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Monday, July 19, 2010

Review: Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Nintendo

The Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series have a sort of shared history between them. Both are RPGs, and both started their respective trajectories at the same time on the NES. Both gained popularity in Japan and then made their way to Stateside. Their respective companies, Enix and SquareSoft, eventually ended up merging together to form Square Enix.

However, while Final Fantasy had its breakthrough with Western audiences with Final Fantasy VII, Dragon Quest hasn't had that much of an impact here. Since Dragon Quest games are so huge in Japan, it’s odd that they're not quite as popular with Western audiences, as Dragon Quest games are always of extremely high quality.

The only real difference between the two series is that the rules in Final Fantasy games change from game to game. They don’t use the same battle systems, style of play, even the same art design from game to game. Someone who has only ever played Final Fantasy I will have to idea how to play Final Fantasy XIII. That allows for a lot of evolution from game to game.

By contrast, if you’ve only ever played the first Dragon Quest, the newest iteration, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, will be immediately familiar. The same basic mechanics are there. It’s turn-based combat with spells, levelling up, and the like. The underpinning Dragon Quest-ness really hasn't changed after all these years.

This puts forth an interesting question: Is that a bad thing? Does a traditional JRPG like Dragon Quest need to evolve? Is there enough here to justify picking up Dragon Quest IX if you’ve already played a previous Dragon Quest title?

A Heavenly Quest

In Dragon Quest IX, you play the part of a Celestrian. Celestrians are guardian angels over the world, and you’ve been assigned to watch a quiet burg called Angel Falls. Shortly after receiving your commission, a large earthquake shakes the heavens and earth, casting you down to the world below without your halo or wings. You realize that you must help people in order to gain acceptance by the gods and get back what you’ve lost.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that the characters you use in your party are largely ciphers. They don’t have voices, dialogue, or any personality, and the main character is a silent protagonist. However, while your crew may not be very well-defined, the characters you meet in your travels are.

Within the first hour, you’ll meet a woman who didn’t know her father was a legendary innkeeper, a lazy young adult who finds a calling he didn’t know he had, a mayor who’s frustrated with that same lazy son, and your exacting teacher who has some doubts about your abilities but chooses not to voice them to you.

Along the way, you’ll be fixing all manner of problems, and in some cases there’s only so much you can do. You have to give these well-drawn characters the push in the right direction to fix their own problems, and the result is satisfying. For example, in one affecting setpiece, a neglectful husband's wife dies. It’s your job to teach him not to shut himself off from the world even though he’s grieving and become a better person as a result. It’s cases like these that make the world feel real.

Another cool touch: As mentioned before, Angel Falls gets shaken by the earthquake at the beginning of the game. Among other things, the church bell and town sign are broken. When I came back about ten hours later, the bell was fixed and the sign was back up. The characters even remark on how long it’s been since they saw you, and there are other significant changes to their dialogue as well. Things like that go a long way towards convincing you that the world is more than just a place full of monsters, but a living, breathing place.

Of course, though, this is a JRPG. Being a JRPG, there need to be battles, and they're exactly what you would expect from Dragon Quest. It's turn-based, you pick a command, and then your characters perform the attacks/spells/abilities that you’ve told them to do. There's not a whole ton of flash and dash to the battles, but there are a few tweaks.

One excellent tweak is the removal of random battles. Instead of random battles, you’ll see the enemies on the screen and can choose to approach or avoid them. In some cases, you can’t really avoid them, and sometimes they’ll either run at you or away from you if you’re more or less powerful. It’s pretty great because it gives you a good amount of control over how much battling you want to do. I sincerely hope that future Dragon Quest titles use this feature.

While your characters earn experience points in the traditional way, there’s another wrinkle in the combat that’s really quite fun. There are several classes that you pick from, like Gladiator, Minstrel, Martial Artist, and so on. When your characters earn XP, they earn XP specifically for that class. If you want to change classes, they drop back down to level 1 in the new class, but since there are no equipment restrictions, you can outfit that level 1 character in equipment normally used by a level 15 character and level up fast with the new skill.

You’ll want to change your classes up, since the ability point system from Dragon Quest VIII is back, and is much, much deeper. Every few levels, you gain ability points that can be used toward improving your skill with the several different classes of weapons or each individual classes’ special skills. For instance, the Martial Artist has a special move called “War Cry,” which can cause fear to a group of enemies. The Minstrel can use “Egg On,” which raises your fellow party members’ tension, making their next attack stronger, and so on. When you change classes, those special abilites you gained will move with you. It adds another layer of strategy to combat, and makes your team even more fun to use.

Alchemy also returns from Dragon Quest VIII, which enables you to mix ingredients together and create new weapons, armor, accessories and items. If you want the best equipment, you’ll need to get a handle on how alchemy works, but scattered throughout the world are various books which will give you recipes explaining what you need to make your fancy new cat-shaped shield.

On top of that, using Nintendo WFC, you can connect to DQVC, which is Dragon Quest’s “home shopping network.” On that service, you can find hard-to-find or rare pieces for alchemy. In some cases, you can find equipment that would normally be way out of your league as well. It’s a cool feature that I’ve used quite a bit so far.

The music is also excellent. It’s dramatic when it needs to be, chipper without being cloying, and generally easy to listen to. Some of the same sounds are repeated from prior Dragon Quest games, as well as some snippets of music, but not enough to totally distract you. It’s just enough nostalgia to be good.

Dragon Quest IX looks great for a DS game, and they’re some of the best the system has to offer. This doesn't come without a price, though. In some areas, you’ll see fairly significant slowdown. This usually happens when all four of your characters are on screen, but it’s still annoying. They’ve tried minimizing this by having a combination of fully-3D characters (usually your party and any important NPCs) and 2D sprites, but it still happens. It’s not enough to totally derail the game, as RPGs aren’t generally twitch-based games and it happens relatively rarely, but it’s still there.

There are other little complaints that could be raised about Dragon Quest IX. For one, if you don’t like traditional turn-based JRPG combat, you won’t like Dragon Quest IX's combat. Your mileage may vary.

Also, there are certain tasks that you can only do in certain cities. For instance, would you like to drop off one of your party members for a bit and do some solo adventuring? Go back to the inn at Stornway. Would you like to perform Alchemy? Go back to Stornway. Would you like to change classes? Go to Alltrades Abbey.

It’s not that it’s time-consuming, since you have a spell called Zoom that requires no experience points to use. It’s just that they could have made at least made some way to, say, access your bank account in more cities. I mean, banks have branches, don’t they? That would have fixed that problem. Since these games are steeped in magic, you could have very easily had some magic stone that would connect you to DQVC instead of making you traipse all the way back to the Stornway Inn to check it out, right?

However, one benefit of going back to previously-visited cities is seeing how things have changed. For instance, I would never have seen the changes to Angel Falls if I hadn’t gone there to find some crappy clothes to alchemize. I understand why they made you do it, but it would have been nice if it was more streamlined.

Good Quest

All that being said, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies makes a really good argument that games don't necessarily need to evolve. It’s a very, very good JRPG and one of the best of the Dragon Quest series. I’m about 20 hours in so far, and I’m showing no signs of slowing down. It’s smart, touching, and deep. There’s so much to see and do, so many interesting scenarios that the game presents to you, and the same traditional gameplay that captivated gamers almost 25 years ago. While it may have a few flaws, they’re not gamebreakers.

In other words, if you have a passing interest in the Dragon Quest series, you need to play Dragon Quest IX. It’s not going to win any awards for originality, but in some cases, iteration is preferable to evolution.