A Divine Adventure
Mention the role-playing franchise Dragon Quest, and the conversation quickly becomes one of comparisons between the series’ success in Japan versus its success in the western hemisphere. I won’t bore you with numbers, but for my money, Dragon Quest is still one of the best adventure series around. If you’ve missed out on it in the past, now’s your chance to jump on the bandwagon.
Dragon Quest IX (DQIX) is the next installment in Square Enix’s flagship franchise, and in the move to Nintendo DS, the game has lost none of its epic appeal. The presentation and production values are ridiculously polished, and if you were worried the tiny handheld couldn’t carry the load, let me put your fears to rest.
When you first turn on the game, you’ll be treated to an animated opening sequence that’s perfectly optimized for the dual screen. You’ll then be asked to create a character based on various templates designed by renowned artist Akira Toriyama. You can choose between different sets of eyes, skin color, and hair, as well as a male or female character. From the very start, you can easily sense the intense level of dedication invested into the making of the game.
Like every other Dragon Quest before it, DQIX is steeped in mythology, though this latest adventure takes a classic approach. Your character is of an angelic race known as Celestrians, and it’s your job to aid mankind. As the gratitude of humans fills, you earn “benevolessence,” which feeds the world tree, Yggdrassil. Once the great tree bears fruit, the Celestrians will be able to again join The Almighty in Heaven.
If only life were that easy…
On the very day Yggdrassil finally reveals its fruits, the heavens are ripped asunder, and your character is cast down to earth. He/she loses their wings and angelic abilities, and thus, your true adventure begins. The tree’s fruits, known as fyggs, have spread across the Earth, and you’ll need to gather them once again in order to uncover the mystery surrounding this catastrophic event.
Like previous games in the series, your character is a silent protagonist, and the story revolves and unfolds around you. The fact that you create your character from scratch changes the story approach little from past games, and it’s surprising just how well the writers manage to convey such powerful themes in spite of your character’s passive role. Gathering the fyggs isn’t merely a generic device for moving the story forward, either. Each situation related to a specific fygg is unique and usually consists of a deeply moving side story designed to suck you into the experience more.
In terms of actual gameplay, DQIX does stick to a fairly basic formula; however, there are oodles of things to distract you. In keeping with the story, players will generally explore a town, hit up NPCs for info, traverse areas of the overworld on their way to a dungeon, cleave their way through the dungeon to an end boss, and then observe as the rest of a given side story unfolds.
Though the gameplay approach is basically the same for each small leg of the adventure, the individual story components are complex and moving. You can almost think of DQIX as a collection of short vignettes, each with its own juicy plot that plays into an overarching storyline.
After the first few hours of gameplay, you’ll come to a point where you can recruit new party members. Players can opt to either let the game randomly select the appearances and names of their new characters or create characters from scratch. There are initially six vocations to choose from, all of which are typical fare for the series.
The battle system for DQIX is, in most respects, traditional, though small tweaks help streamline the process, making it easier for players to level grind. Battles are completely turn-based, and there’s an option to set tactics for everyone but your main character. I was impressed by how well the A.I. performed. Though I always chose to take full control of my party during boss battles, I generally kept my other party members set to specific tactics while making my way around the world. With my priest set to “Focus on Healing,” he would only heal when needed, rather than waste mana on party members who only had minor scrapes; my mage was frugal with his spells, casting only when the threat was great.
It’s really all the little things, though, that tie this game together so well. I played DQIX primarily solo, but there is an option to invite up to three other players into your world. Unfortunately, the multiplayer is local only, but if you can find friends with a copy of the game, there’s some good fun to be had here.
The online elements, however, are meaningful and promise to add crazy amounts of replay value to the package. Nintendo will be offering weekly quests for up to a year after the game’s release, and tag mode lets players nab new, randomly generated maps they can explore for special loot.
There’s also a deep and deeply rewarding alchemy system in DQIX, complete with recipes that can be found hidden in nooks and crannies throughout the world. I lost track of how many hours I invested in simply sitting in front of the Krak Pot creating new morsels of goodness.
Lastly, there are the quests. On your journey to collect the divine fyggs, you’ll encounter many a denizen (including an animal or two) in need of your aid. Quests range from gathering ingredients for needy strangers, to proving your mettle on the battlefield in order to join the ranks of an exclusive club. Certain vocations can only be accessed through side quests, and the equipment and items you’ll earn are ample reason to run through each and every one. Granted, some quests are a bit tedious to complete, and others are downright obtuse in what they require of you. Still, the payoff makes it all worth it, and there’s content o’ plenty for diehard fans who simply cannot get their fill of Dragon Quest.
In terms of production, there’s nothing that trumps DQIX on DS. I’ve seen my fair share of pretty games on the system – Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword and Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass come immediately to mind – but Level 5 raises the bar several notches with this latest installment into the venerated franchise. Up close, the character models are beautiful and detailed, and when exploring fields and towns, the game looks more like a watercolor painting than polygons and pixels. Cinematic camera pans and pristine pacing make DQIX a paragon of beauty on the now aging hardware.
The music and sound effects are equally wonderful, though some folks may take issue with hearing mostly the same themes from past games in the series. It’s difficult to argue with an approach that caters to fans, though, and the new arrangements and timed placement of certain music helps DQIX stand apart from the crowd. The sound effects are all about fan service, and if you’ve never played a Dragon Quest game before, you’re in for a real treat.
Since it was first announced back in 2006, Dragon Quest IX has been one of my most-anticipated games for Nintendo DS. Square Enix and Level 5 did not disappoint. I was surprised by just how challenging the game was in light of the publisher’s known desire to popularize the franchise here in the States. In spite of the many wonderful elements added to the formula, Dragon Quest IX feels very much like the best of classic JRPGs; it’s well-balanced, looks great, and there’s tons to do. Best of all, long-time fans will still find everything they love about the series right here on DS.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 5.0 Graphics
No game is perfect, but Dragon Quest IX is definitely the best of the best on DS – completely gorgeous and moving. 4.0 Control
It’s a simple design, much like every other DQ game in the past. The option to use the stylus is there, and it works fine. There are some minor issues with lining up your character to open jars and chests. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The orchestrations are beautiful, though there’s not much new here. Sound effects are everything we’ve come to expect from the series. 4.9
Not having the option to hook up for multiplayer online is about the only ding in this otherwise massive handheld package. DQIX is still a thoroughly rewarding single-player experience, complete with tons of content that will keep fans happy for a long, long time.
4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.