Mar 9, 2011

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Review: Dragon Quest IX

Review: Dragon Quest IX

This review was originally published August 18, 2010, and is republished here for your convenience.

Oh, Dragon Quest, how they love you.  In Japan, anyway.  With the recent release of Dragon Quest IX for DS, however, Nintendo hopes to change that.  Through a careful combination of old and new, Nintendo, Square Enix, and Level-5 hope to make the West crazy for (or at least more familiar with) the iconic, “smiling slime” RPG.  Still, as gamers, we all know that while avoiding innovation can make a franchise feel stale, changing things up too much can ruin the core experience (just ask Sonic).  So has this group of developers and publishers succeeded in crafting something that can be successful outside of Japan?  An experience not just for the die-hard few, but something perfectly palatable for a wide-range of Western gamers?

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Dragon Quest is insanely popular in Japan, and has widespread recognition among even non-gamers, sort of the way Mario is in this country, only the Japanese are a bit more fanatical about their games on a wide-spread level than we are.  As a result, the release of Dragon Quest IX last year was  a huge event, with millions of copies sold and gaggles of gamers gathering on street corners to participate in the game’s multiplayer and tag modes.  Obviously, most Westerners may not even know what a blue slime is, and may be surprised to realize this game, which is being widely promoted in North America, is the ninth in the franchise.  Nintendo stepped in to publish the game, hoping to promote it and help make the Dragon Quest series at least as familiar to Westerners as Final Fantasy, its one-time rival.

Although the reason for DQ‘s failure to catch on in the West is multi-faceted, one of the biggest gripes many had was that little seemed to have changed since the first game debuted in Japan in 1986.  Although we did recently get two NDS remakes,  Dragon Quest IV and V, the games were mostly graphical upgrades with little gameplay changes from their Famicom and Super Famicom origins, and the series still was more than a blip on most gamers’ radars outside of Japan. A new entry in the franchise, Dragon Quest VIII, released on PS2, also failed to make a significant splash in western waters.  Obviously, something had to change if the series was ever to be truly successful in the rest of the world.  The result of that experiment is Dragon Quest IX, which, while not perfect, is certainly one of the best RPGs available for Nintendo’s handheld.

Dragon Quest games are typically very traditional, “old-school” JRPGs, with a silent protagonist, a minimal story, town-field-dungeon organization, and plenty of random turn-based battles.  Dragon Quest IX modernizes things a bit.  You’ll still have plenty of exploration in towns, fields, and dungeons, you’ll still have a relatively simple story, and you will still be battling it out in turn, using menus to select your next move.  Fans of the series will recognize the overall character, town, and monster designs as Akira Toriyama’s familiar work, and the opening score will be instantly recognizable, as will many of the spell names.  However, that is just about where the old ends, as DQIX is filled with new elements, many of which greatly enhance the experience.

Before I continue further, I should note that I have played both IV and V on DS, and they are some  of my favorite games (I haven’t yet had a chance to play more than a few minutes of VIII). So, needless to say, I have been following DQIX for a long time now, eagerly anticipating the opportunity to play it for myself.  I honestly didn’t think I could enjoy a Dragon Quest game more than the previous DS releases, and as a big fan of “old-school” or “retro” RPGs, I was a bit nervous about the “new” elements being introduced in Sentinels of the Starry Skies.  Let me say that my fears were completely unfounded.

Every new element, while not necessarily perfect, only seeks to make DQIX even more fun to play.  For example, with the exception of sea encounters, the game has no random battles.  Instead, you can see the enemies around you (they will drop out of the sky or pop up out of the ground at random), and you must run into each other in order to commence a battle.  Some enemies will ignore you, others will give chase (and nearly always catch up), and some will run away if you are a significantly higher level than them.  This new system has its advantages and disadvantages.  The biggest advantage is it makes exploration easier (a new map system also helps), as you can generally choose how many battles to engage in, or avoid most entirely if you are searching an area.  The second advantage is you get an idea of what monsters you will be battling, as you can see different types on the field (unlike, Persona, say, where monsters are just black blobs).  This means you can easily attack only certain enemies if you want (i.e., if you’re working on a quest or need a specific item drop), minimizing some of the tedium.  Overall, although the nostalgia in me missed the random battles, this system works well for the most part.  However, I did find two faults.  One problem with this new system is (unlike Persona) the enemies on the field give you no indication of their relative strength or numbers.  You could engage one enemy and fight only one, then engage the same enemy a moment later and fight a group of three, four, or five.  Also, enemies aren’t as aggressive as in other games with this style of engagement, meaning you can easily avoid too many battles, eventually finding yourself grossly underleveled come boss time. However, all in all I think it is a good change, as random battles are a relatively archaic feature that often bars entry for newer and younger gamers into an RPG.

Another major change is character customization.  Although a few games in the series would allow you to choose between a male or female protagonist, Dragon Quest IX allows you to create your own avatar from a handful of options, including body shape, hair color, eye color, hairdo and eye shape.  Additionally, you can customize your full party of four by choosing either pre-made characters or creating your own using the same system.  In this same vein, weapons, armor, and accessories are more plentiful than ever before, with each having their own unique look and appearing on your sprite.  As a result, you may find yourself holding back on upgrading some of your armor if you find an outfit for your character(s) that you just love.  If that isn’t enough expansion and customization for you, the game also has a full class system, which each class having access to its own skills, spells, and equipment.