The follow-up to the classic PS2 game Dragon Quest VIII is another fine level-grinder, with cheerful, colourful graphics and mesmerising gameplay. Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies was developed by Level-5 and published by Square Enix on the Nintendo DS in 2009.
Getting straight down to it: Dragon Quest IX (nine) is similar to the previous game in the series, but with a few fundamental changes…
Firstly: unlike last time, players must create their own characters and add them to the party, rather than playing with pre-existing characters. And this can only be done after completing the rather lengthy prologue; after defeating the first serious boss (The Wight Knight).
Secondly: the focus with characters this time is on ‘vocations’, or classes, which are the specialisations that individual characters follow and which affect their ability to learn new skills and spells (warriors and gladiators have high physical attack strength and low, or no, magic abilities; mages and sages have the opposite; priests have high healing abilities; and minstrels, rangers and martial artists have their own unique specialisations, such as bow use, unarmed combat, and even ‘charm’ (the higher the charm the more likely a monster is to miss its turn in combat)). There are even extra vocations that can only be unlocked by completing certain side quests.
Thirdly: the Nintendo DS provides two screens, so the layout of the game obviously makes use of that. In general: the game is played on the bottom screen, with the upper screen being used for maps, menus, and suchlike – except when entering combat.
Fourthly: battles this time take place when you run into an enemy in the field (rather than randomly), which means that you can avoid them entirely if you want (by running around enemies), or by initiating combat deliberately. Initially I wasn’t too sure about this approach, but as the game wore on I decided that I did quite like it, even if it does remove some of the tension from the game.
Alchemy is also slightly different to last time, in that you have to go to one specific location to do it, although thankfully, this time – when you alchemise something – it happens instantly; there’s no waiting around for it to complete. It’s not the best idea to sell off all your old armour and weapons as you progress either, because a lot of it can be used in alchemy, making even better equipment. Thankfully, though, it can all be kept in a bag with unlimited space, and there’s no encumbrance in the game, so you never have to drop stuff to make space. Individual characters can only carry eight separate items, that are accessible during battle, so you do have to be selective when it comes to your party.
The main storyline is linear and quite basic, but you can initiate side quests by exploring and talking to certain characters. Some of these side quests can be very challenging – some might argue: very annoying. Take the quest “Gladiator Graduator“, for example, in which you have to kill three slimes while being in a full state of tension. This is very hard to do as slimes will often run away or merge before you can reach that level of tension. I found myself screaming out loud trying to complete this quest, as the slimes would merge just before I managed it. The danger here, of course, is that frustration might stop people from playing, but I guess that depends on your tolerance levels and how much time you’re prepared to put into a game.
Combat, although well-designed and fun to play, doesn’t become even slightly challenging until the second act – after you’ve returned to Earth on the Starlight Express (a magical, flying train). From that point on, though, combat is much more spicy. Even usually benign slimes become more difficult to beat as they join together in combat to become ‘slime stacks’, which is something new and interesting in the series. Post-game combat – particularly in grottoes – is extremely challenging, and beating some of the later bosses, and more difficult enemies, does take a fair bit of skill and thought.
Completing Dragon Quest IX isn’t too difficult, the truth be told, but getting all the items; completing the ‘Defeated Monster List’; completing all the side quests, and acquiring all the accolades takes a HUGE amount of time. Too much time, in my humble opinion, and, in fact: it’s impossible to complete everything if you’re playing the game nowadays (without a save game editor), because you need the Nintendo Wifi Service to be able to access a good chunk of the items/quests, and it doesn’t exist anymore. Which is hugely frustrating.
One interesting aspect of post-game Dragon Quest IX are the Treasure Map grottoes, which are seed-generated dungeons that contain unique monsters and items and are meant for advanced players. As your hero character’s level increases due to revocation (the ability to ‘lap’ your levels and start building them up again from scratch), the quality of found treasure maps increases, which eventually leads to some of the best items in the game, and also some of the toughest monsters and bosses in the game too. In fact: the grotto bosses (found at the end of each grotto) are the toughest part of the entire game, and some side quests require you having to beat them a certain way, or even multiple times to complete them. Which is extremely challenging. This does however give the game a new lease of life after completing it.
Dragon Quest IX does have some very nice graphics, in both 2D and 3D. Visually, I don’t think it’s quite as good as Dragon Quest VIII, but then the DS isn’t as powerful as the PS2. The musical themes are recognisable from previous games and are comforting if you’re a Dragon Quest fan.
Overall, Dragon Quest IX is a superb game. It contains some laugh-out-loud humour and hours of absorbing gameplay. Is it as good as Dragon Quest VIII? In my humble opinion: not quite, but it is very much worth playing if you like JRPGs; even if a good proportion of the game is currently inaccessible to players due to a lack of the Nintendo DS Wifi service – unless you use either Action Replay codes or a save game editor.