Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
Critic Reviews add missing review
Average score: 87% (based on 42 ratings)
Average score: 3.8 out of 5 (based on 13 ratings with 3 reviews)
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.
Nintendo DS · by Kit Simmons (249) · 2011
Where do I start? Well, I guess I should start with the art direction, since that's what's most obvious on the cover. Akira Toriyama's craziness really shines through. At every turn, you'll see someone original, be it evil cucumbers with spears, grinning drops of mercury or my personal favourite, dancing sacks of treasure. Even the obvious palate-swaps have at least one thing memorable about them (for the most part, anyway). And one will always find giggles when equipping a new helmet that doubles all one's stats but makes one look like a complete weirdo.
Speaking of stats, this is one of only a few games I've played where absolutely everything ties together. Each weapon has it's own skillset, each skillset has it's own class, each class has it's own abilites, each ability has a good use. There's always plenty of good options, I could give some really good advice here that'll make it reasonably possible to take down the final boss with just one guy, but that'll not only get block under the T&Cs but probably won't be nearly as effective as the way you managed to pull it off. And when you do pull it off, neither of your eyes will be dry, I tell you.
The themes discussed in the DQ9 concern the subject matters of mortality, among other things. Each location has it's own issue of the day, usually relating to how we cope with death, whether it be through denial, moving on, or trying not to move on, but the general message the game presents is that death is just a fact of life. I shan't give too much away, but particular highlights are Angel Falls, Coffinwell and Swinedimples. The game also highlights the role of religion, both in our daily lives, and as a driving force of history, and writer Yuji Horii handles it with all the right amount of subtlety that'll keep you guessing where this idea came from. But don't let this paragraph fool you into thinking that Dragon Quest 9 is all frowns, there's plenty of joy to be had. And the charm oozes from each line of dialogue, each regional accent, each expression on each person's face. The willingness of the game to lighten up, coupled with the themes we all understand, help give Sentinels of the Starry Skies a grand sense of scale while still feeling deeply personal.
And that's just what you get before the credits roll. Once you've come out the other end of this emotional rollercoaster, you'll have plenty to keep your interest. Extra dungeons test your minds ability to make judgements, extra quests expand on what happened to everyone after the incredible climax, extra equipment from the online store give you something to show off in co-op. Did I mention there's co-op? I'm not sociable enough to have tried it myself, but apparently it's pretty good from what I've heard.
Well, I suppose with the themes present, I guess there could have been more expansion on the idea of an afterlife, which is only touched upon briefly, if at all.
The Bottom Line
It's one of those games that just suits what ever mood your in. If you want to unwind, just go up your mercury-drop victory count. If you're feeling brave or need to get your brain in gear, head on down one of the extra dungeons. If you're in a reflective mood, experience the great tales of love and loss that fill the game's world like our own.
Nintendo DS · by CrankyStorming (2913) · 2011
After my major disappointment over Final Fantasy XII, I had to move to something else... I knew I should expect a lot from Square Enix anymore, but I loved Dragon Quest VIII and heard a lot of good about Dragon Quest IX so I gave it a try. Although it turned out not as good as VIII, it was still a good experience overall.
Well the first good thing in this game is that it's a Dragon Quest game. If you ever played any Dragon Quest game, you will feel at home here, the overall style of the series haven't moved one bit.
You can design yourself the look of the main protagonist, so if you don't like him blame yourself. This is a nice feature, although it removes all kind of personality from him. The game features a job system similar to Dragon Quest III, where each party member has a job, and learn skills when levelling it up, and you can change job but you return to level 1 (personally I just picked up good jobs and stuck with them which turned out to be a good strategy). It also features the weapon levelling system from Dragon Quest VIII, where you gain skill points at level up and can assign to the weapon you like (there is also shield and the job category as an alternative to weapons). When your weapon gain enough points, you gain abilities with it. Of course it's smart to stick to the same weapon type per character during playthrough so you just attribute all points to it and don't ask questions. The combination of both of those systems works really well, and makes an overall less bland battle system than all previous Dragon Quest which had extremely basic systems.
Another new thing is that random battles are replaced by a new system where monsters just run around and rush on you when they "see" you. Technically it's possible to avoid battles but most of the time it's really easier not to avoid them. Random battle haters will be on heavens here, but personally I think that while this system is ok, it's not much changes over a random battle system : You can't avoid battles too much (even if you could you would end up underleveled and it'd be more trouble to the player).
The music of Dragon Quest IX is very good. Too bad it's not fully orchestrated like DQ8 (probably that couldn't fit a DS cartridge), but anyways it's good. You got multiple dungeon and town themes, so they don't get too annoying (like they do on some older DQs....) and the world map theme is really great. As usual battle theme are not as striking, but they do the work of keeping you entertained during battles.
The graphics are obviously inferior to those of DQ8, the NDS being technically way inferior than the PS2. However that was to be expected when they announced the release exclusive on the DS, the first Dragon Quest which was directly made handheld (I played Dragon Warrior III GBC before so it wasn't a shock or anything to me to play a handheld Dragon Quest... on the other side I find this suits the series pretty well). The day/night is still implemented but nowhere as impressive as in DQ8 where you could actually see the sun move, and hear different animals and wind effects depending on the daytime, which was really amazing.
Despite that I could say that the graphics of this game are slightly above the average of the DS. Characters looks quite polygonal and all graphics have that "flat" look that most DS games using 3D graphics have. Worse than that, most NPCs are 2D sprites which doesn't look very good when pasted on a 3D background. They should have it done the other way around, 3D characters on a 2D playground, if this worked wonderfully during the PS1 area why wouldn't it work on the DS? The backgrounds are 3D rendered, but you can just rotate the camera a few degrees before it stops. If they were 2D you couldn't rotate at all but they could make it look better. Anyways you get used to that after a few hours of playing.
About the new non-random way to start battles, there is one thing which I find a bit retarded : How you enter in contact with the enemy has no importance on who has the initiative in battle. A monster could rush on you on the world map, and on battle screen you see "but the enemy didn't notice the party!", or you could catch an enemy by surprise, but when you enter in battle, you see "but the enemy attacks before the party gets ready!".
If at least the way you enter in battle would affect this, I could say this system changed the gameplay significantly... but it didn't. The only significant difference is that when you open the menu, do some stuff and close it back, there is a 99% probability that a battle with start right away as an enemy rushed on you while you were in the menu. This can be frustrating if you just used the menu to heal the wounds from the last battle from the same enemy.... not a major improvement over the "frustration" of a random battle if you ask me. Not that this new system is terrible or anything, it's just not as good as some people said, and definitely not a major improvement.
Last thing of the "bad" list, the story. Dragon Quest games have never been known for their stories, but this one surpasses all other by far for it's mediocrity. The game is extremely linear. You basically go to town 1, which has a major problem which is solved by beating by boss 1 which is in dungeon 1, solving the problem allows you to access to town 2, which has a major problem which is solved by beating boss 2... you get the idea. It's like that from the start to the very end of the game. OK I might be a little bashing here, the scenario is still interesting, it's just very basic and predictable.
The story itself feels very childish. With fairies, magical trains, etc... it feels more occidental and lack the Manga/Anime feels of older Dragon Quest games. I can't say this is good or bad but this isn't for my taste.
To make things worse the game is extremely easy, especially compared to older Dragon Quest games. You basically just attack and heal, and that's it. Even bosses are a total joke if you did a reasonable of pseudo-random battle before challenging them.
The most frustrating part was the last boss and ending. I won't spoil anything but it was the easier last boss I can remember and the shortest and less ending I've had in an RPG.
The Bottom Line
I might have said a lot in "the bad", but the game isn't really all that bad - nothing about it is horrible. It's just not the best of the series, and it's true no Dragon Quest games have ever been known for its awesome scenario. Well this 9th instalment has a better battle system, but the overall feeling of the game is a bit bland. If I had played this game right after ending Dragon Quest VIII on PS2, I would probably have been disappointed, but after a few years of rest, I can say I'm happy to play a new Dragon Quest game on the DS even if it's not the best of the series.
So I recommend to buy it if you're a lot into Dragon Quest games, or if you're one of those guys who really can't stand random battles, or if you really like the idea of making your own hero, but otherwise you'd want to get a better DS RPG or a better Dragon Quest game.
Nintendo DS · by Bregalad (937) · 2011