Dragon Quest is a bit of an odd beast. To American gamers, the titles are relatively obscure. You can find the occasional player who picked up Dragon Quest VIII for the Final Fantasy XII demo, but it is mostly a series for hardcore RPG fans. In Japan, however, Dragon Quest is as popular as Modern Warfare 2 is in North America. Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies is the latest game in the franchise, and the first "numbered" edition to be released exclusively for a handheld system. Dragon Quest IX is a game very clearly designed for a Japanese audience, but it also has a lot of features that cater to American and European audiences. Compared to a lot of Square Enix's recent RPG releases, Dragon Quest IX has to the potential to be fun, even for people who can't tell you what "RPG" stands for.
Dragon Quest IX has a very simple and straightforward plot. You play as a Celestian, an angelic being, who is sent down with your fellow angels to do good deeds for humans in exchange for Benevolessence, or solidified goodwill and thanks. You're doing this in order to feed the tree Yggdrassil and please the Almighty so he'll let the Celestians travel to paradise. You play as a nameless angel who collects the last necessary Benevolessence. When you offer it to Yggdrassil, a mighty beam of energy pierces the land, knocking you off your floating city and destroying your halo and wings. From here, you have to figure out what happened while also performing good deeds to replenish your angelic energy. The plot takes a few twists and turns as the game progresses, but the focus of the game is on the stories you get involved in while you're doing good deeds and finding lost treasure. Your character is mostly an observer, but you'll encounter some surprisingly touching tales.
Dragon Quest IX is noteworthy for its amazingly top-notch translation. It's difficult for American gamers to know, but Dragon Quest titles are filled to the brim with jokes and puns. Most character names are some kind of cheesy pun or reference, and even the spells are onomatopoeia that match their effects. Dragon Quest IX does an excellent job translating these jokes while maintaining the same basic spirit of the script. This isn't a huge difference from the previous Dragon Quest translations, but everything feels a bit cleaner and smoother. The jokes may sometimes be too childish for adults, but there are some pretty darn clever ones, too.
The game structure is slightly unusual in that it's more similar to an MMO than a classic JRPG. As you advance, you visit new areas and get new plot missions. At the same time, you open up hubs, which offer up side missions that comprise the bulk of the gameplay. These can be as simple as punching the air in front of someone or as complex as defeating powerful optional bosses or exploring a deadly area. They're more straightforward than the more involved side missions you'd get in a more traditional JRPG, but this works better for a portable title.
Dragon Quest IX starts off slow but adds more content as the game passes, and it generally lets you poke around and find what you want to do. It's a great game to pick up and play for a few minutes at a time, although this also means that some of the charm starts to wear off when you play in long bursts. If you're not working on side missions, there are plenty of other things you can do. You can waste hours by trying to make every item at the alchemy pot.
The world map is large and, in a merciful change, features no random encounters. On the world map and in dungeons, enemies appear on-screen. This makes it easy to track down enemies you want to kill or avoid enemies you'd rather not fight. Instead of a crippling random encounter rate, you have a lot of control over how often you fight, which makes it easier and more fun to travel. Poking around the world map and dungeons can yield rare alchemy ingredients or useful items, so it is worth going off the beaten path from time to time. Moving around is nice and simple, and you get most of the important transportation spells relatively early in the game. The map feels blander than the one in Dragon Quest VIII, but that's mostly due to this being a handheld title.
As for the combat system, you can have up to four party members at once, and you beat the living daylights out of foes in turn-based combat. The most fun is in the customization of your characters. Among the different job classes, a warrior beats things with weapons, a priest heals, and a mage casts magic. As you develop the characters, you earn skill points, which can be used to develop a character's skills. For example, a warrior can choose to develop in swords, spears, knives, shields or courage. Swords and spears are balanced differently and grant different short- and long-term abilities. Early on, I chose to invest in swords for the very useful Metal Slash ability, which make it easier to kill the high-experience Metal Slimes, giving me a boost to my levels at an earlier point. Later on, the spear's Multistab Attack works just as well, if not better. If there is one complaint, it's that the game sometimes doesn't give players enough information. Trying to keep track of when your party members are going to attack feels like a gamble. This wouldn't be a huge deal, but the game rewards you with tremendous damage increases if your party members attack directly after one another. Clarifying the attack order would have allowed players to plan for this, but it currently feels like an uncontrollable benefit.
The neat thing about jobs is that you're not shoehorned into just one. Once you reach Alltrades Abbey, you can begin changing jobs and unlocking new ones. Your character's level is tied to their job, so you may be a level 40 minstrel, but if you decide to be a warrior for the first time, you'll be back to level 1. You'll lose any minstrel-specific magic spells you might have earned, but you can keep any skills that you've developed. You can level up your sword ability to save up skill points as a minstrel, and then hop over to a level 1 warrior with a nice buff. You even retain the earned levels if you decide to switch back, so there's no real harm in experimenting with jobs. This gives you a ton of room to customize and develop your characters. You can't make a great tank by only investing in shields, but if you go through the various skill trees and get as many defense-boosting abilities as possible, you'll be nearly unstoppable. There are many combinations of various skill trees to create tactical ways to take down enemies. A lot of the basic enemies don't require this level of strategy, but you may need it to tackle some of the optional bosses.
Dragon Quest IX has an odd way of handling parties. At the start of the game, you create your main character. You choose the gender, hair style and facial expression. That's basically all there is to it. Other than your main character, there are no plot characters who will join your team. Instead, talking to Patty at the Quester's Rest Inn lets you create additional custom characters. This is just like creating your main character, except you get to choose their job as well. You can create a number of party members and have them sitting at Quester's Rest until you want to use them. Essentially, your party is completely customizable, which is great for player freedom, although it makes your traveling companions feel a little bland. This is where multiplayer is supposed to come into play, but it's a mixed bag for non-Japanese gamers.
Dragon Quest IX's most nagging problem is simply a matter of cultural differences. The multiplayer modes in Dragon Quest IX are clearly designed for a place with a high population density and a lot of people playing the game at once. In other words, they're designed for Japan. As such, they're almost worthless anywhere in the U.S. or Europe, outside of video game conventions or pre-arranged setups. For example, there is a "canvass for guests" option, where you can put your DS into sleep mode and walk around, and other DS players with the game will have their characters rest at your Quester's Rest Inn, which can lead to nice rewards. In Japan, this is reasonable. Even in a crowded American city, the odds are infinitesimal of finding anyone with a copy of the game and their DS set to standby.
The game's multiplayer mode is similarly weird. In theory, up to three other players can join your game and assist in place of the player-created party members. These guests can wander around freely, help you in combat, and earn rewards for their trouble. The problem is that you can only enjoy multiplayer if you've got friends nearby with a copy of the game, a DS, and the willingness to sit around for a while playing a turn-based RPG with you. It's not impossible, but the usage feels a lot more limited in a country where there aren't 3 million other people playing the game.
Aside from the online play, Dragon Quest IX's only other issue is that it's pretty old-school. There is a bare-bones plot, but the focus is clearly on the gameplay. To people who are used to plot-heavy RPGs like the Final Fantasy series or Dragon Age, it may feel like it is lacking almost everything necessary for a plot. In that respect, it's more reminiscent of games like Etrian Odyssey, although it is also more friendly and cut scene-heavy than those titles. There's a lot to like here, but not if you're a gamer who just absolutely has to have a rich, involved cast and deep, meaningful story. Dragon Quest IX is more focused on puns and silly jokes, which makes it more accessible than most RPGs, especially for younger kids. It's silly and enjoyable enough for gamers of all ages, which is rare for an RPG.
For a DS title, Dragon Quest IX is pretty darn good-looking. The character models are pretty well animated and charming. The level design and world map are nice, if a little empty at times. The battles look great, and there's a lot of visual flair and interesting touches that really help them stand out. Perhaps my biggest complaint is that the game can suffer from some intense slowdown in places. If you're carting along a team of three NPCs, things can slow down to a crawl, even during dialogue sequences. It's not enough to ruin the game, but it's a noticeable drawback, especially since most North American gamers will be using the NPCs instead of playing with a partner. The soundtrack is solid, but you hear familiar songs too often, and a little variety would have gone a long way.
Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies is an old-school RPG with a lot of charm. It has moved toward modernized gameplay, but at heart, it's still the same Dragon Quest that people enjoy. It's been simplified and streamlined to be more accessible to new players. The story structure is great for pick-up-and-play gaming and really benefits the DS format. The story is simple but charming, and most of the characters are likeable. There's some complexity and customization for hardcore gamers, but casual players will also be at home with the title. The lack of real online play means that the neater features are going to be useless to most people; even the simple addition of real online play would have done wonders for Dragon Quest IX's value. The game may also be too old-school for some people. Those minor complaints aside, Dragon Quest IX is a solid and well put-together handheld RPG. It isn't perfect, but it does enough right that it's easy to overlook the shortcomings. On top of that, the amount of content and the incredibly charming world make the game surprisingly addictive.
More articles about Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies