Review by horror_spooky

"VIII out of X"

Square Enix is mainly known for two game franchises. While it has purchased Eidos and now technically owns the franchise rights to series like Tomb Raider, Deus Ex, and Hitman, Square Enix will always be known as the RPG company, with two of the biggest RPG franchises ever made under its belt. One of those franchises is Final Fantasy, one of the most successful RPG series of all time that has spawned numerous spin-offs. The other series is the Dragon Quest one, a franchise that was formerly known as Dragon Warrior in the United States, and one that I have always found to be much…better than Final Fantasy. I've played quite a few entries in the series, but how does Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies stack up to its predecessors?

First and foremost, I would like to brag about the fact that I managed to get Dragon Quest IX brand new for a mere $14.99. There was a hobby shop at the mall, and I saw the game, normally $34.99, for a mere $14.99. Obviously, I jumped on that bandwagon as quickly as possible, and I don't regret my decision at all. At that price, Dragon Quest IX is one of the best values ever, beating even in The Orange Box in potential playtime, and cost to content ratio. However, most people out there are going to find the game at the $34.99 price, so I need to review the game with this in mind.

Regardless, Dragon Quest IX is in some ways a letdown. Don't get me wrong, it's a fantastic RPG with a lot of worth, and it's one of the best RPGs on the DS. The only thing is, there's no way that Dragon Quest IX can live up to its predecessor, which was a masterpiece. Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed Kings is quite simply one of the best video games ever made, and probably the best RPG that ever graced Sony's PlayStation 2. The Nintendo DS just doesn't have the horsepower to provide a world that was as enthralling and engrossing as the one experienced in DQVIII, which is a shame, but DQIX does do well for itself.

While the world may not be even close to as impressive as the one found in the other game, DQIX is no visual slouch. The world has a decent amount of detail, and the character models are once again designed by Akira Toriyama. If you don't know who that is, he is the manga artist that created the revolutionary Dragon Ball series. He has been hired by Square Enix in the past to design the characters in basically every Dragon Quest game made, and he has also designed games for other games from Square Enix, like the beloved Chrono Trigger. Regardless, the result is a Dragon Ball feel that a fan of the series like myself can certainly appreciate. Dragon Quest IX has a lot of boss fights as well, and these bosses look great and are very imaginative.

Unlike other Dragon Quest games, Dragon Quest IX prides itself with the customization it gives to the player. Instead of meeting new party members throughout the adventure, players are allowed to create their own custom party members and make them look however they wish, and this goes for the main character as well. Every piece of armor and every weapon also have a distinct, unique look to it as well, allowing for truly original characters and a difference in style no matter who is playing the game. On the downside, this is certainly a double-edged sword…

One of the reasons that RPGs are so much engrossing are the stories that they tale. A good story, however, is nothing without a strong cast of characters, and that's where DQIX falls short. In order to allow this level of customization, ranging from the gender of each party member to everything they wear to their class, sacrifices had to be made. The party members couldn't be a part of the main storyline as this would conflict with the customization as well as the multiplayer.

Oh yes, Dragon Quest IX has multiplayer for the first time in the series. This multiplayer is very unique, allowing players to explore each other's worlds either together or alone. There's something magical about dumping thirty hours into an RPG, and then traveling to your friend's world and helping them absolutely demolish the earlier bosses that once gave you trouble, or running off and not paying them any attention. To put it simply, it's fun, and the multiplayer makes up for the loss of characterization in my eyes.

Or at least, it would, but there's an issue with the multiplayer as well. There can only be four party members at a time, so playing in multiplayer means the person inviting you to their world has to put one of their party members on reserve. This actually discourages playing multiplayer as this means their party member will be missing out on a lot of necessary experience points, and will only force more grinding in the future. The way around this would be to find four players with four separate DS systems and four separate copies of the game and play through the entire game in co-op, but even then that's unconventional as the main characters are all the same class until halfway through the game when class changing becomes an option. Dragon Quest IX uses the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection for online multiplayer, but between friend codes and everything else, it's not really worth the headache.

These are all love/hate kinds of things. Some gamers will love the multiplayer, while others will hate the fact that their party members have no personalities. Where Dragon Quest X prevails is its classic-style, addicting RPG gameplay. The game is a turn-based RPG like every game in the series, featuring a variety of classes to choose from and master. Dragon Quest IX allows players to assign skill points to specific aspects of their character, from leveling their general class to increasing their ability with certain weapons to learn new and more powerful attacks. This highlights the customization of Dragon Quest IX again, except I'm pretty sure everyone's going to love this.

Dragon Quest IX is a very traditional RPG, and as such, traditional RPG conventions that are a bit annoying are present in full-force. The most annoying aspect of the game is easily the grinding. There are plenty of bosses throughout the game that will require the play to grind like crazy in order to defeat them without pure luck, and that just makes the game very boring and dull. Grinding is never fun, but by now you'd think that developers would have discovered a way to make grinding more rewarding and enjoyable.

On the bright side, Dragon Quest IX actually makes the traditional RPG experience more accessible in some cases. One example is with the way the game handles death. Practically every RPG forces players to return to the title screen upon dying, which can cause major frustration and will make players paranoid and make them think they have to save constantly to avoid hassles. In Dragon Quest IX, players are simply reverted back to a church, without losing any experience or anything. This may sound like it takes the challenge out of the game, but that couldn't be further from the case. Upon dying in Dragon Quest IX, players will lose half of the gold they have on them. The result is balance, which is integral to practically any video game.

To avoid losing all of your money all the time, the game does utilize a bank system. This bank is extraordinarily useful, but there is just something weird about the game. There is one particular inn that is located in a town early in the game called Stornway. This inn serves as a hub for a lot of the game's features, including accessing multiplayer, creating new party members, the bank, and the alchemy system. I don't understand why these features weren't available in all the different inns instead of forcing players to fast-travel back to the same town over and over again. Honestly, it would have saved a lot of time and hassle, but it's not game-breaking, just very inconvenient.

I mentioned an alchemy system in the previous paragraph. This alchemy system can be extremely rewarding and useful for players that are willing to put in the amount of grinding it demands. There are special and powerful items that can be created with the alchemy pot, and these range from items that will revive players from death without having to fork over a ton of cash at a church to extraordinarily powerful weapons and armor. By examining bookcases in the game, players can stumble upon recipes for the alchemy pot that lists the ingredients needed to create these items, which leads to the grinding. Players will have to grind their asses off to make some of the items using alchemy, but luckily, using the alchemy pot isn't necessary for success in Dragon Quest IX.

Besides the annoying bank system, Dragon Quest IX does try to be a traditional RPG rooted into new-school gameplay mechanics and foundations. Instead of having to heal each party member individual a million times, players can simply use a “Heal All” option from the menu screen to get this down in a jiffy. The touch-screen controls provide quick access to other menus, and also allow for movement by moving the stylus along the bottom screen. The bottom screen provides a very useful map as well that makes exploration a lot easier. Hell, Dragon Quest IX even utilizes achievements! By completing certain challenges in the game, players earn “accolades”. This system would have been a perfect way to considerably boost replayability, but there is no way to see what accolades that have yet to be earned, which creates issues for completionists that are obsessed with unlocking absolutely everything in the game.

A trademark of Square Enix is a great soundtrack, and this is one area where Dragon Quest IX undeniably delivers. The audio is damn near perfect. All of the different tunes and background music are catchy and memorable. The battle music is epic, and the different songs played during different bosses make each encounter feel hectic, important, and unique. It's easy to see that I was greatly impressed with the audio quality in Dragon Quest IX, but I would expect nothing less from Square Enix, and the developers of Dragon Quest IX, the folks at Level-5 (the people behind the fantastic Professor Layton games).

While I did mention earlier that Dragon Quest IX's story is hurt by the lack of quality supporting characters, this applies only to the main storyline. The main plot in Dragon Quest IX starts out strong, and I've certainly never played through a game with a similar plot. Dragon Quest IX follows the story of a Celestial, basically an angel, controlled and named by the player character. These winged guardians are assigned to specific towns and complete deeds for the townspeople in order to obtain energy from them that is then used to feed a giant ass tree. Sorry for the vulgarity, but that's the only way I can describe it. It's literally a giant, glowing tree. The tale that follows is one of betrayal, predictable plot twists, and ultimately, it's hard to care about the story much after the first few hours. It starts off quite promising, no doubt, but there are villains that are introduced and then done away with that have no build-up, and thus, no importance. The characters that are in the game are nothing to get excited about, as one is an annoying fairy that feels like a sluttier version of Navi from Ocarina of Time and the other one looks exactly like Krillin from Dragon Ball, only a jerk. Dragon Quest IX does redeem itself story-wise a little bit, though…

And that's with the mini-plots scattered throughout the game. The main goal of the game is to collect these magical fruits called Fyggs that contain a lot of Celestial energy. These Fyggs fell from the heavens and normal people that eat them become ridiculously powerful. The quest to find these Fyggs is an engrossing journey, as it very rarely visits the main plotline, and instead just uses the background set up in the early parts of the game to create an anime-like story arc. This allows players to meet a variety of new characters in all the different towns, each with their own problems and stories that are far more enjoyable and interesting than the main storyline. The storyline of this game, by the way, is presented in gorgeously detailed anime cut-scenes that echo the beautifully detailed cut-scenes in Chrono Trigger.

Like most RPGs, Dragon Quest IX requires a hefty amount of time investment in order to be completed. The game took me about forty hours to beat, but it could probably be beaten in around 30 for more experienced players and those who don't spend a lot of time exploring. Gamers who want to complete the game 100% and unlock absolutely everything have quite the mountain ahead of them. Between the class changing to unlock all the accolades, the ridiculous amount of grinding that's going to be required, secret dungeons, the co-op, and the side-quests (which aren't fun at all, mind you), Dragon Quest IX is quite the package.

Dragon Quest IX is a good game, there's no doubt, but it fails to reach the heights that DQVIII did. Still, the graphics are nice, the audio is fantastic, the replayability is through the roof, and the core gameplay is solid. On the downside, the main storyline is seriously lacking and there are a lot of tiny flaws throughout the game that build up by the end. Dragon Quest IX is a very good RPG to add to your collection, but to expect it to blow minds like Dragon Quest VIII did is expecting too much.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 03/07/11

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

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