"Hey Japan, it's not the 1980s anymore."

Game design over time is supposed to... you know, evolve? No wonder western development has so thoroughly overtaken the east, especially in the RPG realm. The same exact games get released in the JRPG genre over and over again, with all the same flaws and all the same issues. In Dragon Quest 9's case, however, this was done intentionally as a sort of throwback to the old days, as if JRPGs haven't been stuck in a rut for years now. This isn't to say Dragon Quest 9 is a bad game; it's just not a very good one. But of course sold like hotcakes in Japan, meaning the overall state of the Japanese RPG will remain stagnant because people are still ignorant enough to buy them.

In the very beginning of Dragon Quest 9, you make a custom avatar for your character. That character remains mute for the entire game, which gets into another JRPG pitfall. Several of them offer a mute protagonist meant to make the player feel like he or she has sway over the game itself, but gamers have long since figured out this is not the case. Sure enough, DQ9 will offer you several "choices" but only allow the game to continue if you pick the predetermined event.

After your character design is finalized, you're plopped down into a place called the Protectorate. It's an arena of angels known as Celestrians that sits one step below the DQ9 version of Heaven -- the Realm of the Almighty, in this case -- and the eons-long job of the Celestrians is to assist humanity, bring back tangible appreciation from humanity known as Benevolessence, use it to help the world tree Yggdrasil hatch some fruit, and when humanity is able to stand on its own the Celestrians all ascend to the realm of the Almighty in peace. It's obviously a story heavily influenced by the Christian doctrine, though believe it or not Dragon Quest 9 doesn't include the Christian doctrine with a gigantic message about how you shouldn't trust Christianity, the church or western philosophy. It's seriously a welcome change from one JRPG after another featuring evil cultists masquerading as clergy and trying to kill everyone, or whatever else.

Your character is given the grand tour through a long (very long) series of tutorial events, and eventually some interesting things happen that cause your hero to lose his or her wings and fall to the realm of the humans. You still remain a Celestrian, though now you're stuck with no wings or halo seeking out a way to get back to your home, plus you're stuck wandering the earth in search of some fruit that fell off of Yggdrasil. This is where the game truly starts, but the plot never really gets any deeper than this. There's a few twists near the end, then the game ends without you having to spend a whole heck of a lot of time on it even if you end up stuck having to grind. Most of the heavy lifting is done by the game's bonus content postgame, which is thoroughly ridiculous and imbalanced because not everyone buys a video game to treat the main game as interference along the path to postgame content. Most people still value a thorough single player experience, but Dragon Quest 9 kind of drops the ball on that one.

Speaking of grinding, this leads into the true reasons why DQ9 is such a letdown, especially compared to past game in the series: the gameplay. In the beginning you'll see all the standard Dragon Quest fare -- the killing of Slimes early, the gradually getting stronger and moving on to some tougher enemies, the occasional boss, the JRPG standard of go all-out and heal when necessary, and so on and so on -- but the game sticks to its traditions to a fault.

First and foremost, this game is slow. Everything in battle gets announced, there's no option to speed up text (which also includes story text, making the game unbearably slow the entire way through despite not being a long game), there's no real option to speed up fights as everything is turn-based, and some things are just archaic. For example, sword users will get a skill that attacks all enemies in a group. Seems fair, you just line up a group of enemies and slash away. Unfortunately, the same type of enemy can be in multiple groups. So as a hypothetical example, you can end up fighting 4 Slimes and Gigaslash can only hit two at a time. It's seriously really dumb, and the whole game plays like this. The worst of it is when you start fighting enemies that can stunlock you and call in backup, which could potentially lock you in place NES style for an hour as the enemies poke at you for 1 damage at a time.

It's not much better outside of battle, either. The aforementioned inability to speed up the text gets old fast, especially when characters have these long-winded speeches about nothing. There's one character in a town that functions as a bank of sorts, but there's 4 text windows before you can deposit any gold. The same goes for whenever you have to save, which of course has to be done at a church in Dragon quest because JRPGs haven't yet gotten the message that saving a game shouldn't be treated like some privilege. Tradition or not, this method of saving is really stupid. No modern game should be without the option to fully let you save your game anywhere, and no that quicksave stuff doesn't count because it's half-ass.

Last but not least, Dragon Quest 9's gameplay has a serious collect-a-thon problem. Your character has nearly 10 different types of equipment to wear, and since making money and experience is such a grind in this game compared to other JRPGs you'll be spending a lot of time fighting dinky enemies for dinky rewards to keep your characters modern. There's an alchemy system that seems like the way around this, but oftentimes they require these gigantic daisy chains of items just to get what you're looking for. If it isn't some rarely respawning spot on the world map necessary for the item you need, it's some absurdly low drop percentage from a monster whose dungeon you cleared hours ago.

Furthermore, this game isn't very heavy on dragons despite being called "Dragon Quest". But it's sure heavy on the "quest" aspect, and not in a good way. There are nearly 200 of them, and some are required to unlock jobs -- another case where the game treats something that should be free as a privilege. Some of the quests are harmless early, but before long they turn into postal service where Character A wants Item B, dropped only by Monster Z in Dungeon Q at Spawn Point Epsilon of the third Reich. It's beyond obnoxious. What's worse are the quests involving job classes directly, such as how you unlock one class by killing a specific monster type with poison or how you unlock a certain shield skill by killing 10 enemies, and on and on and on.

There's a lot of other stuff, but you get the idea by now. Dragon Quest 9 is a game you can only love if you're in denial about the current state of JRPGs, and even if you're still in love with JRPGs it's not like this one is particularly well-designed. There are many words that could describe this game, but the one I keep coming back to in my head is "soulless". There's just nothing here that makes me want to scream from the rooftops about it, even including the bad things. Most of the good things are stuff we've seen before, even in a plot that barely exists. Most of the bad stuff is also stuff we've seen before, because JRPGs have been making the same mistakes for parts of four decades now. The one real bright spot in DQ9 is Japan actually designing a game where the church isn't evil.

A decent comparison to make here is with Final Fantasy 13. Say whatever you will about that game, but at least it approached the genre like it knew something was wrong with it. At least it tried, and for the most part it succeeded, especially speed-wise. Dragon Quest 9 is just in denial, making the same old mistakes.


Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 01/05/11

Game Release: Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (US, 07/11/10)


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