When the Stars
Line Up Just Right
September 9, 2009 – If you’re a hardcore RPG fan, you probably know the name Dragon Quest quite well. You also likely know that, though the series merely scratches out a living in Western territories, it’s a titan of a franchise in Japan. The long awaited and slightly delayed Dragon Quest IX for Nintendo DS released overseas this past July and reportedly sold a mind-blowing 2.3 million copies within its first two days out in the wild. We now take a look at what’s got Japanese gamers in such a frenzy.
If you peer into the past of role-playing games, you’ll find its origins lie with Dungeons & Dragons, a game played with graph paper and various polyhedral dice. But when it comes to digital RPGs, complete with adventure-filled prose, Dragon Quest (DQ) is greatly regarded as the granddaddy of them all. It’s also always made its home on consoles, so coming to DS was a major shift for the series.
To accommodate a new co-op, multiplayer focus, DQIX has seen a few changes in its construction when compared to past games in the series. For instance, rather than roaming empty fields, engaging in random battles when traveling world maps, the fields are now populated with monster indicators. Players can team up locally to play through portions of the story, affording quite a bit of freedom to each individual within the game world. The story seems to be structured around a quest system, which also falls in line with the game’s emphasis on multiplayer.
Battles still feel very much like DQ battles always have, though the presentation has been updated. Upon first entering a battle or when it’s your turn to attack, you’ll still view monsters from a first-person perspective. Attacks, however, are shown from a third-person view, and your party members are spread out more realistically, á la Chrono Trigger. When battling in multiplayer, each player takes turns inputting their commands, and players will have to work together in order to maximize their effectiveness as a team.
As per usual, slimes are among the very first monsters you’ll encounter in the game, though long-time fans will notice a few new additions right off the bat. The balancing seems to be pretty tight so far, but if past games are any indication of what to expect, there’s likely to be a fair bit of grinding in store for players as they tread deeper into the game.
You can use either the face buttons or stylus for pretty much all commands within the game, and a blue directional arrow appears onscreen when moving your character about via the touch screen. However, most folks will likely find themselves to be more at home using the traditional controls, keeping the stylus nearby to move equipment around when gearing up characters. The menu options are a lot more fleshed out in this particular Dragon Quest, and adding new equipment to your characters is reflected visually in-game.
In terms of story, Dragon Quest games have actually been kind of daring. In the past, you were able to marry, have children, and tragedy was a common theme throughout the series, in spite of an ever-present charm. From what we could glean thus far, your character in DQIX is an angel who loses their wings and ends up earthbound for most of the game.
At the outset, you’ll choose a gender for your character, and in an almost Sims-like fashion, you’ll do a bit of customization, choosing their height, hairstyle, eye shape, etc. This actually feels like a more meaningful feature than what’s offered in some other games, since it essentially allows the player to tinker with many of the wonderful Akira Toriyama (the series’ long-time illustrator) character designs.
Fans of Dragon Ball and Blue Dragon will immediately appreciate the very stylized character models in DQIX. The large eyes, sharply cut noses, and big heads – they’re all here and absolutely gorgeous on DS. Level-5 (Professor Layton) seems to have lovingly crafted a visual masterpiece on the restricted hardware, and subtle, visual nuances help shape this adventure into a bona fide Dragon Quest experience.
Battles in DQIX show off a visual depth unseen before on the system. Hills and trees off in the distance are clear and well defined, and you get a real sense of the surroundings your characters are placed in. The game still has day and night cycles, though the change seems to be a bit more gradual this time around.
It’s impossible to downplay just how good a job Level-5 has done in terms of DQIX’s presentation, and Western fans are in for a real treat when the game releases early next year. The color palette and number of polygons in use is almost pixel perfect, and only when the camera comes in close can you discern some of the individual textures. The entire game has a wonderfully soft quality visually, and the cel-shading is really attractive as well.
The developers have implemented an interesting style for the character models, with key characters being rendered fully in 3D, whilst most other, non-playable characters are hand-drawn, 2D sprites reminiscent of the DS remakes of DQIV and V. It’s kind of an oddity, but you immediately get the sense this was done to offer subtle cues to the player, hinting at which characters play a pivotal role within the story at any given moment throughout the game.
As for the audio presentation, from what we’ve heard thus far, the game includes all the Dragon Quest goodness fans have grown to adore. Though there are quite a few new melodies injected into the game, themes and sound effects remain incredibly familiar.
Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies seems to have come together amazingly well and should do a great job satiating fans of this revered franchise. It’s been a long wait, but it should make the experience all the more enjoyable. Folks can savor the adventure when the game releases Stateside in the early part of next year.
Dragon Quest IX
Comes to the DS
January 20, 2009 – Although the Dragon Quest series has definitely seen its fair share of handheld spin-off titles and remakes, it has never been the vehicle for the main series. The main series has always been known for its epic plotlines and settings, and it just wasn’t a good fit for handheld devices. However, all that will be changing with the release of Dragon Quest IX: Protector of the Sky, which will be a DS exclusive.
While the decision to make the latest Dragon Quest entry DS-exclusive may seem a little shocking at first, it actually makes sense for the series, as the Dragon Quest IV remake on the DS was fairly successful, and DS remake versions of Dragon Quest V and VI have been confirmed. The overall style of the Dragon Quest series is also very conducive to the handheld platform, and will help preserve the nostalgic feel of the numbered series. But still, the question remains, can a Dragon Quest title developed specifically for a handheld ever measure up to its predecessors? So far, the answer seems to be yes.
The story in Dragon Quest IX begins in a heavenly realm where celestial beings gather warm and fuzzy feelings from the land below. Once enough happiness has been gathered, these celestial beings are able to create a Star Aura, which can be offered to the World Tree. The game begins with the main character bringing an offering to this fabled tree. However, something goes terribly wrong, which is where the adventure begins.
The structure of Dragon Quest IX will definitely be reminiscent of other titles in the series, and it will feature a free-roaming story mode where you can complete story and side quests in order to level up party members. However, there will be one big change in Dragon Quest IX: no more random battles. Instead of just walking around an area and then having a monster engage you with no warning, you will see the monsters around you and will be able to avoid them if you wish. This should please RPG fans that don’t enjoy the constant grinding aspects presented in previous titles.
Another feature of Dragon Quest IX that will recall previous titles in the main series will be the graphics. The style of the game looks a lot like Dragon Quest VIII on the PlayStation 2, and it features a 3-D level design with cel-shaded characters. The different stages are very vibrant and feature a mix of textured and dynamic moving elements. Despite its obvious retro influences, Dragon Quest IX definitely seems like it will be one of the best-looking titles for the DS in the coming year.
One of the biggest features of Dragon Quest IX will be the co-op multiplayer functionality. The co-op in this title will be integrated into the story mode, and you will be able to play through the normal story mode with up to three other people. The multiplayer will use the DS’s Wi-Fi capabilities and will not be online-enabled. However, the game will support drop-in functionality, and you can play with friends as you please.
A big component of Dragon Quest IX’s multiplayer mode will be the way co-op battles are structured. Although each character will be completely autonomous and can explore away from their parties, if one character gets into a battle, all the different characters will warp to the embattled character’s fight. This cooperation will allow for characters to move without worrying about losing teammates or staying close together to engage in large battles.
Overall, Dragon Quest IX looks like it will continue in the footsteps of its predecessors by proving good, old-fashioned, turn-based RPG gameplay. Although this is the first Dragon Quest title from the main numbered series to come exclusively to a handheld title, it looks like it does so to preserve its retro-inspired gameplay, which is definitely a good thing. There is no firm release date for Dragon Quest IX as of yet, but the Japanese release is coming this spring, which means that we can probably expect a holiday 2009 release in North America.
A great-looking RPG for the DS
March 7, 2008 – There’s something exciting in the air when a popular franchise makes the switch from console to handheld or vice versa. Countless popular genres have undergone it, from Zelda to Castlevania to Metroid to Mega Man (yes, I’m a huge Nintendo fan). And now, one of the most venerable RPGs of all time, right up there with such series as Final Fantasy, is making the move as well. Fans were torn over whether or not it is a good thing that Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies will be arriving to North America as a Nintendo DS title.
And this is big news, because developer extraordinaire is finally bringing a full-fledged Dragon Quest title to the DS, not just a spinoff, such as Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker and Dragon Quest: Rocket Slime. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it’s essentially a fairly traditional turn-based RPG, featuring a party of highly customizable heroes journeying around in a quest to (surprise!) save the world in one way or another. It’s a basic formula, yes, but Dragon Quest has been immensely popular in Japan and lately in the US because it executes said formula incredibly well. And now DS gamers are getting a taste of it for themselves.
However, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies isn’t exactly what players of past games might have experienced. Rather than traveling down the traditional path of turn-based RPG, Square Enix has taken a different path with Dragon Quest IX and created a title that plays out in real time. Rather than lining up with the rest of your party to take turns attacking foes, you’ll gang up on them with a variety of party members and play out the battle in real time. It’s definitely a big twist on the Dragon Quest series, and one that may come as an unwelcome surprise to longtime fans of the series. However, it certainly seems to be shaping up well in the competent hands of Square Enix, and I’m confident that it’ll turn out well.
Aside from the major change in battle mechanic, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies will be very similar to the Dragon Quest games that US gamers are used to. While it employs some real time elements, Dragon Quest IX is first and foremost an RPG. You’ve got your various characters with different classes, experience points and leveling up, and a ton of equipment, ranging from armor to shields to helmets and two various different weapons. Equipping your characters is easy and intuitive, as all you’ve got to do is slide the desired equipment onto a picture of your character. And there’s a ton of variety; as with many RPGs, much of the customization that occurs in Dragon Quest IX will come about as the result of the large amount of various items to be found and used in battle.
Additionally, the baddies that Dragon Quest vets are used to facing off against aren’t going to be changed much from past games. The emblematic blue slime as well as countless other classic foes are making an appearance in Dragon Quest IX, and their main purpose is to serve as a punching bag for you and your questing party. There’s still the classic top-down overworld exploration that the huge majority of RPGs employ, and the beautiful-looking 3D view that the game dons when you leave the overworld and enter a town.
And on that note, it’s definitely worth it to point out the fantastic-looking visuals that Dragon Quest IX is featuring — made all the more impressive when you keep in mind that this is a handheld title. The DS gets a lot of crap for being a graphically “weak” system, but games like this should put naysayers to rest. The game, to be frank, looks absolutely incredible, shaming even such good-looking games as Final Fantasy III and Metroid Prime Hunters. The 3D visuals are surprisingly good for the DS, and the brilliant, vibrant colors combined with a steady framerate ensures that this is a game that those of you who are a slave to graphics must pick up.
Dragon Quest IX is an immensely popular series both in North America and in Japan, and it’s easy to see why. It’s got all the things that classify a game as great: a time-tested gameplay mechanic, customization, a well-written story, and excellent visuals. Yet at the same time, the developers aren’t afraid to step out of the box a bit and challenge the convention with a well-placed innovation. This, to me, is most what’s going to make Dragon Quest IX really worth playing. If you’ve got a DS, I don’t see any reason not to purchase this title when it releases later this year.