For the first time since Dragon Quest VI, the main Dragon Quest series has returned to a Nintendo platform, and also for the first time, it was designed specifically for a handheld system. Dragon Quest IX broke sales records in Japan, where the series is one of the most beloved of all-time, but how does it hold up in English?
And I use English loosely. Of course, while the game is certainly in English, it’s not in common American tongue. It’s not the first time that Square Enix decided to spice up a Dragon Quest title by affecting an accent, but they might have gone a little overboard at times with this one. You once again play a silent protagonist; so there’s no issue there, but there is the occasional conversation where the NPC’s brogue is so strong that it takes a second read to really catch what they say. It’s not game breaking, but the accent does get tiresome at times.
Unfortunately, the main storyline is a little empty, but after you progress the story some, you’re free to explore and create your own fun. At the start of Dragon Quest IX, you create a Celestrian, an angel like being that serves as your main character. The goal of the Celestrians is to protect the human world, and in return, they receive benevolessence that feeds Yggdrasil, the tree at the center of the Celestrian world. With enough benevolessence, the tree will sprout “fyggs” to signify that the Celestrians have done their duty and can return to the Realm of the Almighty. Of course, nothing is ever that easy, and after a short prologue, the Celestrian world is attacked and your main character wakes up in the aptly named village of Angel Falls, without their wings or halo. Normally, Celestrians are not visible to living humans, but after the incident, everyone can see the protagonist, but they still retain some of their Celestrian abilities such as talking to ghosts. Along with collecting the fyggs, you must also rescue your fellow Celestrians that fell to Earth with you and investigate where the attack came from.
This is not a feat for one person (or angel) alone, which is why Dragon Quest IX institutes a party system similar to the one found in Dragon Quest III. At the inn in Stornway, you can create and recruit up to three more party members to help your cause. After some more play time, you eventually unlock the ability to change classes for all your characters like in Dragon Quest VII. The game offers a pretty standard array of fighters, martial artists and mages for you to pick from, with more advanced classes unlocked as you complete quests. As you level your characters in one class, you unlock new skills plus attribute boosts to stats like strength and speed which carry over between classes; however, the spells that your characters learn do not carry over. It would be nice to be able to use all of your spells at once, but it would probably make the game far too easy. On the bright side, when you change classes, all your class level information gets saved; so, if you change back you don’t start at level one again. Eventually, you also meet up with a ganguro-esque fairy who helps you out by keeping track of your quests, achievements and where you are in the story, but she’s none too bright; so, don’t expect great insight from her.
Of course, the real fun of the game comes from playing with a party of real people. Up to four people can connect their DSes wirelessly and play together in one player’s world. While connected in multiplayer mode, you can all team up and explore together or each person can go their own way. The only limits on exploration are that you only have access to the areas that the host has been; so, if you’ve beaten the game, but the host in only a few towns in, you’re stuck fighting in the low-level dungeons. If your party does split up, the host of the game has the ability to summon the other players to his position for help in battle. One of the benefits of playing in multiplayer is that all the players gain a little boost in experience points. Unfortunately, you can only enjoy multiplayer mode as a local link, not over Nintendo Wi-fi, which would have make the game even better. The only other downside about playing together is that the story only advances for the host; so, if you’re playing in someone else’s game, you keep all your new money, experience and items, but not any story progress you’ve made. If you don’t have time to sit and play together, the game gives you a chance to make friends by connecting to other player’s DSes in sleep mode. The other player’s characters appear in your inn, and you can add them to your friend list and pick up any treasure maps they have with them. Eventually, if you get enough friends, new areas of your in unlock. Unfortunately, you can only collect 3 new passers-by at a time before you have to restart the mode. It would have been much more useful if you could do even 10 at a time.
Regardless of whether you’re playing alone or in a group, the bulk of your time will be spent exploring the world map and dungeons of Dragon Quest IX. Unlike previous installments in the series, there are no random battles to fight on land (they are still random when you’re traveling in the ship). Instead, each battle is represented by a monster wandering around the map; so, you can choose which ones to fight and when. Once in battle, it reverts to classic Dragon Quest style. The battles are turn-based and, breaking with Dragon Quest tradition, take place from a mix of first and third-person views. You select actions for each of your characters while in first person view, the round plays out in third person view, and you repeat until the battle is over. The battles are generally relatively easy as long as you keep a balanced party. Certain combinations of classes work with more synergy than others, but overall, it’s a reasonably balanced game. As with most JRPGs, after battle, you gain experience, gold and sometimes items, and then you’re brought back to the map to continue exploring. Many of the items you collect from battle are used in synthesis. Synthesis is a key part of Dragon Quest IX since that is how you’ll get most of your powerful equipment.
In addition to the main storyline, you can also collect the aforementioned treasure maps to explore. You unlock the first few by completing in-game quests and gain more by completing those maps. Each time you complete a map, you can gain a new, more difficult map. As mentioned above, you can also trade these maps with other players to get new ones. One other feature of Dragon Quest IX is the DQVC, Nintendo’s Wi-Fi shopping channel. After a certain point in the story, you unlock the ability to connect to Nintendo’s Wi-Fi DQVC service, and each day the game will offer you an assortment of items to purchase. The items are generally either synthesis items or items that fit the week’s theme. For example, during the summer sale, they offered shorts and bikini tops. Along with the items, occasionally, a guest character will appear such as Alena from Dragon Quest IV. These characters will give you pieces of equipment to make you look like them. The special equipment also generally has some nice stats as well.
As I just mentioned, you can make your character look like those from past games with equipment. That’s because your character model changes appearance with whatever equipment they have on. If you equip a new helmet, your character runs around the world map with it on, and the same goes for armor, weapons, shoes, etc. Combined with the character creator at the beginning, you do have some options to make your character look different. Of course, since the character designs are all done by Akira Toriyama, there will always be some limitations on how different you can look. That being said, the graphics are still quite nice; though if you’ve played a Dragon Quest title before, you’ll be familiar with many of the monsters designs you encounter. The game also hearkens back to its predecessors in the music department as many of the classic soundbites return. Having the same inn music and stair climbing sounds adds some charm, but it does eventually get a little tiresome. The background music also feels repetitious at times. If you intend to put in a lot of hours on the game, you may eventually end up looking for something else to listen to while you play.
Outside of the DQVC and the ability to play cooperatively, Dragon Quest IX does not offer a lot of innovation as a JRPG, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you enjoy traditional Japanese role-playing games, you’ll probably enjoy Dragon Quest IX, especially if you have someone to play it with. The game offers an extensive amount of gameplay thanks to more post-game quests, treasure hunting and playing with friends. Definitely worth picking up.
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