on July 13, 2010
Okay, I'll admit it. When I first heard that the FULL-ON SEQUEL for the PS2's Dragon Quest VIII was coming to the DS, I thought, "Exactly how much are they gonna have to dumb this game down?" Needless to say, I had very low expectations for the game.
Then it was released in the Japan, and over two million copies flew off the shelves in just two days. Those sales, combined with rave reviews from Japanese and American critics alike, meant one thing: I had to play Dragon Quest IX.
I'm telling you, if for any reason you've been holding off on buying this game, get to the nearest store immediately. I've barely been able to put it down.
The story begins with the main character, who is named and fully customized by the player, as an angelic guardian who watches over a town. He/she is part of a group of other guardians known as Celestrians, whose primary goal is to ascend into the "realm of the Almighty," which I can only assume is heaven. Unfortunately, right when the plan seems to be working, everything goes wrong, and the main character is stripped of his/her wings and halo. He/she then has to cooperate with a sassy fairy to help people in order to regain Celestrian status.
Sounds simple, right? The story actually becomes much more complex and endearing as you play and interact with the motley bunch of people you meet. There's a lot of character development for sure, but it's not so much a part of the plot as it is the gameplay (more on that soon). Sadly, neither the main character nor his/her party members, who are also yours to customize, ever talk.
The gameplay has changed dramatically from past Dragon Quest games here, and all of it has been for the better. DQIX takes advantage of the DS's dual screens by using the top screen as a map and the bottom screen for input and movement. All characters in the party, as well as any guests, are visible as they travel. This sometimes results in a minor slowdown because of the excessive pixel-pushing, but it's more than tolerable.
The revamped battle system is a breath of fresh air. Encounters are no longer random, as monsters now visibly roam the lands. A huge variety of spells, abilities, and items are available for use in battle. Players can also use a "coup de grace" when their characters are taking a beating for special effects such as zero MP cost or increased counterattacks, depending on the character's class. The execution is much more modernized, too. You can see the characters and monsters scurry around the field to maul each other; it's pretty fun to watch. As usual, dungeons can be incredibly hard and punishing, especially the bosses lurking at the end. The penalty for a wiped out party is half your gold, so don't die! (Or use a bank.)
The new multiplayer system is a welcome change to the old formula. By connecting with up to three friends locally, players can complete the adventure together, loot treasure from other worlds, or if they choose, continue alone and ask for help when they need it. The last option is perhaps the most intriguing one. Players don't have to be stuck with each other in multiplayer, which allows for some independence.
Although I have yet to finish the game myself, I expect that the replayability will be excellent. (The main game itself is quite long already at about 60 hours.) Farming items for the new alchemy system, scouring the world in search of gold and EXP, and doing all the silly sidequests that NPCs have will tack on (from what I've heard) upward of 80 hours; the addition of wi-fi to buy items and obtain new quests online should also be interesting.
DQIX's graphics are absolutely breathtaking, from watching the animated cutscenes to simply traversing the world. The environments are meticulously detailed, and the NPC sprites are prepared to give witty conversation. Players can distinguish between important and trivial NPCs by whether they are 3D or 2D, respectively.
The world is astonishingly MASSIVE, incorporating all sorts of different backgrounds and intimidating enemies. Everything, even weapons and armors and the ugliest monsters, introduces sweet, sweet eye candy. In-battle spells and abilities are magnificent, and the smooth animation of attacks and the like bespeak true, through-the-roof-quality production values.
My only nitpick is that, as mentioned before, when the party is moving about on the map, the game occasionally lags a bit. It's not too bad, considering the limitations of the DS, but it is noticeable.
The music doesn't blow my mind, but it's not bad at all. The themes are appropriately peppy or gloomy, depending on the situation. Boss fights sound intense, and sound effects are excellent. The sorrow in Coffinwell and peacefulness of Angel Falls are properly depicted. However, the music isn't very memorable, and some of it reminded me of the 8-bit era. Nonetheless, that's probably just me; the soundtrack, as a whole, is good and perfectly suitable.
OVERALL (9.0/10 - not an average)
I definitely did not see this one coming--definitely a sleeper hit for me. DQIX wraps a great story, involving gameplay, beautiful graphics, and good music all in one package. Sure, there were some slowdown issues, and the music wasn't as great as it could have been, but all in all, this game delivers. In spite of its faults, Dragon Quest IX stands as a strong testament to the gaming capabilities of the DS.