The Eternal Quest
The Dragon Quest franchise is perhaps the gaming world's best example of slow and steady winning the race. While Final Fantasy tries sometimes more, sometimes less successfully to reinvent itself at every turn, Dragon Quest is daring by not being daring.
Its gameplay being a cross between early Ultima and Might & Magic PC games in a console-manageable form, Dragon Quest's core mechanics have remained basically unchanged since its first incarnation: a nameless, voiceless, largely personality-free hero (and since Dragon Quest II several companions) embark on an adventure consisting mostly of traversing isometric overworld maps and dungeons and engaging in turn-based battles against roaming fiends.
Dragon Quest IX is no exception to this rule but gets enriched by careful enhancements draped around those bare bones.
At the start of the game, players custom-create their hero, male or female, who is a Celestrian. This angelic race of guardians of the human world does good deeds invisibly to reap their wards' gratitude in the form of gratite crystals. When these are offered to a holy fig tree in their realm in the sky, so a prophecy promises them, a divine train will whisk the Celestrians away to the Realm of the Almighty as soon as the fig tree blooms.
It is when the hero offers what appears to be the final gratite crystal necessary that things go awry. It is then, too, that the game finally begins.
As is traditional for the series, all characters and especially monsters were designed by world-famous mangaka Akira Toriyama. Many of the monsters are known since DQI, who are charming enough so that re-encountering them doesn't grate, but a fair few are new inventions especially for DQIX. Overall, the artistic presentation is as good as can be expected on the DS small screen with some nice music and few but good-looking cutscenes both in the game engine and especially rendered to illustrate major plot points thrown into the mix.
In the story, the cast down to earth hero finds himself in a small village, stripped of almost all of his angelic powers. Here the game proceeds like every other Dragon Quest game. Before the solution to the big, story-defining problem lies a series of smaller tasks requiring players to go out into the world, battle down monsters and exchange the gold and experience points they bring for better gear, skills and stats.
Here one of the first small, but nonetheless import changes to the game formula becomes apparent: like in the spin-off Dragon Quest Monsters Joker, the encounters can now be seen in the environments at all times, greatly reducing the random element usually traditional to console role-playing games. Observant players can avoid fights if they choose, making long-distance travelling a lot less hassle-free. During battles players assign commands, trying to balance their characters' talents strategically, and then watching the battle rounds resolve. Just like in DQVIII the party can actually be seen doing the fighting. In addition, the characters now move across the battlefield which doesn't add any depth to the strategy but is visually more interesting than rows of heroes and monsters slugging it out immovably.
Another small but significant update has been made to the way questing works. While the story quest itself evolves in a strictly linear fashion, much more optional side quests than are usual for JRPGs can be taken on. To keep track of them even a quest log was added.
After some hours, players will reach the first big city in the game, Stornway. Its pub becomes the hub for all following adventures because not only can the hero rest there, it is also where he or she will finally assemble a team of up to three additional characters whose help will soon be needed.
Unlike most other Dragon Quest games with the exception of DQIII, the companions are custom-created just like the main character. This allows for complete freedom of how to tackle the quests at hand because not only are the classes assigned optional, the foolhardy can technically even opt to not take anyone and brave the ensuing battles alone.
Character development is less linear than in many of DQIX's predecessors. Classes can be freely assigned and the gear freely chosen, albeit within the restrictions each class brings. To give this development some focus, a point system like in DQVIII lets players assign talent points to weapon classes and profession skills with most level-ups.
As the first 3D Dragon Quest, DQIX allows players to equip their party with gear that is actually visible on their avatars at all times. Party levelling greatly benefits from finding better and better-looking pieces of clothing and armour and it speaks for the general appeal of the game that sometimes players might chose the less effective of two pieces of equipment simply because it will look better on their character. To this adds the MMORPG-inspired alchemy system, another hand-me-down from DQVIII. The world is filled with ingredients either found in the countryside or gotten from defeated enemies that can be thrown into an alchemy pot to create additional items from every category the game knows. Unlike in DQVIII, the results are even instantaneous.
Important aspects of DQIX are the online, multiplayer and end game content, all of which are integrated admirably seamless into the experience. Multiple game owners can use local data transfer to take their main heroes into other players' worlds and help them on their quests. To retain game balance, those guests can't trade the more powerful items or advance their own story quests but may nonetheless help the host out and even keep their experience and gold rewards.
On the online side of things there's the in-game shopping channel and tag mode. The shopping channel can be uploaded regularly with additional quests as well as new and sometimes special gear to buy for in-game gold. Tag mode allows other players to send copies of their own main heroes into other players' pubs. Although these copies cannot be used as party members, they may be outfitted with presents for the host. A nice nod to fans of the series are Special Guests, prominent characters from all preceding Dragon Quest games who move into their own superstar suites at the pub and give players presents when certain presets are met.
Perhaps DQIX's most outstanding new feature is its end game content. While DQ games before it have usually offered bonus dungeons and quests available after the main story's completion, DQIX takes this to a whole new level by offering treasure maps leading to randomly generated dungeons. These dungeons offer stronger versions of everyday monsters and premium loot according to their dungeon level. While all random dungeons have boss battles, hardcore players may even take on the Legacy Bosses found through even rarer treasure maps. The Legacy Bosses are all the final bosses from all the previous Dragon Quest games right down to part one and so tough they can hardly be defeated below a minimum level of fifty. These challenges go so far that players might want to put in at least as much time into exploring those purely optional dungeons as they did into solving the main story. The possibility to do it all in multiplayer only adds to the feature's appeal.
The greatest gamble DQIX took was its DS-exclusively release. The decision to make the latest part in Japan's best-selling RPG series a handheld one was exceptionally bold and not universally liked, but considering its multiplayer options made the DS really the ideal platform for the concept.
Overall, the game is exactly what Dragon Quest fans expect, and then some. The light-hearted undertones and humour are still very prominent and well balanced against the more dramatic and sometimes even touching little episodes making up the main quest. The game radiates and old-school charm and quirkiness thanks to its mechanics and especially art design. Fans will feel welcomed, beginners not overwhelmed and the wealth of online content can easily extend the game's basic game time of between fifty and seventy hours to well over one hundred hours.
The reason Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy exist well next to each other may be that the one series' strengths appear to be the other's weakness. Dragon Quest games are less of personal, epic odysseys of strong characters like the Final Fantasies are. Instead, they're more about going out adventuring light-heartedly with barely enough plot to keep players interested. Which of the two one prefers is up to personal preference.
Although making good on the subject with its additional content and flexible character system, at its heart even Dragon Quest IX is still a rather linear and not too sophisticated RPG experience that in parts can seem to easy. It's not until the last quarter of the story that the difficulty noticeably picks up and a lot of the problems can be overcome by simple grinding. Although combat flows well and is made less grating by the option to dodge encounters, battling wave upon wave of Toriyama's sometimes cutesy monsters may not appeal to everyone.
It is a bit of a pity that the game's multiplayer aspects and tag mode hinge so much on participation, something that is much more prominent in DQ-crazy Japan than in America or Europe. To fill my pub with guests, I had to take my DS to a video game convention's DQIX stand because just taking the DS along on train travels has never wielded any results. By making mutliplayer available over the internet it might have been made easier for non-Japanese players to quickly find likely-minded fans.
A common point of criticism with DQIX is that it only has a single save slot. Starting the story over inevitably means erasing all previous achievements which, considering DQIX all but rivals World of WarCraft in the time it requires to see all its content, is a harsh decision forced onto players.
The Bottom Line
Dragon Quest is the very definition of retro gaming in all its positive and negative aspects. It was present at the birth of the JRPG genre and still stands as its truest and perhaps best-playable representative. What people may call backwards about it has over the years developed into a formula that is its own. Instead of tiresomely repeating its original success, Dragon Quest IX is a good example of how gentle change can invite both stalwart fans and beginners into a world that is simple, captivating and with huge potential to explore. Making good use of its connective capabilities, it is perhaps the most expansive handheld RPG to date.
To those susceptible to it, Dragon Quest IX is brimming with charm and always good for a quick stroll into a dungeon alone or with friends.