Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
It’s been six years since the release of Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King for the PS2, and though plenty of JRPGs have come and gone since then, genre enthusiasts eagerly nurtured a special level of unchecked anticipation for the next entry in the Dragon Quest franchise. Well, the time has finally come – Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies is here and it is quite good, though gamers unimpressed with JRPGs in the past will unlikely find enough here to catalyze a conversion to the land of spiky hairdos and uncomfortably feminine male protagonists.
The first thing one tends to notice about Dragon Quest IX is that the game is unquestionably polished. Despite the “downgrade” from PS2 to the DS, the game looks absolutely gorgeous. Legendary artist Akira Toriyama’s character work here is not at all diminished on Nintendo’s duel-screen handheld system – Slimes still bounce, quiver and smile creepily (there’s something about those beady eyes…), and other recurring badies like Golems, Skeletons and Drackies still strike the iconic poses that all Dragon Quest fans know and love. Really, the polygonal characters in the game, both human and monster, look like a product of high-quality, hand-drawn animation – and that’s a big, big plus for series fans.
And it’s not just the characters that look stunning. Each of the game’s seemingly endless number of dungeons, towns and overworld environments (the game world is quite massive) look so unique, lush and detailed that you tend to wonder how all of it could have fit on that tiny DS card. Be it a simple forest, bubbling swamp or massive temple in the sky, every locale is bursting with so much color and personality that the desire to see what’s around the next proverbial corner is more than enough to fuel long play sessions into the wee hours of the morning. The developers at Level-5 even smartly use the camera for both close-ups and sweeping panoramic shots during the game’s many short cut scenes – it’s clear they were proud to show off the gorgeous game engine from any and all angles. To top all of this off, the game generates all this eye candy with workman-like efficiency, with the only blemishes being some N64-like texture flickering and a bit of slowdown in heavily populated areas.
“Legendary artist Akira Toriyama’s character work here is not at all diminished on Nintendo’s duel-screen handheld system.”Unfortunately, the other aspects of Dragon Quest IX aren’t quite as hands-down-exceptional as the game’s visual quality, though most of the various flaws are smaller niggles that only slightly annoy. Take the story for example. For the first few hours, the game’s plot comes off as incredibly fresh. You play as a Celestrian – a divine race that lives in the clouds and cultivates the benevolence of people living in the ‘Protectorate,’ or world bellow. Amazingly, you are not an amnesiatic hero. Nor are you moody or callous about the world-changing events unfolding around you (or any of those other tired JRPG clichés). Instead, you are a blank slate – a completely customizable hero with no real personality and minimal history. Now, this isn’t totally uncommon in JRPGs, but Dragon Quest IX goes even further by making your traveling companions blank slates as well. This is a great feature for customization buffs (you craft each of your heroes from the ground up), but it’s not so great for those looking for character development in any of the main characters.
Essentially, the entirety of the game’s plot will unfold via the massive game world’s various NPCs (most of whom will come, play their small role, and then never be heard from again), which is fine for the most part, but it certainly makes the portions of the game where you are in between big events or quests sag a little. And be warned: there will be no moments like Palom and Porom sacrificing themselves in the collapsing chamber, nor will there be anything like Red XIII’s sorrowful howls at the moon in Cosmo Canyon. Your heartstrings will almost certainly stay un-tugged from beginning to end, and you almost have to concoct your own back stories for the main characters so you actually care when they get cut down in battle.
Unfortunately, the game’s narrative is further hampered by some misfires during the localization process. While overall the dialogue is well-written and error free, there are occasions where characters were given inexplicable or just plain annoying dialects. In one area early on in the game, you are confronted by a massive, floating glob of condensed disease with three eyes and tentacles. As the creature approaches, tension fills the air and you start to wonder if you are really prepared to clash with this new, potentially dangerous boss. Then the floating glob starts talking and sounds almost exactly like Yosemite Sam. Why? It’s not funny and it’s certainly not helping the immersion of that particular scene. Thankfully, these bad localization bits are sparse, but, really, they shouldn’t be there at all.
On the bright side, the game’s focus on customization over story means that there are plenty of chances to tweak things, both initially when creating the look of those in your party, and later on through job changes and skill point distribution. Dragon Quest IX rewards you for leveling up your characters in multiple jobs, because doing so gains you a larger and larger pool of skill points, which can then be used to unlock powerful stat bonuses, special abilities and other goodies. The intriguing part about all of this job swapping is that you really need to be aware as to the strengths and weaknesses of your current party make up; the game’s bosses will punish you ruthlessly if you enter the fray unprepared or with a poorly balanced group. In other words, the game forces you to use your noodle, and this is most certainly a good thing.
You will also be punished if you fail to gear up your heroes. Attempting to get by with a few odd upgrades here and there from plundered treasure chests (like in a much easier games such as Level-5’s own White Knight Chronicles) will quickly see you wiped out and resurrected at a nearby church minus half of your gold. Every little gear upgrade feels huge on the battlefield in Dragon Quest IX – which is pretty significant motivation to grind away on Winksters, Gastropogs, Bewarewolves and other lowly enemies for money, loot and experience points. Also, this gear shuffling and reshuffling is made all the more entertaining by the fact that the armor and weapons all look very good on your on-screen heroes. Everything from knee-high socks and bikini bottoms to chain mail and iron gauntlets are visible on your character at all times, and it won’t be long before your party is decked out in some wacky and hilarious getups which, believe it or not, can actually factor into the Style statistic and cause enemies to be dazzled into inaction.
All of this gear, job and skill customization wouldn’t account for much if Dragon Quest IX‘s battle system wasn’t any fun, but thankfully, it is. The core of the game’s combat is very much old school – battles are turn-based, you have access to simple commands like Attack, Spells, Defend and Item, and basic stats like Agility, Strength and Deftness determine such things as who goes first, how much damage is done and how often critical strikes are performed. There are a few wrinkles in the mix, such as the ability to randomly trigger a powerful (and job-specific) Coup de Grace move, pull off simple combos, and assign basic AI routines to your teammates (very helpful this), but essentially, this is a streamlined, easy-to-use and fast-paced (no thirty-second summons here) battle system in the same vein as those found in countless other traditional JRPGs that have come before. Of course, this makes sense due to the fact that any Dragon Quest game is expected to stay true to the trademark formula that has fueled the series’ popularity in Japan for well over two decades (the original Dragon Quest pretty much birthed the genre), but some may find the lack of progression a tad disappointing. On a quick side note, the game does take a significant step forward by nixing random encounters in favor of roaming overworld enemies.
“Your heartstrings will almost certainly stay un-tugged from beginning to end…”Probably the biggest progressive feature to be found in Dragon Quest IX is its multiplayer mode. Using the DS’s ad-hoc capabilities, you can connect with up to three other players and either host a session in your game world or hop into someone else’s adventure. This multiplayer gameplay is remarkably well-implemented and easy to use, and doesn’t force you to play some watered down side adventure like in so many other games – you really are thrust into someone else’s story (or them into yours) and can go anywhere that they’d be able to if they were playing by themselves. You are even given the freedom to break off from their location and go exploring their game world on your own – all the way to the other side of the map if you feel so inclined. This social aspect to Dragon Quest IX is a promising step forward in a JRPG genre which has been slow to evolve with new technologies and gamer expectations over the years.
And now, the final question must be asked: should you buy Dragon Quest IX? The answer? That depends. If you were a fan of previous Dragon Quest titles or just sprawling, old-school JRPGs in general, buy this game (duh). If you gravitate more towards the story-centric style of recent Final Fantasy titles, however, you may want to give this one a pass, as the lack of personalities for the main characters and breezy, meandering story may breed indifference. One thing is for certain, though, Dragon Quest IX is a well-crafted game. It has plenty of polish, an absolute ton of things to see and do, and plenty of spot-on references to past games in the series (the combat text is still the best in the business). Dragon Quest games have always marched to the beat of their own drums and Sentinels of the Starry Skies is no different. It’s the only JRPG on the market in which wearing a Speedo, tortoise shell, wooden clogs and rubber gloves into battle might actually be considered a good idea, and that in itself is worth a few brownie points in my book.