Review: Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
Dragon Quest is such a long-standing and beloved franchise, which makes reviewing the latest title both easy and difficult, at the same time. My first RPG experience was with the original Dragon Warrior (it’s title in the U.S. way back in the day), so there are many aspects to these games that still ring nostalgic in my mind. But, at the same time, the franchise has some very old hold-overs that are still around from the early days and I find it hard to understand why they’re still around in this day and age. Those things by no means make this a horrible game, because they are franchise staples, for all intents and purposes. On the other hand, if I was a developer making an RPG today, I don’t know if I would think those things would translate well to a modern audience, especially one that is a bit jaded on the whole JRPG genre in general.
Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies is the first time the franchise has released a brand new, numbered title on a handheld platform. The previous game in the series was on the PS2, and I loved it…well, except for the fact that it had many of the same hold-overs as this new game does. I’ll get to talking about those later on in the review. As always, I like delving into the story and characters first, because to me, that will define every minute of an RPG.
The story of DQIX revolves around your character, who is a Celestrian, or in more understandable terms, an angel. You learn a lot about how the Celestrians protect and care for humans, and you become the guardian of your own human village before too long. The Celestrians inhabit the Observatory, which is an area you’ll visit a few times early on. On top of the Observatory is the World Tree, Yggdrasil, which is powered by the benevolence of human followers. Your task early on is to help out the humans in your village, collect this benevolence and deliver it to Yggdrasil. Once this occurs, the tree produces fruit and the Celestrians are one step closer from being taken to Heaven.
A kink in this plan occurs once you deliver a sizable portion of benevolence to Yggdrasil. The Observatory is attacked by an unknown aggressor, an explosion occurs and everyone is scattered. You end up in your village without the wings or halo you had previously. In fact, you’re nearly indistinguishable from a human. You can no longer see the benevolence produced by helping humans, although it is still there. You begin a journey to try to reach the Observatory again and, when you do, you discover a rather sinister plot is being carried out and figure out what you must do to fix things both in the human realm and the angelic.
It is actually a fascinating story that has fewer cliché elements than most games in the genre. Typically I can predict with near perfect accuracy what is going to happen around the next bend, but it is rather difficult in this case, and that’s a great thing. Later in the game there are some rather startling twists and turns to the story. Some are still predictable, but I was pleasantly surprised by others. The big issue I have here is that all the player characters in the game are created by the player, starting with designing your main character. The only saving grace is that the main character, while not defined in name or appearance, is defined within the narrative. In other words, regardless of your main character’s name or physical features, the story plays out the same way every time. It wasn’t too hard to connect with the main character, but that is as far as it goes.
Once you get a little ways into the story you can pick up other party members, which, again, are created completely by the player. These have no connection to the story whatsoever. They are just there to do your bidding. You can choose the characters’ class, gender and physical appearance. There are six classes available from the start, and several more unlocked through various quests during your journey.
I miss the more defined main characters of the previous games – the ones you get to know and love over the course of many hours of game play. After dozens of hours, I could care less about my created party members. I even gave them names of people I know in the real world to try to come up with back-stories in my mind that fit the narrative and it still didn’t help. No matter how hard I tried I was still toting three generic characters around with me wherever I went. That was disappointing.
Something else that seems to breed that disconnect between the player and the characters is the multiplayer aspects. The “generic character creation” in this game is likely the way it is because of the multiplayer. Instead of having defining characters that you play through the story with, you have generic characters simply because of the multiplayer aspect – the fact that you’ll be adventuring with other players and the developers didn’t want two of the same character running around, I suppose.
I did, however, partially identify with my main character just because of their defining role within the story itself. There were also side characters that I could connect to, as well. Some of these figure heavily in the main story, while others are used as the basis for some of the numerous side quests that fill out the breadth of the game. The seemingly unconnected quests you pick up from some side characters early on, actually figure into the plot, because it all has to do with collecting benevolence. So, even though these characters and their plight isn’t directly connected with the issue going on in the angelic realm with the Observatory and all, the story will connect all the dots for you eventually.
We also have this character named Stella, who is a fairy of sorts, and the operator of the Starlight Express. This is the train that supposedly takes Celestrians to Heaven. The Starlight Express was also thrown to the ground during the aforementioned explosion, and Stella hooks up with your character to help you on your way to regaining your rightful place as a Celestrian. Much of the great dialog actually comes from her, especially when she berates everyone all the flapping time.
Also, what I like overall is that it is very open-ended. This can be a positive or a negative, but in this case it is a good thing. As you progress through the story you open up new “quest hubs”, if you will. You can generally poke around, pick up side quests, go exploring, build up your armor, go after the main quest line or whatever, at any given time. Things start off slow, but it doesn’t take long before you have a seemingly endless amount of stuff to do. Yet, the game never seems to sidetrack you enough that you forget about the main narrative, which is most definitely a good thing.
Battles are pretty standard turn-based fare, but I’m impressed by the animations when all the actions you assign are being carried out. I don’t know what it is, but there was something about these battles that made them rather impressive on the DS’s tiny screen. Perhaps it is the critical hit animation, that briefly goes into slow-motion when the weapon smacks the enemy solidly in the face. You will gain new equipment as you progress, as well, and all the equipment is shown on your character in all scenes. The only issue with this is…I hate the helms. Hate, hate, hate. Maybe I’m spoiled by MMOs that allows you to turn the ugly helm graphics off so you can see the head and hair of the character you designed. What is the point of designing a character and choosing their hair style if you can’t see it because of the fugly helm graphics?!
Other than that, I think it is a great idea to allow more than the weapons to bring about visual change to your character. Perhaps it’s a psychological thing – I see the new gear on my characters and know they’re progressing in level and in the story. There are even some pieces of gear you can only obtain through alchemy, and that shows progression, as well, when your character is wearing one of those items.
Each class has a set of skills that you can put ability points in, which makes them more powerful. These can be weapon-based or class ability-based. For example, healers have a set of abilities and stat bonuses that help them naturally heal better and make their heals more powerful. There are a lot of choices, which is good, but if you spread your ability points too thin, it may take a very long time before you can acquire some much-needed bonuses. It is almost better to concentrate on one or two skills (I chose usually one weapon skill and the ability-based skill set for each character).
I mentioned alchemy above, which is a staple of the franchise. You can make many weird and wonderful items and concoctions with the alchemy pot, which you get after a short time through the story. At this point forward, exploration of towns and, really, anywhere becomes more important, since you will be able to find new alchemy recipes just about anywhere. Although, bookshelves is a good bet as to where most of them reside. You could literally spend dozens of hours on alchemy alone, getting the best items, the greatest gear and all sorts of cool things. But, it is also one big grind, because you actually need to acquire the items for the recipes. Some can be purchased and some are found or dropped by enemies.
Another aspect of the game, which adds a lot of great play experiences are the treasure maps. These can be found around the world or traded with friends. How does this happen, you ask? Well, there are several multiplayer features. First off, true local multiplayer can take place, where you can team up with up to three others and go traveling across the world fighting tough monsters and dungeons with each other. Secondly, you can leave the game active while the DS is shut and passively interact with other players with the game’s “Tag Mode”. This wirelessly transmits information about other players and their characters, their treasure maps and even fancy, player-specific greetings to passerby with the game on and their DS in a similar state.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to test out any of these features. I know of no one else locally that has the game. Also, the couple times I hung around my local game stores with my DS on me and running the game while closed, I guess no one else was around doing the same. And this is where my dislike of local multiplayer features on handheld games comes into play. This isn’t Japan and, unless you’re in a big city here in the U.S., it is very difficult to find other people to actually play with (even in big cities, it is hard to find like-minded gamers at random). This would be different if it was true online play, but it isn’t, and it is an often-advertised feature of this game which I wasn’t able to take advantage of at all simply because of its nature and the nature of life here in a country that isn’t as handheld-minded or as densely populated as Japan. It just doesn’t work, period.
I’m left wondering why multiplayer was added to a game that has been 100% a single-player experience in the past. It brings to mind other great single-player experiences that seem to have multiplayer tagged on just for the sake of having it, and I frankly don’t think it adds anything to the experience whatsoever. Again, I didn’t explore the multiplayer at all – not because I didn’t want to, but simply because I couldn’t given the seemingly low density of Dragon Quest IX players in my area (and probably this country in general).
Besides that, though, everything else in this game tends to works together to make a rather unique and fun trip through a new world, where it seems like exploration, customization and side-questing actually matters. It is nice to see some of these aspects added to a JRPG, since many times we’re left a bit lacking in these areas. However, the game isn’t all butterflies and rainbows, at least to me, even if we’re not including the multiplayer aspects, which I don’t think help matters.
Earlier I talked about some hold-overs from even the earliest Dragon Quest titles that seem to remain true here. I don’t think the developers should be afraid to change a few things for the sake of efficiency. For example, saving your game requires visiting a church. You talk to the guy there and he goes through his speech each and every time. You’re hitting the “A” button a dozen times before you’re done saving. A simple, “Would you like to save your progress?” dialog should be applied here, if we must keep the church-saving mechanic around at all. Why make us scroll through unnecessary dialog every time we want to save? Along with this, there seems to be quite a few unnecessary dialog boxes in many other aspects of game play, as well. Why? Don’t say it is a way to make the game longer, because this game would still be an insanely long, deep and satisfying experience without all the unnecessary hassle.
Resurrection is another thing – why not just let party members who “die” during battle to be revived with one hit point when the battle is over, instead of turning them into a coffin which you have to go back to town to fix, before you get a spell or item to resurrect them on the spot? I ran into this several times, which forces me to stop what I’m doing, trudge all the way back to town and get my party member resurrected (and it doesn’t come cheap, either!). If your party gets wiped out, you lose half your cash, an outdated mechanic that seems to be there simply to annoy the hell out of the player, especially in a game that has odd difficulty spikes at times.
Along that line of thinking, I have to mention that, at times, it felt like there was an artificial difficulty level that really didn’t need to be there. Now, I’m a leveling fiend. For some strange reason, I love wandering around, killing baddies and leveling my characters up – this goes for any RPG. However, the game should not expect that, or mandate that you must spend an hour or two just leveling and spending money on better gear for each and every boss encounter. This Dragon Quest title is said to be one of the most difficult entries in the franchise, but the only thing “difficult” about it is that if you go to fight a boss before leveling your characters up appropriately, you will get pounded into the ground faster than you can reset your game to try again without losing half your gold coins.
Things seem very gear and level dependent, which is expected to an extent. But, to me, it felt like the “difficulty” here was all artificial, and provided no real challenge besides wandering around aimlessly fighting enemies for a while before each boss. The boss difficulty also seemed unbalanced. The first couple bosses are hard, then we get a couple easy ones, then the difficulty spikes up again. I don’t quite understand it. This also isn’t the only RPG I’ve played lately with odd difficulty spikes, where it should be a more gradual ascent to greater difficulty.
Those are really my only issues with the game. A couple of them are pretty sizable, to me, at least, and the multiplayer should just be thrown in the trash. There is so much to do and see in this game that the multiplayer stuff is almost not even needed to enjoy any aspect of the story or, really, the game. The difficulty thing just seems like a cop-out, but it is hard make that a reason to not enjoy the game overall.
I really enjoyed my time with Dragon Quest IX, but there are a few things that nag at me, like I mentioned above. Most come down to game design, and in future entries in the franchise I would like to see a more streamlined experience with less old-school holdovers that don’t really mean much or add anything to the game. If you own a DS and are a fan of RPGs, you HAVE to play this game, and it will keep you busy for many, many, many hours. It will be even better if you have friends that play, but that isn’t a necessity, by far. While I still prefer a pre-defined main character, the story does suck you in and eventually you come to perceive your created character as that pre-defined personality, even if your companions tend to just be a rag-tag band of generic slaves that are put there solely to do your bidding. Definitely a noble effort from Level 5 and Square-Enix, and something that will please franchise fans. You have been warned about the multiplayer, but this is definitely one title not to miss for genre fans.
- Game: Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
- Platform Reviewed: Nintendo DS
- Release Date: Available Now
- MSRP: $34.99
- Developers: Level 5, Square-Enix
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Review Copy Info: A copy of this game was leased to us by Nintendo for purposes of this review. During my ~35 hours with the game I played the majority of the single-player game. I wasn’t able to participate in multi-player for the reasons I discuss in the review.