Dragon Quest IX (Nintendo DS) - Review by Chris
After years of waiting and having to trudge through re-releases and spin-offs just to get a fix, Dragon Quest fans can finally rejoice in the series' return with an all new outing, this time returning to a Nintendo console to do so for the first time in a decade or so. A lot has changed within the role playing genre in the last few years, with Western developers having flexed their creative muscles and almost commandeered the genre entirely while Japanese studios seem very set in their ways. As such, the question remains whether this new outing, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies from Level 5 and Square-Enix, does enough to show that Japanese RPGs are moving with the times.
Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies sees you take to the role of a guardian tasked with looking over and protecting the people and the world below. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that your work isn't entirely selfless as you're asked to collect as much benevolence as possible so as to make the Great Tree blossom with fruit once again and allow the passage of the guardians into the Realm of the Almighty. When the ritual goes wrong and you're sent crashing to the mortal world below, sans your wings and halo, it's up to you to get to the bottom of what is going on and put a stop to the power seeking to bring ruin to the world and mortals who live on it. As you progress, you'll encounter plenty of twists which will keep you pushing on through to find out exactly what has befallen the world.
The biggest detractor from the story, however, is the lack of true characters that can make up your team, with the ever present fairy Stella being the only fleshed out one in the entire game and the rest of your team being comprised of pretty much lifeless husks used for battling. Sure, you can give them their own back story if you please but it's a big disappointment to have so little in the way of compelling characterisation.
At its core, the game remains firmly placed within the JRPG genre, sticking to the tried and tested formulae which some may have become tired of. You'll create your character from scratch and wander the overworld heading to towns and dungeons, talking with people along the way to gather information which will propel the main story forward as well as having the opportunity to pick up a vast number of side quests which will take you well off of the beaten path and invest in a vast armoury of weapons and armour, which can either be bought at stores or alchemised. Vocations remain as well, allowing you to create characters who are warriors or mages and beyond, with 6 available from the get go and you're able to switch between them and revocate, something which becomes imperative when you start with the post game content, into any which are available. A further 6 become available upon completion of specific quests, with these generally combining earlier disciplines to give more scope but as mentioned, exploring the vocations is a must for anyone serious about seeing all the game has to offer.
Battles remain firmly turn based, allowing you to set your party to a variety of tactics meaning you can focus on your own main character and let the game handled everyone else or take control of the entire lot, with all your typical physical, magic, healing and defensive actions in order. Familiar enemies make up the majority of appearances in your encounters, although the sheer scale of the new bosses created for the game does lead to some daunting moments, although this time around the random battles of previous titles have now been replaced by being able to see enemies in the field and deciding whether or not you want to fight them. You won't generally need to grind to get you through the game's events, but spending some time levelling between main plot points will definitely help you both in getting to grips with the ins and outs of your different characters as well as helping for some of the more difficult bosses which the game throws at you heavily in the latter part of the game.
The game's main quest will pull you in for around 40 hours, a serious amount of time for any RPG fans and it's thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. But it doesn't end there as a wealth of post game content opens upon completion of the game, with more quests becoming available through download to push forward the post game story as well as new dungeons, items and grottos filled with new boss characters, including some legacy ones which will definitely please long time fans of the Dragon Quest series. Add in the potential for meeting up with other players to trade maps and take on quests together and a constantly updating online store, the DQVC, every week and you have one of the most robust and lengthy role playing experiences you're likely to encounter on a handheld ever. It really is a game which keeps on giving and giving provided you're willing to invest the time into all of that content.
Traditionalists will delight in having the ability play through the entirety of the game with the face buttons and d-pad, and it feels very much like other RPGs in this respect and controls extremely well in and out of battles, although admittedly the d-pad doesn't give enough manoeuvrability as it could do but it never hinders progress. You can opt to make use of the touch screen in battles and for movement are the world and while it does work well in both cases, the touch screen movement doesn't quite come off as well as other games making the d-pad the more precise option to make use of.
Role playing games have been the ones which have really pushed 3D on the DS in recent times and this is no different, creating one of the most impressive looking games on the console to date. A mixture of full 3D and 2D work builds on the cel-shaded look of previous games and it looks fantastic on the DS' screens, with large towns and fantastic dungeon designs really pushing the limits of the hardware. The amount of detail which has gone into creating these environments as well as all of the characters and armour in the game is truly astonishing, going above and beyond anything we've seen on the handheld previously.
The characters, of which there is a mixture of 3D and 2D sprite based work, look fantastic and are animated extremely well, something which translates over to the enemies as well who really do look every bit as good as their counterparts in the previous 3D Dragon Quest titles. This is really shown throughout the battles, with subtle animations handled excellently, and the effects from various spells and attacks similarly look great, filling the screen up with all sorts of carnage. It's a shame then that the frame rate does take the slightest knock when there are more than 5 3D character models on the screen at one time but it's never detrimental to gameplay. Some excellently drawn FMV sequences finish the already superb visual presentation and again, these really do look fantastic.
Your typical selection of music accompanies the game, with pleasant themes playing while you're in towns and more atmospheric ones kicking in with battles and dungeons. There's clear service being paid to the music of prior DQ games here, and fans will definitely notice how familiar everything sounds, and while it would definitely have been nice to have heard some more original pieces for the game, what's here sounds great. You will begin to tire of it, however, the more time you invest into the game.
Good use is made of the DS' dual screens, with action taking place on both the top and bottom screen, for battles and wandering towns and the world respectively, a helpful map being placed on the top screen when out in the field and in towns and dungeons so you can keep your bearings and optional touch screen input for menus in and out of battles. It all seems like standard dual screen usage but it's done extremely well and more RPGs could benefit from taking notes from this.
Role playing games are commonplace on the DS but Dragon Quest IX ably stands out from the pack in providing one of the most extensive and enjoyable experiences you'll find on the console, with a veritable smorgasbord of content awaiting you from the get go and there constantly being something you can delve into, even in the post game. Level 5 have done a stellar good in shrinking the series onto the handheld while retaining almost everything which made the previous games so enjoyable and any RPG fan would be hard pushed to find fault with such a fantastic package. If you haven't played this already and you call yourself an RPG fan, you really must as you'll be hard pushed to find anything that tops this on the DS.
Pro: Looks fantastic, gameplay is engaging, great story, so much content to discover
Con: Lack of characterisation is a disappointment, some frame rate issues
Final score: 9.2