Review by honour241

"A refulgent light within the flickering starry sky that is the JRPG genre."

The majority of games in this genre nowadays strive so vigorously to move away from tradition that they end up forsaking their identity as JRPGs in the process. Final Fantasy XIII is a prime example of this. Devoid of the freedom JRPGs are intended to offer, the offering felt barren and hollow. Thrusting you into one battle after the next as you flowed along a seemingly eternal linear path, the game felt suffused with a sheer lifelessness. A husk of what the series once was, wreathed by majestic visuals that sought in vain to conceal its shortcomings. Square Enix toiled to enhance the game's pace by restricting its freedom. The developers took the very essence of the genre and subverted it in an effort to keep us engaged. Hardly a winning formula, wouldn't you say?

Fortunately for all the loyal JRPG fans out there, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies assumes quite the opposite stance to Final Fantasy XIII. It embraces tradition; it doesn't drive it away. After augmenting the formula with a few fresh ideas and touches, but not completely reversing it, we are left with the end product. A refreshingly nostalgic, fantastic RPG; relatively obstinate in its ways, but downright admirable because of it.

After all, tradition is something we have come to expect from the Dragon Quest series. Since its debut in 1986, many things have remained unchanged. Dragon Quest fabricated the foundations and institution for JRPGs in general. It is not a sense of tedium or monotony that is invoked from the spectacle of tradition that is the latest offering, merely the sense of a huge, evocative adventure. The initial scene before the title screen encapsulates everything the game promises to offer. A smile inexorably crept on to my face as the theme tune music, infused with a deep nostalgia, rolled in. Of course, this smile widened into a childish grin as I caught sight of the slimes hopping carelessly about the screen.

It is such things as the music and the imaginative monsters that really give Dragon Quest its identity; an identity it is not afraid to brandish. However, one thing that has been altered about the latest release is the take on the story. You play as the speechless hero, encompassed in an ethereal race of beings known as the Celestrians. As superior beings, you are driven by the purpose of defending the mortal race. By doing so, you attain Benevolessence, a crystallised form of the mortal's gratitude for your protection. Guarding the diminutive and quaint village of Angel Falls is your hero, under the watchful gaze of your master, Aquila. The Benevolessence you gather is then offered unto the Great World Tree, Yggdrasil. When Yggdrasil blooms to produce golden, heavenly fruits called Fyggs, the Celestrians are meant to board the Celestial Carriage and rise up to the Realm of the Almighty. However, after a series of catastrophic events, you are left bereft of your Celestrian powers. Forced to live among the mortals, the quest to locate and regenerate the celestial carriage and your Celestrain powers commences.

Throughout the game, you will encounter a number of towns, each with their own melodrama that you must conclude to progress the story. Though you will encounter some emotional moments and memorable characters, some problems do plague the storyline. First of all, there is no voice acting whatsoever. Many of the scenes would have harboured a much more potent emotional impact had this been implemented; resulting in a superior overall story. Quite frankly, some of the scenes felt rather void and empty without voice acting. Secondly, there is no character development, save for the NPCs you meet throughout the game. The ability Dragon Quest IX gives you to fully customize your party renders your characters devoid of any personality. This can make the story seem slightly meaningless as you feel no connection to the characters who really craft the story. Overall, the story will be sufficient to keep you engaged, but does not possess enough oomph to evoke any real emotion or feeling, nor enough twists and turns in the story to keep questions gnawing at you.

Luckily, the game play really does compensate for the aforementioned troubles; even standing alone, it is sufficient to completely immerse you. The customization in this game really is astounding. Although the ability to fully generate and modify your character tarnishes the story slightly, it works to Dragon Quest IX's advantage in almost every other aspect. You can adjust almost every attribute to your characters, including name, hair colour/ style and eye colour etc. Each of your party members can also select one of six initial vocations. You could create a heavily melee based team, or a party more balanced in magic and combat. Later in the game, you will also gain the ability to shift the vocation of any character, whilst still retaining the abilities of the previous vocation. For example, you could quickly shift to a thief to gain the proficiency to steal, then change back to your main class and be able to steal even with a warrior etc. Six advanced vocations can also be unlocked. This warrants almost eternal customization options. There is limitless room to experiment and this really allows you to make your adventure completely your own.

Battles do take place in the traditional turn based fashion. In a party of four, you select actions from such menus as "Spells/Abilities" which they will then visibly execute. This battle system works extremely well, serving only to augment the air of nostalgia that surrounds the game. It does not cause the game to be unexciting just because you are selecting options from menus; in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed most enemy battles. This game is certainly a shout of defiance to the conventional belief that only real time games are diverting experiences. Furthermore, random battles have been completely abolished, bar when you are travelling by boat. This is a very welcome change, as it quells the frustration that many gamers have with battles in JRPGs being unavoidable. The change allows you to sprint away from overly powerful enemies or elude weaker enemies if you need to reach a destination with haste. The only problem I had with the battle system is the fact that the majority of skirmishes were too undemanding. However, I assume that the difficulty was lessened to avoid marring the player's enjoyment of the game.

Perhaps most importantly, this game is endlessly entertaining. In fact, this is without a doubt the best aspect of it. For example, it is flooded with puns. Many a time have I laughed aloud at some of the town names and descriptions on some of the weapons and armour. I don't think I've ever grinned so much whilst playing a game, to be honest. Ironic, isn't it, that turn-based games are supposed to be the most tedious ones of any genre, but this potentially the most enjoyable game I have ever played?

The Alchemy pot is also incorporated into the game. The satisfaction of concocting a weapon or piece of armour that is heavily superior to what is available in the shop at the time is truly gratifying. Searching for and harvesting materials only enhances the fun factor as you scavenge around for the missing material to that glorious armour you seek. All the while, at least for me, with a huge smile upon your face. This is not a game that forces you along the storyline; in every way, it gives you the impetus to explore, customize, and just have fun.

The multi-player adds yet another layer to Dragon Quest IX. Your solitary hero can instantaneously warp into another player's world and battle along with him/ her. Even if your hero is a low level, you can jump into a higher level player's world and procure some very advanced equipment, which you can then retain in your own world. The wide range of multi-player options really serve to augment the possibilities of this immense world and the ability to, fundamentally, shape your adventure as you desire. From the first slime that evaporates beneath your blade to the final legacy boss that falls at your feet, the humour and enjoyment intertwined with Dragon Quest's game play will absorb you into its world to the point of no return.

For the DS, the game's graphical capabilities are phenomenal. From idyllic, verdant plains to appropriately bleak dungeons and majestic sunsets, the graphics feel captivating and look excellent. The graphics are very smooth and sleek in 3D, only amplifying the grand adventure of the world that surrounds you. Slimes look even more unbearably cute; the monster designs as a whole are very diverse and marvellously done. The range of monsters in any one area is never so limited that it reaches a point of monotony; in the field, you will be surrounded by a vibrant array of monster colours and designs. Bosses are especially well done, being pertinently ominous and very rich in imagination. Whilst the 3D environments particularly breathe life and effervescence into the towns, I wasn't too fond of the the random NPCs who roamed about. As 2D paper cut outs, like in the Dragon Quest IV and V remakes, they almost blemished the overall graphical quality of the towns. The fact that you can see all your equipment on your character is another welcome bonus, and yet another way to make your character your own. Plus, it makes it all the more satisfying to see your hard work to get that brilliant piece of armour of that magnificent weapon pay off.

The sounds also remain top notch. Despite the fact that some of the tracks are merely remixes from other games, they are executed in a masterly fashion. Countless instruments are interwoven with suitably jolly or sinister melodies, all imbued with a hefty nostalgia. Treading around the overworld, you'll be humming the tracks while your DS is ajar and after you close it. I especially adore the town themes; they do well to emphasize the vivacious and vibrant nature of the specific villages. The fact that the music noticeably shifts to fit the mood of an area adds a sense of realism to the whole adventure. Some of the town's music themes actually change after you have concluded that particular place's melodrama, which really makes it feel as if you have physically made a difference in your virtual world.

Moreover, the amount of content in this game is staggering, and will have you playing for months upon months. However cliche or cheesy this may sound, I sometimes look at the DS cartridge and contemplate how the producers condensed the whole of the game world into something so small. The lasting appeal really lies in the content post game: pursuing the perfect character by maxing all vocations; acquiring the best equipment for all characters; completing all 184 quests; slaughtering all the legacy bosses; completing the seemingly infinite number of treasure maps; obtaining all accolades and fully fulfilling all the alchemy lists, item lists, monsters lists etc. This is absolutely a game for completionists, and most definitely the vastest RPG out for the DS.

Though a few flaws do pervade this game, the overall product is a huge, sprawling adventure; the most rewarding and by far the most enjoyable RPG I have played on the DS yet. This game is a testament to how RPGs should be done. Unrestrained. Colossal. Gratifying. As utterly stubborn and liberating as ever. A sun in an ocean of diminishing JRPG stars.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 08/16/10

Game Release: Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (EU, 07/23/10)

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