Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
What will immediately strike you about DQIX are the visuals
- Fun and well-designed multiplayer, superb visuals and music, charming setting and world design, excellent localisation
- Slow going at several points, quite grind-heavy at times, may leave those not interested in multiplayer out in the cold.
While it isn't necessarily revolutionary or groundbreaking, the latest installation in Square Enix's long-running Dragon Quest series makes some ambitious strides thanks to its co-op adventuring and impressive 3D handheld graphics.
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It's hard to talk about Dragon Quest without mentioning its massive presence in Japan, where it's gone beyond a game series to become a cultural institution akin to Star Wars or Harry Potter in North America. Square-Enix knows well that DQ's massive Japanese audience has certain expectations from the games, and they're not about to risk taking their cash cow to slaughter. Thus, they rarely take risks in changing up the core game mechanics of the DQ titles, choosing instead to constantly augment its traditional turn-based RPG gameplay with different feature sets. It stands in very stark contrast to their Final Fantasy series -- a franchise known for taking bold risks to sometimes mixed results.
So when I say that Dragon Quest IX is the series' most drastically different installment yet, it really doesn't mean that much. Its primary innovation -- portable, four-player co-operative play -- is something made popular recently by another Japanese megahit, the PSP Monster Hunter titles. In fact, there's a lot of Monster Hunter influence evident throughout the game. But taking a cue from other proven hits isn't a bad thing -- especially when you can work their concepts into a completely different style of game well, as DQIX does.
When you start Dragon Quest IX, you get to create a character to your own specifications, akin to an MMORPG. It's then revealed that you're are already a demigod, living in a realm high in the clouds and tasked with helping the mortals below, working to earn affection and open the path to where the Almighty resides. That is, before your heavenly kingdom implodes, sending you careening to the earth below sans many of your supernatural powers. It's up to you to solve the mystery behind the destruction of your homeland, and quell the chaos brewing in the mortal realm.
What will immediately strike you about DQIX are the visuals. It's by far the best-looking DS game on the market, but it also shows the system's age. Character models and backdrops look fantastic, but frame drops and slowdown during heavy action is aggravatingly common. The music is up to the usual high standards of the DQ franchise, as well, with themes both familiar and new cropping up throughout the game.
But you could make a HD, next-gen Dragon Quest and it would still be as staunchly traditional an RPG as you could get: Turn-based menu-driven battles, "do X, kill Y, then proceed to location Z" gameplay and story flow, a party of nondescript user-created characters with no real dialogue or story impact, and some simple skill- and class-building trees to create your ideal team. And like the classic RPGs of old, the game takes a while to get moving: It's pretty dull to just mash slimes for the first few hours, but once you get the ability to form a bigger party, things start to pick up considerably. Unfortunately, waiting for good things to open up is kind of par for the course here, as it takes a considerable amount of game time (15-20 hours) before you're able to fully explore the class system. These elements aren't quite as aggravating as, say, waiting for all of your combat options to open up in Final Fantasy XIII, but they still feel like annoying "carrot-on-stick" gimmicks to keep you artificially hooked until the game's world becomes more open.
What makes DQIX interesting is the much-vaunted multiplayer aspect. You can invite friends to join your party or join a friend's party (consisting of up to four players) and go out to dungeon-romp and monster-mash as a team. Individual players can engage in exploration and battle as teams or solo, and a handy "call to arms" feature lets the host instantly summon all the players in the game to their side no matter where in the world they are. Multiplayer combat moves surprisingly fast -- unless one player simply can't make up their mind on what attack to use, you won't be bored waiting for everyone to choose their strategy. There are very few risks involved in joining a friend's game even if you are severely underlevelled: The penalty of losing half your money upon death is negated, you'll earn double EXP from battles, and if they're further in the story than you are, you'll have a chance to get some much better gear. There are issues, however: Multiplayer is local only, meaning that you'll need to convince your friends/coworkers to buy the game and gather together for play sessions. (You need to be in close proximity, too, since you'll be discussing battle tactics with each other.) Emphasis on multiplayer is so strong that it can be difficult to go through the game solo -- the game expects you to level more quickly by regularly taking advantage of the co-op double EXP bonus. If you don't plan to play with buddies anytime during your adventure, you'll have to do some serious level-grinding from time to time.
Dragon Quest IX is like a classic car that's been recently restored: There might be some new stuff under the hood and additional bells and whistles, but it's still the same vehicle from years ago. That's not entirely a bad thing. Dragon Quest's appeal lies in its sense of warm, welcoming familiarity. It's refreshingly free of the pretension and overwrought cinematics of much of the current JRPG crop, instead presenting a lighthearted, charming adventure romp akin to what made the original Chrono Trigger such a beloved classic. The cartoonlike setting, clever banter, and delightfully goofy-looking monsters and characters give the DQ titles a distinct atmosphere and appeal, and that appeal is of the big reasons why the series continues to thrive.
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