Review: Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

The Dragon Quest series’ relationship with gamers outside of Japan hasn’t exactly been a stable one, especially out West.

It’s certainly not because of quality. Memorable characters, heartwarming adventures, and artwork from Akira Toriyama create experiences just as worthy of your time and attention as any Final Fantasy title.

This is further proven in the series’ latest iteration, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies. It not only echoes what has made the Dragon Quest saga memorable, but is also the first numbered installment to receive a handheld-only release.

You take the role of a Celestrian, an angel-like being condemned to Earth. In a previous life, you donned wings and a halo, protecting and performing good deeds for humans. After collecting enough Benevolessence — the life energy required for sacrifice to the sacred tree — you presented your humble gathering, only for disaster to strike. Now you’re relegated to roaming the land in order to find out what happened, and in true Japanese role-playing game(JRPG) fashion, getting tangled up in a number of subplots along the way.

This barebones plot hearkens back to the RPGs of yesteryear, where it was up to you to tell your own story. For gamers who thrive on a well-constructed plotline or the thrill of uncovering secret alliances, twists, or heartbreaking revelations, this game might be a bit too thin compared to previous installments.

The protagonist, male or female, can be customized right down to armor, weapon, and class specializations. As you equip a new helmet, chest plate, or sword, your in-game avatar changes to display your new duds. Grinding (business as usual) nets you a hefty amount of experience points and ability points to spend on leveling up the class you’ve chosen to master. You can distribute them as evenly as possible or focus on one area to gain new abilities, spells, or augments to your person.

As well as abilities, many different jobs open up for your party members. Much like in Final Fantasy, once you become, for example, a level 40 warrior, you’ll have to start over as a level 1 minstrel should you decide to change. There’s no penalty to switch back to your former profession, so hopping from job to job stays fun and rewarding.

Through traditional turn-based combat with a party containing up to four members, you’ll breeze through the lower levels of the game, buy new equipment, and start the cycle over with each new area. It’s classic and familiar, yet still wholly engrossing. Aside from that, most of your time is spent traversing the world map (no random encounters, as you can dodge oncoming enemies) and fulfilling the several missions available to “acquiesce to,” as the game so delicately puts it.

There’s nothing mystical or enigmatic about what’s being asked of you in the long run. You’re given a destination, a task, and often a reward for coming back successful. That’s what makes Dragon Quest IX perfect for playing on-the-go. It’s great for small chunks of gameplay here and there, as it’s easy to complete an important quest in a small amount of time and leaves you wanting more. At it’s heart, it’s a traditional JRPG done well along with being a brilliant adaptation designed for portable-game players.

It’s unfortunate, then, that part of what makes this game work so well in Japan is also what cripples it for gamers elsewhere.

Localization has never been much of an issue for this series, and DQIX boasts a well-written script with native Japanese puns and quirky jokes left intact and tweaked accordingly to make sense for English-speaking gamers.

However, cultural differences make the intuitive multiplayer mode nearly worthless. The “canvass for guests” option allows you to put the DS in sleep mode, where other players’ characters you pass by (also others with DS handhelds on sleep mode) will stay at the Quester’s Rest Inn on your cartridge. This can result in some interesting rewards, but let’s be realistic — finding anyone with a copy of Dragon Quest IX is a needle in a haystack in most locations. What are the odds their systems will be set to standby as well?

The standard multiplayer mode also requires friends with a copy of the game and their own handhelds, so it’s safe to say that unless you know several hardcore Dragon Quest fans, you won’t be putting much of the multiplayer to the test.

Again, this has much to do with population density and cultural differences, so it’s not exactly a fault, but a peculiarity that speaks volumes of the social aspects of gaming in different areas of the world.

The game also suffers from a bit of slowdown, especially when you bring the bland, user-created non-player-controlled party members into the picture. Some musical tracks can grate on the nerves after the third or fourth run-through, and admittedly, even though translated beautifully, some jokes simply fall flat. But on the larger scale, these are relatively small nitpicks and ones that don’t inherently affect the fun you’ll have grinding, running errands, and developing your character.

Dragon Quest IX is an upbeat adventure with semi-modernized gameplay that relies on old-school sensibilities. It’s not perfect, and it’s not the greatest entry in the series to date, but it’s certainly a worthy play for fans of the series and JRPG purists looking for their next trip down memory lane.

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