Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies Review
August 5, 2010, 8:54 pm
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GameXplain reviews single player and multiplayer separately
A Quest that flies high
For those old enough to remember, the RPGs that were released on the Super Nintendo and Genesis were straightforward affairs. Plots typically weren't too involved and gameplay stuck closely to an established formula. The Dragon Quest series has followed that formula continuously over the years and has become one of the biggest titles in Japan. It is only recently that the series has begun to take risks thanks to the development talents at Level-5. The biggest change came when it was announced that the ninth game in the main series would be exclusive to the Nintendo DS rather than being released on any of the home consoles. While this may seem strange since a HD edition would have fans giddy, Dragon Quest 9 pushes the DS's capabilities to its limits and crafts one of the best RPGs on the system. It's still very much rooted to the old school RPG formula, but there are enough new ideas implemented to make the game still feel modern.
The story starts as soon as players create their character (past games have always had their own pre-designed silent protagonist) who is a Celestrian. Celestrians are angel-like beings whose duty is to watch over humans and protect them, gathering physical representations of gratitude in return. The gratitude, known as Benevolessence is offered to the World Tree so it may bloom and allow the Celestrians to ascend to a higher plane. The player character is the one to finally trigger this event, but something goes wrong. The character is cast to the surface, losing his halo and wings. From there the game becomes something akin to a travel narrative. The player character is silent throughout and because of the heavy multiplayer focus, there are no side characters that join your party to offer their perspective. Instead the player travels from town to town, solving people's problems while slowly unraveling what went wrong and how to fix it. If the story seems barebones, that’s because it is. This doesn't mean it's bad though. Everything is simplistic, lighthearted, and enjoyable. It lacks the angst of recent Final Fantasy games and the epic quality of Mass Effect, but Dragon Quest 9 is perfect for jumping in, having some fun, and moving on.
Gameplay sticks to the old school paradigm, and many of the basic mechanics of the game are unchanged from previous games. This may seem like a complaint, but it isn't. Without these mechanics, the game wouldn't feel like Dragon Quest. However, the developers have upgraded several aspects of the gameplay to match new developments in RPGs. First and foremost is the removal of random battles. Enemies can be seen on the world map and dungeons making battles avoidable if you so desire. The game doesn't absolutely tell players which enemies they will be facing, as other monsters will often joint he first in battle. The monsters also have an awareness to the player's level as they'll run when it is higher and give chase when it is lower. Battles themselves are much more dynamic, as characters and enemies don't line up facing one another but rather mix things up in the middle of the battlefield.
Where the game truly breaks from tradition is in its party member and Vocation system. Much like Final Fantasy's Job system, players can eventually choose what kind of character they'll be whether it's the powerful Warrior, healing Priest, elemental Mage, quick Martial Artist, deft Thief, or jack-of-all-trades Minstrel. Six more vocations can be unlocked through sidequests. Party members are designed by the player and are given one of the available vocations making it a flexible system that can be customized to a player's style. Each vocation has its own set of spells, abilities, and equipable items and can eventually be changed at will. Once a vocation is changed, the player will start over at level 1, but any abilities or stat increases earned will be shared between vocations (though spells cannot). Skill points also make their return, and players can allocate them to fit their style or to create a more powerful character. It's a flexible and addictive system that can had me sinking dozens of hours in to make the ideal hero.
Dragon Quest 9 is also stuffed with sidequests to find and complete. A quest system is in place that players can take on at any time. These quests are marked by villagers with a blue speech bubble. Completing each quest rewards players with equipment, money, items, and even new vocations. It's definitely worthwhile to do the quests but sometimes they can be extremely time consuming or just plain vague. For example, one quest is given by a cat who does nothing but meow. Presumably he wanted something cat related but no matter what I offered, the cat was never satisfied. Typical for a cat really. Another subgame that can make the main quest easier is alchemy which makes its return in a far more user-friendly manner than Dragon Quest 8. New items are now created immediately rather than waiting for them to cook, but the recipes are more complex. It's almost a necessity to scan every bookshelf that you come across in order to get all of the recipes. Alchemy is absolutely worth doing as it provides some of the most powerful weapons in the game as long as you can find the right materials. Fortunately, the necessary materials can be found everywhere from enemy drops to treasure chests to out of the way places on the world map. A little bit of effort with alchemy can definitely help in the long run.
The newest sidequest in Dragon Quest 9 involves Treasure Maps. Various maps can be found all over or traded with friends and will grant access to bonus dungeons. These bonus dungeons can really be considered the reward for post-game players as the bosses are some of the toughest in the game. In fact, many of the bosses are from previous games in the series and retain many of their abilities. Clearing treasure maps will net players a ton of experience and new items, but players can opt to give the experience back to the boss and level it up instead. Then it can be challenged for an even greater reward. This can be repeated until the boss is leveled all the way up to level 99. The Treasure Maps emphasize exploration, which is also something encouraged throughout the game. Going off the beaten path or looking around previous areas with new items always grants rewards, and this helps carry the game beyond the story's end.
When Dragon Quest jumped from the Playstation 2 to the Nintendo DS, many believed the graphical quality of the game would suffer significantly. While the game isn't consistent throughout the entire experience, what it achieves on a technical level can't be overlooked. The art design is just as good as it's ever been. The characters and monsters all range from cute to scary and are immediately inviting. This is a world of adventure, not danger. However, many of the designs are reused with more difficult monsters only receiving a pallet swap from their earlier incarnations. It becomes understandable why this was done once players realize that every piece of equipment in the game is fully rendered and changes a character's look once it is equipped. There aren't just a few options either, as the game is packed with tons of different weapons, shields, shirts, pants, hats, and shoes. The only unfortunate byproduct of this is that oftentimes your characters will look downright ridiculous in the early game, but by the end they ended up looking appropriately heroic.
The graphics aren't universally good, however, as corners had to be cut to achieve this level of character detail. Sometimes less important characters are rendered in 2D, which clashes badly with the 3D models. Also, while the character models are expressive, the rest of the world isn't that detailed. It's easy to recognize what something is, but it is usually just the basic object. It's understandable why it had to be done like this so it's up to the individual player to decide if they prefer games with more character detail than environmental detail. While much of the game makes an attempt at pushing the series forward, the music and sound design are certifiably old school. Many of the tracks are taken directly from older games with only a handful of new ones. Sound effects are also pulled from the older games. While Dragon Quest 9 might lack something new for the aural effect, what is there still stands the test of time. These are classic arrangements from the series and while they may not always match the mood, they're still fun to listen to. Again it's up to each individual player whether this matters to them, but for me it just added to the old school feel.
Dragon Quest 9 has its flaws but the whole of the game is so good that it's difficult to hold them against it. This is a game that I had to marathon each night in order to get the review out in a timely fashion and not once did I find myself bored. Something new is constantly being thrown the player's way and the rewards are near constant. The game may lack the epic story and in-depth character arcs of other RPGs, but fans of the old school will find a lot to love and new players can easily get accustomed to the uncomplicated mechanics. With over a hundred hours of gameplay possible, the Dragon Quest 9 is well worth a look.
Perhaps the reason the story in Dragon Quest 9 feels weaker than past games is because it was designed as a multiplayer experience from the beginning. The reason that there are no party members with personalities is to allow players to quickly and easily put their friends in their parties and take on the game. This just adds to the fun of everything. If players so chose, they can work through the story together in local games and have just as much, if not more, fun than the single player. Up to three players can enter a fourth player's game and work with them. Depending on how many players join, slightly more experience can be earned as well. The key fact is that friends are not necessarily tied to what the host is currently doing. They can't go visit any place the host hasn't seen yet, but they can roam the world map to their hearts content to earn money while another person is shopping. It's a highly flexible system that brings to mind the Diablo series.
Combat is much the same except that each player only has control over their own character. However, if a friend is fighting a monster by himself and is in danger of losing, another player can approach the battle to join in and provide aid. It's designed to allow each player to do what they want while still being able to work toward a single goal. Even better is that all the experience, money, and items earned in multiplayer carry back over to the single player game. It is possible to trade items but only healing items and alchemical ingredients. Weapons and equipment can't be traded. There are also blue and red chests found throughout the world, but only the host can open the red chests. In truth, I found multiplayer to be the most fun in the post-game. Working through the treasure maps and taking on the secret bosses provides a great challenge for every player.
Dragon Quest 9 works as both a single and multiplayer experience. In fact, things are almost more fun when players swap between the two constantly to help augment their characters. The option isn't available immediately but as soon as players reach the town of Stornway, which is in the first five hours of the game, they'll be able to play with friends. There isn't anything new to be found in multiplayer that can't be accessed in the single player, but when there's so much content already, I never found that to be detrimental to the title. The game can be played however you want so I recommend taking the adventure whether by yourself or with friends.
Just The Facts
Publisher: Nintendo,Square Enix
Developer: Level-5 Inc.,Armor Project
Release: July 11, 2010
Available On: Nintendo DS
Background Check: Derrick
I'm a fan of RPGs to be sure whether Japanese or Western, but I've always leaned more toward the Japanese ones. I love my Final Fantasies and turn-based combat, but could never really get into the Dragon Quest series. That changed with Dragon Quest 8 and I've slowly been trying to rediscover the older games through the DS remakes. There's no doubt though that Dragon Quest 9 has been my favorite of the Dragon Quest games.
Western RPGs - Like Them
Japanese RPGs - Love Them
Final Fantasy series - Love It
Dragon Quest 8 - Love It
Dragon Quest 4 - Like It
Western RPGs - Like Them
Japanese RPGs - Love Them
Final Fantasy series - Love It
Dragon Quest 8 - Love It
Dragon Quest 4 - Like It