Review by kobalobasileus

"Et tu, Dragon Quest?"

Dragon Quest 9
“Et tu, Dragon Quest?”

The Dragon Quest series is the founding father of the RPG genre on consoles, laying the groundwork in its first few titles that all RPGs (even the much-lauded Final Fantasy series) were built upon. As such, Dragon Quest has been one of my favorites since the fourth game in the series astounded me on the NES. The series is well-known for cleaving to tradition and keeping things similar through all of its various iterations. While well-loved in its homeland of Japan, Dragon Quest has had a tough time finding footing in North America. “Dragon Quest 9” (“DQ9”) actually scared Japanese fans quite a bit during its development cycle, as it was revealed to have an action-based battle system that flew in the face of tradition. After dealing with a bout of Fan Outrage, Square-Enix conceded to returning to the turn-based battle system we all know and love. However, this episode raised the uneasy question: If Square-Enix, the company most recently known for destroying the Final Fantasy series and producing a long string of irredeemable duds, was ready to butcher the Dragon Quest battle system, what other horrifying changes did they have in mind?

As a DS game, the graphics in “DQ9” are on par with the graphics in home consoles of two generations ago, except with the benefit of better compression technology that allows for higher resolution textures and the detriment of two tiny screens that prevent playing on a TV via an add-on device (such as the Gameboy Player). “DQ9” straddles the 2D/3D divide, featuring a fully 3D game world populated by mostly sprite-based characters. Important characters (i.e., the player's party and non-player characters (NPCs) that play a role in the story) are rendered in polygons in much the same style as “Dragon Quest 8” or “Dragon Quest Swords,” except with a much, much lower poly count. Thus the game looks like a mashup of the PlayStation 1's “Dragon Quest 7” and a hypothetical N64 version of “Dragon Quest 8.” It can be pretty ugly, as the polygonal models are occasionally misshapen and covered in disturbingly low-res textures. Even uglier is the tiny font used by the game, which frequently appears sans text-box, making certain parts of the game's happenings unnecessarily difficult to read.

One of the much-lauded features of “DQ9” is the ability to fully customize the hero's appearance. I think ‘fully customize' is a bit of an overstatement. I went into the game expecting something equivalent to the Wii's Mii design system, except using facial features designed by iconic Dragon Quest artist Akira Toriyama. What I found was, instead, a set of 10 pre-designed faces and 10 pre-designed hairstyles to mix and match as well as a choice of 5 not-very-different body-types. Several of the face slots are wasted on hideous joke faces and there are zero options for facial hair. It's truly a disappointing system, as I know the DS is powerful enough to handle more. A side effect of the customizable nature of characters is that the hero's expression never changes.

The sound, on the other hand, is classic Dragon Quest. Numerous familiar music tracks return yet again, complemented by a variety of catchy new ones. None of these are as symphonic and memorable as many past games' soundtracks, but at least they aren't unpleasant. The sound effects are, likewise, a walk down memory lane, featuring sounds for attacks, spells, critical hits, and other common occurrences that are nearly identical to their primogenitors on the NES.

Perhaps the biggest and most grating problem with “DQ9's” presentation is the way in which the game was localized. I don't know about the Japanese version, but the North American version is so crammed with lame puns, malapropisms, not-so-sly references, and alliteration (Oh, God, the alliteration!) that it's nauseating. I would expect this kind of silliness in the Slime Quest series of spin-off titles (the only one of which I've played being the pun-ishing “Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime”), as Dragon Quest slimes are inherently ridiculous, and doubly so when attempting to be heroic. But “DQ9” presumes to take itself seriously as a legitimate entry in the main, numbered series. It's very difficult to stay engrossed in a legitimate RPG when every item description and town name is some sort of dumb alliterative joke. It's even more difficult to stay engrossed when NPCs spout corny lines in a variety of forced accents that are evidently supposed to represent the various dialects found in the United Kingdom (such as Cockney and Welsh). This kind of humor is really out of place, and best saved for parody RPGs (such as the Earthbound/Mother series).

“Dragon Quest 9” has a story with great potential; but that potential is almost completely squandered. The game begins with the rather unique angle that the silent protagonist is not an ordinary kid, but an angelic guardian of mortals from a race known as celestrians. These winged, halo-bearing people dwell in an invisible observatory between Heaven and Earth, whence they watch over the mortals and gather congealed mortal gratitude, in the form of ‘benevolessence' (*groan*) to offer to Yggdrasil, the world tree. In performing these offerings, the celestrians hope that, one day, Yggdrasil will bear fruit and they will be allowed to return to Heaven to dwell alongside the Almighty (a.k.a., God).

After a short prologue, in which the player is introduced to a few important celestrians and a few less-important mortals, the world tree does indeed bloom… But then, catastrophe strikes, as maleficent rays strike the observatory, sending the fruit and the celestrians tumbling down to the realm of mortals. Soon after this event, our hero awakens to discover that he has lost his wings and halo. Not only that, but mortals can actually see the normally-invisible guardian. So he sets out on a quest to find a way to return to the observatory and hopefully regain his true form.

With a premise like that, “DQ9” could have an incredible, gripping narrative. Unfortunately, the first half of the main game plays out more like the “Pokemon” anime series after the second season, with the player's characters meeting an ‘NPC of the day' and helping that character resolve some problem before moving on to the next town. I found this to be a very unsatisfying experience, as none of these extra characters actually stayed relevant to the story long enough to care about them. While the story does become more cohesive during its second half, it never becomes particularly interesting, as it falls back on the tired trope of ‘revived ancient evil wants to take over the world.' I will give the story credit for throwing in a handful of surprising plot-twists that I didn't see coming from miles away; but these few sparks of interest in the story cannot redeem the game's greatest narrative flaw: There is no character development.

With the exception of a single non-combat party member who serves as more of an annoyance or Jiminy Cricket to goad the hero in the right direction than an actual character, none of the player's team speaks or reacts to anything. Instead, they are all custom-created characters, much like those found in “Dragon Quest 3.” The game even seems to acknowledge the fact that it has no memorable characters by including cameos by characters from earlier games in the series (which are, unfortunately, only accessible as downloadable content). In situations such as these, it becomes doubly important that the game world be filled with interesting people and situations to make the game memorable. Instead, “DQ9” throws in ~100 NPCs with blue speech bubbles over their heads who give out MMORPG-inspired ‘quests.' While these quests can provide some small insight to the game world and the people who dwell within it, they are hindered by the fact that the player can only accept a handful of them at once, before quest-offerers begin to say, ‘Oh, it looks like you're too busy to help me right now.' While this is more of a gameplay flaw than a story flaw, it still artificially hinders the pace at which the player can explore the game world and its mysteries.

After the climactic battle against a string of final bosses that Dragon Quest fans would expect to signal the end of the game, “DQ9” instead presents a big, fat ‘TO BE CONTINUED…' The continuation takes the form of the post-game bonus content, which isn't really a ‘bonus' at all. Instead of a few interesting locations and a super-challenging boss that ties in with the story, the bonus content consists almost entirely of roguelike-inspired random dungeons filled with random loot, random enemies (who randomly drop yet more random loot), and random bosses (some of which are returning foes from previous Dragon Quest games). Randomness is generally the bane of RPG mechanics and storytelling systems. How can a writer add engaging bonus story content when the power level of the player's team is completely determined by the mood of the Random Number Generator? How can the player enjoy himself when his success is influenced just as much by luck as it is by skill and strategy? I was so disenchanted by this randomness and focus on objective-free grinding that I turned off my DS after one random dungeon and haven't been able to force myself to play the game anymore since.

All in all, the main game took me nearly 80 hours to complete, which is nothing to sneeze at (though I did waste quite a bit of time looking for non-existent secrets and alchemy components). The general consensus among players and the developer, however, puts the total story length at about 40 hours (plus infinite hours of post-game grind). Either way, I think that's a bit too long for a handheld game. I much prefer the lengths of the Gameboy Color remakes of “Dragon Quest 1/2” and “Dragon Quest 3,” which could be completed in a weekend (~20 hours). Epic games don't belong on non-epic (handheld) platforms.

The fact that “DQ9” does keep most of the core game engine is the only thing that saves it. Battles are unapologetically turn-based, in which the player designates action commands for each character at the beginning of the turn and each character and enemy acts in order according to their agility. Numerous series staple spells and abilities return, along with some new ones such as ‘Fource.' Unfortunately, some of my favorite abilities are missing in action (such as ‘Hustle'), while others are strangely unavailable for classes in which they would make sense (Priests can't learn ‘Kazing/Revive').

Even in the core engine, though, there are some crossed wires that add nothing to the game but confusion, frustration, and more grind than every previous game in the series added together. The first annoyance is that the excellent tension system introduced in “Dragon Quest 8” has been broken down and given to two specific character classes (Martial Artist and Minstrel). In its place on the combat menu is a usually-grayed-out option called ‘coup de grace.' This action is unique for each character class but is almost completely irrelevant due to the fact that its availability is completely random. Yes, the taint of Limit Breaks has finally crept into Dragon Quest.

The next annoyance is the fact that characters gain more experience from the same battles as they reach higher levels. This is completely in opposition to the sensible mechanics used in games like the Suikoden series, in which enemies provide LESS experience to powerful characters. While I wouldn't normally be adverse to the removal of diminishing returns in combat experience, the side effect of this new system is that it takes forever for lower-leveled characters to catch-up. For example, in the late game I wanted to add some skills from a different class to one of my characters, so I switched his class. I now had three level 40 characters and one level 1 character. I fought a random battle and was completely thrown for a loop when I saw that my high-level characters got 1000+ experience while my level 1 character got ~50.

Of course, this weird experience system is likely a ham-handed attempt at balancing difficulty in a game that wants ever so much to be an MMORPG. If low-level characters received the same experience (or more) as high-level characters, new players would just team up with a high-level party via multi-player and shoot up to level 50 the moment they cleared the prologue and gained access to multi-player. The problem here is that the designers didn't take into account the fact that multi-player is a complete non-issue due to the fact that it doesn't work via wi-fi; it's strictly local via ad-hoc. While it might be common in Japan for multiple people to be playing the same game on the bullet train and deciding to team up via ad-hoc, there's no guarantee that a high-level player would want to carry a bunch of freeloaders on his back. In North America, the multi-player is even more irrelevant, as it's nearly impossible to find someone to play with without attending a convention of some sort. Thankfully the only thing in the game that absolutely depends on multi-player is a ‘tag' system, in which players can put their games into ‘canvass mode,' close their DSes and go about their business, hoping the canvassing game will encounter another canvassing game. I don't really know what this feature does, aside from allow players to exchange random dungeon maps, as I don't know anyone with the game nor do I carry my DS with me during the day, nor do I believe that anyone in my state, let alone my nearest city, would be canvassing with this game. Adding multi-player to a Dragon Quest game (a single-player turn-based RPG) is completely pointless. It's obvious that the ridiculous popularity of “Monster Hunter” among Japanese commuters was a pie that Square-Enix wanted to taste so badly that they were willing to drag their sole remaining flagship franchise through the muck.

I was also disappointed to learn that “DQ9” includes a class system. It seems that every Dragon Quest (and Final Fantasy!) game that includes a class system is less enjoyable than those with fixed characters. I was given a further unpleasant surprise when I discovered that each class for each character must be leveled separately. While characters do retain all of their levels in other classes (and can switch between them freely by visiting Alltrades Abby), a character that is new to any given class starts at level 1 and only keeps previously learned ‘abilities,' not spells. Stats earned in each class have no effect on each other, so a character changing class from Warrior to Mage gains no advantage over a character who started out as a Mage. Even more frustrating is the fact that only the base classes are visible from the start. Advanced classes, instead of becoming available after a character reaches certain levels in certain combinations of base classes, become available after performing specific quests for specific NPCs. These particular quests smack unpleasantly of Xbox Achievements of PlayStation Trophies as well as MMORPGs, in that they all require the player to kill X copies of Monster Y using Technique A after using Technique B. These quests were so irritating and boring that I left two of the advanced classes locked, just because I didn't want to fool around with the quests. Of course, the quests aren't the real imitator of Achievements/Trophies in “DQ9;” that would be the Accolades system, in which the player gets meaningless textual praise for doing various (often pointless) things.

The alchemy pot from “Dragon Quest 8” makes a return appearance… with a vengeance. While “Dragon Quest 8” introduced the mechanic, and did so quite well, “DQ9” takes it to the extreme, adding hundreds of items to the recipe list, many of which require components that can only be gathered at spawn points on the world map (where they spawn randomly, so a trip to any given ingredient spawn point may leave the player empty-handed) or obtained as random loot from blue chests (which refill every time the DS gets turned off) or enemy drops. I liked the alchemy system in “Dragon Quest 8” because it was subtle, most ingredients were reasonable to obtain, and it added a new option of what to do with outdated equipment. The alchemy system in “DQ9,” however, is reminiscent of the equipment crafting system in the “Monster Hunter” series, as it completely dominates the game and relies entirely too much on collecting random bits of garbage. A closer comparison mechanics-wise would be the horrible bazaar system in “Final Fantasy 12,” as it required the player to collect certain quantities of trash and turn them all in at once in order to get a good item. But the difference in power between the ‘best' equipment in “Final Fantasy 12” that required the bazaar and the ‘second best' equipment that could be found or purchased normally was minor, thus allowing people who hate grinding for loot drops to ignore it completely. I wasted far too much time fiddling with the alchemy in “DQ9,” and ended up with some decent equipment by the end of the main story, but I didn't particularly enjoy it. It felt like I was being forced to use alchemy all the time, even for items that I could have purchased if the enemies weren't so stingy with gold. I found that very few random battles resulted in a gold reward greater than 500 (in fact, most were around 250). This made it very difficult to afford gear from the later shops in the main game (and even moreso the two bonus shops that open during the post-game). What this huge equipment treadmill says to me is that the designers felt obligated to make their game longer than it needed to be, and in their dearth of creativity decided that adding more grind (in a series that has always had a reasonable-to-slightly-high amount to begin with). The only good change to alchemy introduced in “DQ9” is that all combinations happen instantly, instead of having to traipse around the countryside waiting for the pot to ‘ding.'

Some of the alchemy and loot grinding can be ameliorated through the use of a new feature called the ‘DQVC' (presumably ‘Dragon Quest Virtual Console?'). This is a wi-fi feature that allows the player to get a random assortment of sometimes-rare items to appear in a special shop by connecting to a server up to once per day. Each week, the DQVC has a different theme, ranging from retro games to curses. I'm not a fan of adding online components like this to games, because it puts a huge dent in the future replay value. When someone wants to re-experience this game in 10 years, the DQVC server will be gone. Unless that player uses a Gameshark or something to patch their game to access a fan-run server, this function of the game will be completely gone. The fact that several items can ONLY be purchased from the DQVC just adds salt to that gaping wound. The DQVC is also the distribution medium of all the cameo characters (who each give the player their signature armor) and a number of extra quests. These things will likewise disappear from the game when the servers go dark, leaving future players the dilemma of illegal activities or an incomplete game.

Despite all the gloom and despair in the preceding paragraphs, “DQ9” actually adds a couple of good aspects to its core gameplay. One good addition is the fact that enemies are now visible on the overworld and in dungeons (but not at sea). Enemies that are much weaker than the party will flee from them, but other enemies give chase. It's very nice to be able to avoid battles while exploring, or to engage a specific type of enemy while ignoring others. Unfortunately, this system wasn't integrated perfectly, as it fails to pause monster movement while the menu screen is open. It's annoying to survive a fight against a tough foe, open the menu screen to heal, then realize that another copy of that foe has spawned and is sitting right on top of the party, waiting to maul them as soon as the menu goes away.

The other good addition to the Dragon Quest formula is the use of in-game maps. While outside of battle, the DS' top screen constantly displays a map of the local area. This map can be incredibly useful in tracking down alchemical ingredients and just finding one's way from place to place. Of course, it would have been much nicer if the bottom screen held the map and allowed the player to use the stylus to mark points of interest and take notes (much like the map system in “Baldur's Gate”). But considering the plethora of bad mechanics added to this game, the fact that the developer was at least on the right track in adding the maps is praiseworthy.

“Dragon Quest 9” was a heartbreaking experience. I was expecting another great entry in my favorite tried-and-true RPG franchise. What I got was utter betrayal, as the series I have long lauded as the genre's last bastion has sold out to the temptations of online, multi-player, and random loot. This is one of the worst games in the series… but that still doesn't make it an irredeemably terrible game. Dragon Quest fans should avoid “DQ9” like the plague, as there is nothing here meant for us, but younger gamers raised on a diet of “World of Warcraft” and “Monster Hunter” might find something to like.

Presentation: 6/10
Story: 5/10
Gameplay: 7/10 Main Game, 3/10 Bonus Content
Overall (not an average): 6/10

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 10/18/10

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

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