Square Enix dropped quite the bombshell when they announced that their biggest – in Japan at least – role-playing franchise’s next numbered instalment was headed to Nintendo’s portable DS; as well as outright outrage at the concept of it not joining it sibling Final Fantasy on the HD consoles. Does this portable adventure shine bright as a star, or is it a fallen angel?
When you begin your adventure you find yourself on the create-a-character screen, from here you’ll customise your characters appearance: from gender, hair style and colour, as well as the tone of their skin, facial features and, of course, their name. Those use to the customisation of western RPG’s will find the amount of options fairly limited, but as far as the ability to have your own in-game character in a Japanese role playing game is concerned, its not got a lot of company.
Your character is a Celestrian – basically a guardian angel, complete with wings and halo – one of many who watch over the lands below, helping mortals whenever and however they can. Their reason for doing these deeds aren’t entirely noble, as thankful mortals drop Benevolessence, which to Celestrian’s is the physical essence of joy. This ball of joy is taken to be offer to Yggdrasil a gigantic tree at the centre of their home in the sky; prophecy foretells that once enough is acquired the tree will bear fruit and the Celestrian’s will be able to achieved ascension. Your character fulfils said prophecy, the fruits and disaster hits as a blast blows you off the floating homestead and strips you of your wings and celestial powers. How among the mortals, you have to find out what went wrong and go about setting it right, meeting plenty of other characters along the way.
The main campaign will take around 40-50 hours to get through, depending on skill and amount of level/money grinding you do; although this doesn’t include addition side-quests giving by NPCs, treasure maps and the like, which can add tens of hours on top of the final time. Side quests can range from simple to fetch quest to defeating specific enemies – generally tricky ones – under certain conditions. Meanwhile Treasure maps lead to hidden grottos, which hide fearsome monsters and valuable treasures can be found in numerous locations. Maps can also be obtained from other active DS’ area playing copies of the game whose wi-fi is active; the usefulness of this function depends on the density of people with the game that surround you, your mileage may vary in this regard.
Fairly soon in the game, you gain the ability to recruit others, either from real-life players over Nintendo’s Wi-Fi, or NPC that you can create yourself. Real-life players can either follow the player or freely roam the map by themselves, leaving the player to call them to arms when they need assistance in battle. Visitors can buy common items and take them back home, as well as open red chests; visitors will also gain XP in any battle they partake in. However story progression is locked to the host and the story cannot be forced forward without the host’s presence. Additionally visitors cannot exchange or purchase items with any kind of rarity rating and cannot be equipped with host-owned gear.
In addition to real-life guests you have the ability to create up to eight characters for your own in-game party, designing then in much the same way as you did with your first character, but with the ability to assign them a vocation. Vocations are jobs that define the possible skills and stat increases of a character and what types of weapons, etc, that they can use. A warrior, for example, has strong attack and defensive stats, but lacks magical power, whilst a priest specialises in magic that heals and removes status effects. Choosing the vocations of your companions you can create either a varied, well balanced team, or one composed almost entirely of hard-hitting warriors with little access to magical aid (for example).
While you can assign your NPC party member’s vocations when you create them, your own character starts off as a minstrel, a well rounded fighter, with both attack and healing magic ability. Eventually you’ll reach an area where you can changed his or any of your character’s vocations, to better suit your style of play or to balance the team with something their missing. However, doing so sets the character back to level 1, forcing you to grind them back up again; skill points and their abilities however are kept, taking some of the burden off. You always have the ability to rethink and get a character to re-enter a prior vocation, restoring their prior vocation’s levels and attributes to them. In addition, certain side-quests lead to new vocations opening up to you to undertake, opening up more possibilities. It’s a very flexible system that encourages much player experimentation.
Unlike prior games in the series, Dragon Quest IX does not have random battles; instead enemies always appear on the world map, dungeons, etc, wondering around waiting for an adventurer; while this does allow you the opportunity to avoid conflicts. Touching an enemy commences the fighting, with the enemy and various cohorts that the creature had with them. Enemies on the map will react to your presence, trying to either chase you down or try to ambush you; if you’re too high a level for them though, they’ll turn tail and run off, leaving you to chase them down.
Battles are strictly turn-based, with characters and enemies acting in accordance with their agility rating, plan accordingly. While you have little control over the action of any human-controlled characters that you’ve invited, you do have a lot options for how your characters react to the battle situation. You can either select everything manually or apply tactic for other party members to use, the computer does a pretty good job at controlling your characters, but can falter with bosses and enemies that require more advance tactics and teamwork to get through. Physical attack multiple off each other, with a subsequent attacks doing 1.2, 1.5 and 2 times damage, which if figured out right can quickly spell doom; bear in mind that this works for the enemies that you’ll encounter as well.
While levelling is important, it is also important to think about your party’s armament. Weapons, armour and other clothes can be brought and found along your journey and equipped. Different items, naturally, have different attributes and some weapons and armour can only be used while in certain vocations. When buying items you’re be able to see what it will do to that items covered stats for the entire party before you buy (although you won’t see the effect on other stats until after you buy and look). While you might want to try and coordinate the clothing of your characters, the best available equipment might be something of a mishmash that’s more function over pleasing style.
There are items to be found everywhere, from the shops to the ones dropped randomly by enemies. Chests and other smashable containers are found everywhere, and blue chests and jars, etc re-spawn items after time passes. Certain items can also be found just lying around the map, appearing as little white sparkling dots on the ground, waiting to pick up and put to good use. There is also a special shop that can be accessed via wifi by the host and any guests, the items available change each time you go online, some of these items can only be obtained in this store, providing a degree of incentive to join games with others.
A character can only hold so many items at a time, with the rest being stored in a bag, however in order to be used in battle a item must be held by the character wishing to use it, so plan accordingly and make sure the items you carry are useful. After a certain point of the game is reached, items, including weapons and clothes can be mixed together in an alchemy pot to create new and better gear. Gathering recipes, obtained by looking on the many bookshelves, is the way to get the best results, as throwing things in randomly is hit-or-miss at best.
Dragon Quest IX does a great job of capturing what has become the distinctive look of the series, with Akira Toriyama* character designs – for both people and monsters – as creative, cute and charming as ever. Animation is fluid and lively, and textures colourful and well drawn; it looks surprising close to the Playstation2 VIII which is some achievement on the less powerful handheld device.
Unfortunately, many of the generic characters are however reused in the multiple towns that you visit and later enemies are merely the same as earlier ones, but in a different colour. Another nice touch is that time visibly changes when out in the field, stronger monsters come out in the night in the over-world and different people roam around town; it helps to make the place seem a bit more alive.
The music is great, with plenty of well written ditties, and appropriate battle music; one of the few concerns is the use of the same theme for each town you visit, and the lack of any new tunes to the franchises cannon, every musical piece on the DS, has been heard in one form or another in the prior games. The same can be said for the sound effects, which still have a pseudo-8BIT style in their favour, which will mainly appeal to veterans of the series and those nostalgic for consoles gone by
Dialogue is text-based, and there is a lot of it, and while it’s generally well written and full of puns and wordplay, it also has a tendency to stick a little too close to genre conventions. The story is also pretty straightforward; if you’re looking for the greatest story in gaming then it won’t be here. Strange quirks appear here and there, like the use of additional vowels to accentuate dialects, which render the text harder to read than it should be. There are puns galore, from the names of characters and cities, reflecting the series standard brand of oddball humour.
Your character and your three companions have no dialogue throughout the quest and are essentially vessels for the player to experience the story; and out of all the people you’ll meet in-game the only character you’ll likely really remember is the sassy and flippant faerie Stella. Still, though it’s a tad less involving than other RPGs, the story and its many threads and characters should still manage to hold even the most jaded player’s interest throughout.
Fans of traditional role-playing games should rejoice, Dragon Quest IX delivers a great experience throughout its main quest, side-missions, optional extras and its multiplayer and data swapping functionality, as well as Nintendo’s daily online shop. Altogether, Dragon Quest has an insane amount of replay value for it price tag, and should keep the noses of adventurer’s young and old firmly pressed into their DS consoles for hour upon hour; and what else do you want from the genre?
* Akira Toriyama most known work is probably the long-running manga and anime series Dragon Ball and it sequel Dragon Ball Z.Review originally published at gamingtilldisconnected.com in 2010.