Dragon Quest IX
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Turn Based RPG
Release Date: 7/11/2010
“There’s a new Dragon Quest coming out, it’s going to be for the DS, and Level-5 is developing it.”
There’s not much I like hearing more than the fact that there’s either a new Dragon Quest coming out, or that Level-5, one of my all-time favourite developers, is working on a game. To put the two together, and then tell me that the franchise is coming to the most accessible gaming platform out currently, is enough to make me giddy. I loved Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, which was also developed by Level-5, and I looked forward to this title so much that I actually imported it.
There’s only one reason this is a review of the US version and not the JP version: the game was simply too deep for me to get a quality review out while manually translating all of the text. I’m far from an accomplished translator – my Japanese dictionary is well worn and dog-eared (I recommend the Pocket Kenkyusha Japanese Dictionary by Oxford), and the sheer length of the game, the side quests, the amount of text, everything precluded me from getting far enough to give a confident review. Once the US version came out, we received a copy, and using my previous experience with the game, I was able to get far enough to confirm that yes, Dragon Quest IX is a worthy successor to the Dragon Quest name.
You play the role of a trainee Celestrian (angel) who is tasked with protecting a small town of people. By helping them with their daily lives and protecting them from harm, they give benevolence, which is then offered to the Great Tree Yggdrasil. By giving enough benevolence, the Great Tree bears fruit, which leads to good tidings according to legend. The actions caused by you finally give the tree enough benevolence to bear fruit, at which time bolts of energy come from the ground below and cause a great ruckus to the Observatory (basically, Heaven). Your avatar is knocked from the Obsvervatory, and wakes up in his town without his wings or his halo, but with the ability to see people in limbo that still have to do something before their spirits can go up to heaven. At this point, he has to find a way to get back up to the Observatory, at which point the story picks up for real. There is really nothing outstanding here; the plot keeps things moving, but doesn’t get particularly heavy, and can be predictable and cliché at times. This is as old school a JRPG experience as you’re going to get in 2010, and for some that aren’t fans of the franchise, it’s going to seem light, though the outstanding localization effort helps the game keep enough personality to make things seem like less of a drag.
Another thing that, in my opinion, hurts the story is the makeup of your party. Like Dragon Quest III, we’re back to having customized party members. Just like when you create yourself, you can create as up to eight other party members with various jobs, who you can remove, delete or call up at whim. This is great for gameplay in that it gives you some flexibility in how you want to play the game, but it leaves the story lacking because there’s no other characters to interact with. Eventually, you’ll get a fairy named Stella who acts much like King Trode did in DQVIII in that she tells you where you have to go, handles your statistic handling and sometimes acts as comic relief, but the drop down in characterization between DQVIII and DQIX, with only one actual character in the party, is noticeable. Also notable is that your randomly created people are accessible while you’re in the Observatory, but don’t go up with you. Where do they go? Do they stay on the Protectorate while you’re up in a heaven that mortals aren’t supposed to know about? Are they with you, but just chilling out? Does anyone think to ask “Wait, might you be a Celestrian, considering you’re talking to a ghost?” These are plot holes that are never really addressed because the game regards your companions only in terms of battle. I wish Squeenix had fleshed this out more.
As mentioned, however, the lack of characters makes combat much more enjoyable. You start with six vocations to choose from, and which can be changed at whim at a certain point of the game. There’s a nice balance depending on what you want to do and what kind of party you want to have, though there’s absolutely nothing here that hasn’t been done in any past game. After awhile, when leveling up, characters gain skill points that can be used to increase weapon or class specific skills, in a system that is almost cut and pasted out of DQVIII. When changing classes, the character who’s changing classes goes back down to level one, but any skills they learned that are relevant to their new class, (Such as sword skills, which are useful for both Minstrels and Warriors) can be used with the new class as well. Furthermore, your old class is left accessible with its level and stats intact, should you get cold feet and want to switch back. This is a great system, but there’s one thing I really dislike: experience is scaled by level, with higher level characters getting more experience. Therefore, it takes a lot more grinding to get a newly-minted level one character up to snuff than it should, because while the rest of your party is getting 100 experience points (for the sake of argument), that level one character is getting about a quarter of that, depending on where everyone else is. Though I’m sure there’s a reason for this, I can’t think of one off the top of my head. All it does is make me have to grind more. Dragon Quest games all contain an element of grinding to begin with, so to have more on top of that thrown on arbitrarily is a bit unsettling.
There’s a new addition called the Coup de Grace attack, which gives whoever’s doing it a class-specific special move such as the ability to cast spells with no MP loss, but I’ve played this game for almost 60 hours and I still don’t know what the prerequisites are for them, or even if there are any set prerequisites. Seemingly at random, I would receive a message that character X would be ready for a Coup de Grace, and since this usually happened in random battles – and not during boss fights, when knowing how to get a Coup de Grace going would be useful – the battle was over before I could enjoy the benefits. This skill is too random to be very useful.
The other big change is that random battles have gone away. Instead, you’re able to see anyone you would fight on the map. I wish for the most part that they stayed with the old system. Enemies respawn plentifully, so unless you make a conscious effort to avoid combat, you’re actually going to end up in MORE fights than you did when fights were random. Even trying to avoid fights isn’t good enough sometimes, as enemies have a habit of popping up right in the path of where you’re going. Think you can just stand still? Not so fast, because enemies, if they see you, will run up to you and initiate combat. The world moves as you’re going through your menu as well, so while you’re doing this, enemies often just wander to the spot that you’re in, so that when you back out of the menu, you go right into combat. With all that said, there’s no real interaction with the world. Strong enemies will run towards you if they see you, and weak enemies will run away from you, but you can wander right in front of an enemy without them noticing for a few seconds. Plus, there’s no benefit for approaching an enemy from behind, like other games with a similar system, nor is there a penalty for being taken from behind. I had one enemy rush up to me after seeing me, catching me from behind, just to have the next battle start out as an advantage for me, because the enemy “didn’t notice (my) presence”. Compare this with a game like Persona 4, where the difference between winning and losing certain battles is usually who has the advantage starting off, and it’s clear this system needs work. It’s only useful if you’re walking through an area with weak enemies and don’t want to waste time in meaningless combat.
There’s one more change that’s relatively minor, which I welcome: if multiple people attack the same opponent with a melee attack, one after another with no interruption, the damage escalates; 1.2X for the second attack, 1.5 for the third, and double damage if four people hit the same enemy. This breaks if anyone uses a spell, misses, or if another attack to someone unrelated happens, and goes both ways. This is a nice addition, but the game doesn’t give any kind of management option to try to mitigate this. You can try to get your faster people to attack in a row, but it might not happen, and the enemy rarely takes advantage of this. I wish there would have been more ways to exploit this on both sides. Other than the things I’ve mentioned, this is the same Dragon Quest combat we’ve always enjoyed. You can use a melee attack, use a spell, use a skill, or defend, though I haven’t seen a need to defend in all the years I’ve been playing this series. To people that aren’t fans of the series, this seems antiquated, but to anyone who grew up playing this series (myself included) we wouldn’t have it any other way.
It should be noted here that this is probably the easiest Dragon Quest game I’ve ever played. I didn’t have any problems advancing throughout the game. So long as I had grinded enough to be able to buy the best equipment at a certain point, I was able to get through the next dungeon or boss. The difficulty ramps up nicely, so there’s a nice balance from the early part of the game to the end, but overall, the game is not as challenging as past games. To prove my point, I went back and picked up my current game of DQVIII, where my characters are around Level 18. I’m not under-leveled, but had to go back to town to revive people a couple of times because I got stuck into a couple of harder fights. I can’t think of one time where I had to seriously grind to make myself stronger in Dragon Quest IX, unless I had changed classes. Believe it or not, I think this is a good thing, especially for a handheld game. You don’t want games that are meant for portability to be too hard, especially for the DS’s audience, which leans casual.
With that said, there has never been more to do in a DQ game, even counting the 100+ hour DQVII. There are over a hundred side quests to do, some of them quite long and involved, with sidequests being necessary to gain access to the best classes for your characters. These quests add a lot of time and benefit to the experience, but some of the quests are so lengthy and require so many things to go right, so many times, that they can end up being more a nuisance than they’re worth. In addition, there is the biggest addition to the Dragon Quest franchise we’ve had in a long time: the integration of online play. The major reason that the creatable characters are so interchangeable is because they’re not really the intended way to play the game. Instead, the game allows you to have friends connect to your world via wireless play and play with you. They don’t just wander in your party; they can go all over your world, or join you for combat. If you run into problems, you can put out a call to arms, and your partners can come and help you. This would be great for Aileen and I, as we both own the game, and even better, she can fight in my world and power herself up more for her own quest, as I’m farther along than she is. The problem with this is that it’s local wireless only. If any online system would work perfectly with Nintendo’s Friend Code system, it’s this one, but it wasn’t integrated, unfortunately. There is a WiFi system in place for downloadable content, such as downloadable treasure maps, downloadable guests for the VIP suite (the first one was Tsaverna Alena from Dragon Quest IV, who gave special armour), and other goodies that can be downloaded from a Gamestop, Nintendo World or other partner, there will never be a time when you’re 100% done with Dragon Quest. Throw that onto a quest that is easily sixty hours in length, and this is the kind of $35 purchase that can last for years. There is unlimited replayability here, and this is a game that fans will be playing even after Dragon Quest X has been released.
It doesn’t hurt that the game both looks and sounds great. The graphics are the best I’ve seen on the DS, with everything coming across clearly and cleanly with no technical hiccups like tearing or excessive jagged edges. Even compared to a good looking (by DS standards) game like Final Fantasy IV, DQIX blows that title out of the water in every way, with how well the graphics come across, and the personality of every enemy you fight in combat, with their fully acted out moves, spells and defeat sequences. The same can be said of the game’s music, which is exactly what one would expect from a Koichi Sugiyama soundtrack.
Story: Above Average
Control and Gameplay: Enjoyable
Appeal Factor: Great
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Dragon Quest IX is not a radical departure from past games, and that’s exactly how fans like it. It’s got the same elements that made past entries so memorable, and fits right in with the rest of the series. Anyone who likes JRPGs – of any flavour – will thoroughly enjoy this title and the hours upon hours of gameplay that a $35 DS cart can fit in. There are very few games with a better bang for your buck.
Whereas Final Fantasy has always been about revolution, Dragon Quest is more about evolution. While not a perfect one, Dragon Quest IX is a very fine evolution of the classic franchise, and an easy purchase to recommend.