Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
by VanorOrion

My first experience with Dragon Quest was with Dragon Warrior 7 on the original Playstation, a game with such a plodding, boring, and uneventful beginning that a friend of mine that was stoned off his ass watching me play the game had to get out of the room because the game was killing his buzz. Literally.

I was attracted to the game originally because I heard of the job system where you could change character classes and such, something that I really liked in Final Fantasy Tactics. Sadly it took hours of game time to actually get to that part of the game, and I got stuck and lost early into the game, and so I never finished the it, and never even got to the part of the game that attracted me to it in the first place.

Years later I would check out Dragon Quest 8, and while it didn't have class-changing and such, it was still a pretty enjoyable game, though it does have a very deliberate pace, which takes some adjusting to for someone who is accustomed to the expediency of battles that normally accompany most Shin Megami Tensei games.

And now that brings us today to Dragon Quest 9. I bought so many games in 2010 that were horrendous disappointments. This was not one of them. In fact, this game managed to exceed my expectations by a wide fucking margin in a way that no other game has done in a loooooong time now.

First off is just the simple fact that this is a DS game. This is easily one of the prettiest and best-looking games I've played on the DS, period. The best description for how this game looks is that it takes Dragon Quest 8, one of the prettiest games on the Playstation 2, and takes Akira Toriyama's cel-shaded prettiness and scales it down into a DS cartridge. It's still hard to wrap my head around the fact that it's a DS game. It really does look that good. Not just good but the staggering attention to detail to everything. While generic NPCs look a lot less detailed, your avatar, party-members, and NPCs of importance throughout are well detailed. As well as every piece of equipment you can equip in the game.

While the scope of the game's world doesn't feel as large as 8's did, as far as traditonal overhead RPGs go, the game world is still quite large and it's very easy to get lost in, and manages to probably trump its predecessor by having its world filled with lots and lots and lots of stuff to do it, much of it optional, but I'll get back to that in a bit.

But what drew me to Dragon Quest 9 goes back to what drew me to 7: Changing classes and such. That's something I really like in a lot of my games is having the ability to customize my gameplay experience. The mark of a great game is the ability to reflect the player's personality in the gameplay, and Dragon Quest 9 is a damn good example of this.

It should be said that my personal favorite Final Fantasy is the first one (though I only played the Origins version on the Playstation). The reason is that I like the fact that the game is about ME. I create my party, I name them, I choose their jobs, and hell I even choose their spells as I go through the game. And like the original Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest 9 is about ME. Right at the start I get to create my avatar, customize his appearance and name him. The game begins and I'm a silent protagonist, so the game literally is about me.

I was able to make a cel-shaded chibi Riki Takeuchi as my avatar. All this game needs now is a rocket launcher that can blow up a skyscraper and we're set.

The story is pretty simple. You play a guardian angel who is supposed to look out for the hapless denizens of the world below, but a disaster in your heavenly home sends you careening to the Earth in human form, and tasked with locating a bunch of MacGuffins to restore the celestial order. Basically the rest of the game plays out like Highway to Heaven where you're Michael Landon going from place to place and setting right people's lives, all the while looking for the magic fruit that will restore order to your home, and since you're an angel you can see the spirits of the deceased and stuff. It's pretty neat. Though Michael Landon didn't go around cutting a swath through hundreds of monsters.

The cool thing about all this is that after you get out of the first town of the game, you move on to your first city, with the Quester's Rest Inn that for all intents and purposes you use as your headquarters throughout the game. Here you create the rest of your party, and not long after that you come to the aptly-named Alltrades Abbey, which allows you to changes the class for you and the rest of your party.

What I really love about DQ9 is that it blends the best of the gameplay elements of prior Dragon Quest titles to create a hellacious amount of gameplay customization. You have the class-changing system of prior DQ games mixed with the Skill system of Dragon Quest 8. Like in 8, whenever you level up, you gain skill points. These skill points can then be spent on categories for each class such as weapon skills, and class-unique skills. Unlike 8 you can see what all you learn from each category as you put points into it so you can decide ahead of time what you want to choose to learn. The best part though is that you don't have to spend those skill points on that class. You can hoard the points and then change to another class and spend the points on that class instead, and with ultimately 12 classes to choose from in the game, the skill and class combinations are endless.

And it's really tough deciding on how to spend the skill points. Not all the classes are unlocked right away in the game. Some of them have to be unlocked by doing special sidequests as you progress through the game. You can take the slow but sturdy Paladin and learn all of their defensive skills and then change up to a Monk who is fragile but is fast and hits like a tank, and as a result of the defense boosts be a lot less fragile as a result. And of course there's the weapon skills. There's a whole lot of weapon types in this game, some shared by certain classes, but each comes with their own unique qualities and abilities to learn. Mastering a weapon type makes it useable regardless of class, so you can give a Thief access to a more powerful weapon type such as an axe or spear. There's so many choices to make that it almost seems overwhelming, but thankfully the game metes this stuff out to the player at a steady pace so by the time you have access to everything, you aren't spinning around confused.

The thing is that the classes themselves learn spells unique to that class as you level up, however, the class-specific abilities you learn from spending skill points stay with you no matter what class you are. Such abilties can be passive stat bonuses, and unique offensive and defensive spells. Each class levels seperately and with the ability to revocate a class when it reaches the level cap, it's possible to learn every class and weapon skill in the game. Of course, nobody is going to do that right off the bat, and any veteran of Dragon Quest knows that the combat isn't exactly the fastest-paced in RPGs.

Thankfully Dragon Quest 9 does feel a bit sped up compared to its predecessors, and in general combat has been overhauled and tweaked in various ways that make it less tedious and more expedient. The first major change is that battles are no longer random. Like Chrono Cross or Tales of, you see the enemies on the screen, and touching them initiates battle. Battles play out as they did in 8, but they move at a much faster pace compared to that game. The really good thing is that spells that increase or decrease the battle rate are still present in the game and with spells like Vanish, which allows you to move unseen around enemies, it's a lot easier to pick and choose your battles. As a result of these things, battles move a much more brisk pace compared to prior DQ games (well, at least in the case of 7 and 8). Another benefit of encounters no longer being random is being able to more easily locate Metal Slimes, a longtime Dragon Quest enemy which killing nets you a good chunk of experience points. As a result the seemingly daunting task of leveling up multiple classes becomes a much easier affair once you know where to look for the enemies that will level you up the fastest.

The biggest draw in this game, however, is that every piece of equipment you and your party can equip appears on your person. Every weapon and every piece of armor you can wear has a distinct look, and there is a lot of it in this game. There are so many different themed armor sets in the game, some to be a badass in battle, and others to look like characters from other DQ games, and others that are just there for laughs, such as bathing suits and shades and the like. Not only is it aesethically pleasing, but your armor and appearance contributes to your Charm rating, which can cause enemies to become bewitched by your presence and lose turns, so even something like wearing clothes in this game carries its own unique gameplay element.

But this game does a damn good job of letting the player choose how to play through the game. Those who want to try and do and see everything can do that, and those who just want to get by on the bare minimum can do that as well. And that's not just limited to combat, this notion encompasses the entire game. The game world is huge, and there's a whole lot you can do, but a lot of it is optional and isn't necessary to beating the game. You could go through the whole game not bothering to unlock other classes and do just fine. The good thing though is that unless you really abuse the class/skill system, battles are consistently challenging throughout the whole games. Enemies can hit hard, and some can land critical blows with some frequency to keep the player on their toes, so strategy and planning is important, and the game doesn't easily devolve into "Use Ubermensch Attack to Win Everything Forever" like some games do (especially in the post-game). So while DQ9 isn't SMT hard, it isn't Golden Sun DS piss-easy, either.

Another thing I like that this game shares with prior DQ games is that you aren't constantly being led by the hand like a lot of more recent JRPGs tend to do (coughfinalfantasy13cough). There are many points in the game where you can go off and do certain events to progress the story out of order, or backtrack to other areas to see if anything new has popped up. Backtracking in this game is made painless by the Zoom spell which is unique to your avatar and costs 0 MP, and allows you to revisit cities and towns you have already been to.

Another element that returns from Dragon Quest 8 is the Alchemy Pot, which you get pretty early on in the game. Anybody that has played 8 will know that the Alchemy Pot can be very useful to the intrepid player. You can combine certain items and pieces of equipment to make powerful items, armor, and weapons earlier than usual, normally without having to spend as much money to make those things (usually). Of course, like the rest of the game, you don't really have to mess with the pot to get through the game, but it's very helpful to have (and very useful for making money, especially in this game). A good thing they implemented in this was that you can now find alchemy items scattered around the world and they respawn after a set amount of time, so alchemy isn't as much of a chore as it was in 8 (and it's also instant, whereas on 8 you had to wait a set amount of time for alchemy to finish cooking).

Like I said, though, this game is huge, and full of stuff to do. The fact the game's main story isn't that long is overshadowed by the fact that the postgame is constantly being updated with unlockable quests every week for like a year or so. Another thing that overshadows the main story quest is when you start finding treasure maps early in the game. Treasure maps lead the player to specific areas on the world map that open up a randomized hidden dungeon called a Grotto. The way each map is named can be used to figure out what enemies are populating it, and what levels they are and how strong you should be going into it. Each grotto goes down so many floors, filled with enemies and treasure, and culminating with a boss enemies similar to those you have fought in the main quest, or special boss enemies from prior Dragon Quest games that can drop some of the most powerful weapons and armor in the game. Beating a grotto nets you a new grotto map, which leads you to a new dungeon, which nets you a new map, and on and on.

Which leads me to the best part of this game: It's multiplayer. Me and a friend of mine both went through the game together, helping each other out. More than anything I wish more DS games would incorporate multiplayer into their game unlike a lot of games where it feels tacked on. The only downside is that it's local mutliplayer, and not online like say Phantasy Star Zero is. But that's not too bad. One player hosts, and invites others to join, up to four players (each player using their avatar). The invited players can help the host move the story forward, but won't make any story progress on their own game. However, a host further along in the game can get a friend who isn't as far along in the game and help them gain levels faster, or take them to further parts of the game to get better weapons and gear sooner, and they can participate in grottos and get their own maps, and they can use the wireless feature to trade specific maps with other players (which became a huge thing in Japan due to how close together everyone is and the greater dominance of handheld gaming over there).

And finally there's the Dragon Quest store, which is updated everyday with weekly-themed items, weapons, and armor, along with plenty of alchemy regeants, usually sold at a discount. Sometimes very rare weapons and armors are sold. A good thing is that players invited into your game world can access the same exact store as you, so if you see something they could get some use out of, you can tell them to go into the store and buy it. Along with the store, every week you get a new quest unlock and every two week you get a new visitor to the Quester's Rest Inn, in the form of characters from other Dragon Quest games who will give you (under certain circumstances) their clothes so your party can dress up like them.

The only real complaint I have about this game is that you only have one save slot. Having at least two would have been nice, but on the flipside we do have the ability to use a suspend save to stop anywhere in the game we have to, so that's not too bad.

I've gotten so far into this but I haven't even covered all the little nuances. But those are all the major things. If you are looking for a game you can play forever, this is it. This is a game you can play constantly, or play in short bursts and pick up again easily later. I think the best thing about this game is something a lot of other people that have played DQ9 have mentioned. This game has charm. It lacks the Hollywood infestation that has rotted out a lot of games in both the East and West as of late. There's nothing pretentious or stuck up about Dragon Quest 9. It's a damn good, straightforward game that stays true to its roots that will please anybody from hardcore RPG fans to novices who don't play games that much. This game has as much style as it has substance, and it's obvious that lots of blood, sweat and tears was put into making this game, and it definitely shows in every way, shape and form.

If you have not bought this game, or are even the least bit curious, check it out, because out of all the boneheaded things Nintendo has done in the past three years, translating this game was not one of them. And I can only hope that whenever DQ10 comes out on the Wii, Nintendo will step up to the plate and translate it as well.

Hey, developers that don't have their heads up their asses for once, that's a switch!


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