You might be aware that Dragon Quest is a pretty big thing in Japan. In fact, ‘pretty big thing’ is an epic underestimation in itself, when I should realistically say that Dragon Quest is a phenomenally monumental thing in Japan – whenever a new game in the Dragon Quest series comes out, Japan shuts down. People skip work, book holidays in advance so they can queue up waiting for stores to open. The Japanese MEXT (The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) have even implored to Square-Enix not to release Dragon Quest games on school days. We westerners might think that it would be Square-Enix’s other popular JRPG franchise, Final Fantasy, that could command such power – but in Japan, even Final Fantasy’s popularity pales in comparison to the grip Dragon Quest has on the nation. With over 4 million copies sold within the first 2 months of release in Japan, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies is set to become the most popular entry in the series – but will Nintendo find success with the game over here in the west?
In a radical and, to some fans, shocking, change for the series, Dragon Quest IX gives you a party of 4 entirely customisable characters, who’s name, sex, appearance and class you pick yourself. Your main character is a Celestrian – an angelic race of beings who go about doing good deeds for the mortal humans in the world below so they can acquire a mythical fruit that allows them to move on into a higher plane. However, during the ceremony to attain the fruit, a mysterious force attacks the celestrian’s land, causing your character to plummet to the world below and lose their wings in the process. Thus begins your journey to travel the mortal realm helping humans, in the hope that you will get your wings back and be able to return to your home. The story is a typically light-hearted affair from Yuji Hori, although it’s not his best work for the series. The story is not aided by your entirely customisable party either, meaning that there is very little character development for your own group of heroes. However, this gives a chance for the games NPCs and villains to shine – each town you venture to has its own problems you must help solve, and a chock full of lively, entertaining characters that make the world of DQIX a wonderful world to explore.
The Dragon Quest series is about as traditional as it comes concerning JRPG mechanics, and Dragon Quest IX is no different – although aside from the traditional gameplay structure, there are a few new elements thrown in to shake things up. Combat is a strictly turn based affair, however you can now set AI for your party members – except for your main hero – based on simple commands as ‘Don’t use MP attacks’ or ‘Heal Wisely’ that works pretty well. Multiple attacks on the same enemy by your party in turn also incur a damage multiplier bonus, however without a real way to determine the order of actions in a given turn, it is difficult to intentionally chain up your attacks. Despite its simplicity, combat in Dragon Quest IX remains enjoyable from start to finish, even though, as is wont of the Dragon Quest series, there is a little grinding involved. Random Battles have been stripped from the game as well, another major change for the series, replaced by having monsters roaming the world, triggering a battle when you touch them. A wise addition to this system means that monsters that are too low level for you to fight will flee out of your way in fear, saving a lot of unnecessary battling time.
The reason for having an entire customisable party is readily apparent in regards to the online functionality of Dragon Quest IX, another major new feature for the series. As well as an online store where players can download new quests and content, at any time another 3 players can join your game with their own main characters and venture through the world with you over a local wi-fi connection. Each player controls their own character, allowing you to split up and explore yourself, but if you find yourself in a battle, you can send a message to your other adventures that allows them to come help. Although Story progression in multiplayer is only tied to the host, friends keep the experience they earn with their hero, alongside any items they find. Another aspect of the multiplayer integration is the ‘Tag Mode’, where you can set your DS to canvass for other DQIX players once you close it. This will send your customisable hero to any other DS also in canvass mode to that player’s inn, allowing them to recruit your hero for their own party, or acquire rare treasure maps only available in Tag mode. The only gripe that there can possibly be about the frankly remarkable suite of online capabilities DQIX offers is that it is easy to see they were designed with Japan in mind, rather than the west. Tag mode would be useful if you’re sitting on any of Japan’s popular public transports, as would the local only multiplayer, which is much more popular in Japan as opposed to Europe and the US. If you can find a few DQIX owning friends, it can be incredibly fun, however it would be a lot more appreciated if it was done over Nintendo’s WFC.
Despite fears that downsizing to the DS for DQIX would hamper the games presentation, DQIX is actually one of the best looking games on the handheld. Akira Toriyama’s (he of Dragon Ball fame) art style simply sings on the handheld, combined the game’s good use of 3D models in and out of combat, leaves you with a lush looking game – although at some points all the models on screen leads to a slight chug, but this at worst is minimal. Another nice little feature is the fact that each piece of equipment a character in your party is wearing or using shows up on their character model in battle too, further giving each party member their own unique image. The music is laden with classic pieces from Dragon Quests back catalogue of jaunty tunes, creating this lively, refreshing and happy atmosphere for the game, which is a very welcome break from the usually angsty fare of JRPGS as of late.
For fans of classic JRPGs, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies is like a warm drink on a cold winter’s evening, or the smell of a favorite home cooked meal – It’s familiar, comforting and extremely satisfying. Any gripes you may have about the toning down of the story, or the local-only multiplayer are instantly washed away by the games delightful strengths and loving atmosphere. The light hearted sense of fun makes it not only a refreshing break from the more ‘serious’ RPGs out there, but also to accessible to people who would not normally look into playing JRPGs. Suffice to say, if you have any interest at all in playing an RPG on your DS over summer, look no further than the wonderfully whimsical and endlessly satisfying Dragon Quest IX.
Developers: Level-5 and Square-Enix
Genre: Role Playing Game
Time: So far about 13 hours of the story, messed around with local multiplayer for an hour or two.
Gripes: Minimal. The Customisable party leads to scant characterisation for your main heroes, and the amount of 3D models on screen in towns leads to a slight chugging at points.
Get it for the: Solid, enjoyable and traditional JRPG mechanics, the delightful Toryiama visuals, and the overall sense of whimsical fun.