, Nintendo will release a new quest to keep you playing long after you’ve finished the story.

Dragon Quest IX keeps track of nearly everything, including number of battles won, how many times you’ve performed alchemy, how many quests you’ve completed, and more.  You also fill up your monster, wardrobe, and item lists, so part of the fun is seeing how much of each you’ve encountered (or  created) in the world.  Additionally, the game awards you accolades (in-game achievements) for various accomplishments, such as reaching a certain skill level with a weapon, defeating a certain number of enemies, or completing a certain number of quests.  Although these are hidden until you receive them, they definitely feed that “trophy-whore” in all of us as we strive to complete as much as we can in each category.

You also can participate in local multiplayer, in which one person is the host and the others join as part of the party.  The bonus of this mode is your friends will gain experience and loot while helping you complete your story quests (multiplayer isn’t limited to a special mode).  The downside of this, of course, is you have to be right next to each other in order to enjoy it.  Which sadly, leads to some of the biggest flaws of the game.

Unlike Japan, the US is not Dragon Quest crazy, nor do we have the population density and wide-spread use of public transportation.  As a result, most US gamers will have limited, if any, ability to partake in the tag mode or multiplayer modes that helped make the game such a huge success overseas.  Honestly, I think Nintendo, et al, would have done themselves a favor by trying to amend the game for the different market.  For example, allowing players to exchange codes for treasure maps in the way that Strange Journey allowed players to exchange fusions, would have allowed a disparate US community of DQ fans to share rare treasure maps when tagging wasn’t feasible.  Likewise, I think implementing online (at the very least, friend-code) multiplayer capability would have made the game more appealing in this country.  I know that the only tagging I have been able to do was at Nintendo-sponsored events, and even those were poorly attended, or attendance was too spread out to make much of a splash, let alone allow for any multiplayer to take place.

However, all-in-all Dragon Quest IX is certainly one of the best, if not the best, RPGs available for the DS.  You can easily spend hundreds of hours trying to complete everything, and more if you get access to plenty of treasure maps.  When it comes down to it, despite the changes, Dragon Quest is still a very traditional JRPG, but it’s also a long (in a good way) and entertaining experience. It is a game I know I will be playing for weeks (maybe even months) to come.

Dragon Quest IX
Platform: Nintendo DS
Genre: RPG
Release Date: 06/11/10
Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: E10+
MSRP: $34.99


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