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Thursday, December 21, 2023

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

Codeveloped by Level-5 and Square Enix, Dragon Quest IX is the first mainline game in the franchise released to implement online functionality and co-op play.  But does it still manage to be a fun time even as a single player experience, or is it an experiment gone wrong?

Dragon Quest IX was the first game in the franchise released exclusively for the Nintendo DS, and per series norms it was a massive success in Japan, selling over 4 million units.  It was something of a cultural phenomenon to boot, with its online component being widely used among its install base and even inspiring the Spotpass and Streetpass features on Nintendo's next handheld console, the 3DS.  It did relatively well outside of Japan too, selling another million units overseas and being lauded as one of the best RPGs on the Nintendo DS; no small feat considering how prolific the genre was on that platform.

Somewhat ironically, Dragon Quest IX began development after completion of the planning stages of what would later be come to known as Dragon Quest X and developed concurrently with it, with the two teams sharing ideas throughout.  As a result Dragon Quest IX feels a bit like an online game despite not being exclusively built as one; there's a character creator, item trading, a much heavier focus on item hunting and the crafting system introduced in VIII, and numerous short, quick-to-complete quests with incremental rewards throughout.  One can find (or have traded to them) numerous maps which unlock Grottos, which are semi-randomly-generated dungeons one can explore to fell foes and collect new equipment. Indeed this was a massively popular feature in Japan, especially with maps that contained valuable goods and/or large concentrations of Metal Slimes.  And of course, there's also a "Party Tricks" command, which works similar to Gestures in many other online games, having your character play a small animation and print out a short message to convey simple communication to other players.

The Vocation system from VI and VII returns here, though in a more restrained form that also works in elements from Dragon Quest VIII.  There are six vocations available at the start (with the player always beginning the story as a Minstrel) and 6 more are unlocked by completing quests as the game progresses.  Each vocation has a skillset unique to it, as well as access to four schools of weapon skills; by gaining levels you earn points to spend in these skillsets to unlock new abilities and stat bonuses.  One can of course change classes at their leisure once they reach Alltrades Abbey - class abilities do not carry over, but weapon skills can if you switch to another compatible class.  Investing 100 points into a weapon discipline will allow you to use that weapon (and associated skills) with any class, which allows for some fun mix-and-match combinations.  Maxing out your level in a given class and then reverting to level 1 grants a medal that, when equipped, grants a significant boost to a stat or other useful benefits (like being able to use gender-specific gear regardless of your starting choice), so while the system is designed to resemble a traditional single player RPG, there's still plenty there for the long-term powergaming intrinsic to online play.

Some other long-standing Dragon Quest design elements have been reworked too.  The equipment system in particular now has much more to it - there are now gloves, pants and boots in addition to the usual headgear, armor, weapons, shields, and accessories from earlier games, and equipped items do show up on your character's model, which is a nice touch.  Evasion is now a separate stat and operates as a flat percentage that can be increased by class abilities and certain types of gear, and there's now separate "Magical Mending" and "Magical Might" stats governing how effective healing and offensive spells are respectively.

The Tension mechanic also returns from Dragon Quest VIII and operates very similarly, though it's now a feature of certain vocations rather than being an ability for all characters to innately use.  The hero gets a unique ability (Egg On) that can be used to boost any character's Tension by one level, and being at maximum grants immunity to all status effects, giving it some added benefit beyond simply hitting harder or getting more mileage out of supportive spells.  Something slightly similar to XI's Pep is given form here with "Coup De Graces" - special abilities that have a small chance to become available each turn based on a number of factors.  These vary by Vocation and have quite a wide variety of effects, from getting guaranteed criticals to stealing items to restoring one's own MP to even gaining more experience after the current battle concludes.  If all four characters in your party enter this state at the same time, you can pull of a powerful combination move called a "Co-Op De Grace", with the choices you're given varying by the current party makeup.

Being built with a focus on the a multiplayer experience does have some downsides, though.  While there is still a main storyline in the game to follow (and it's a good one) and some well-written and memorable characters to take the journey with, your whole active party is comprised of generic characters - whether you create them yourself, ally with other players or pick some pre-fab ones out at the inn, only your protagonist has any active role in the narrative.  A definite downside after the last few Dragon Quests had such well-written and memorable casts integrated flawlessly into the storytelling.  There's also no voice acting this time around, though you do see some quite stylish and well-animated FMVs at key story points.  A bit of the magic is also lost with the discontinuation of the online component and the game being well past its heyday - the ability to connect to Nintendo Wi-Fi and exchange characters and items for one's player-populated inn, is no longer available, and while one can still trade items with other players while the system is in Sleep mode, you're not likely to run across them in the wild anymore.  Said features have also been a sticking point for a modern-day rerelease of the game as they were such a significant component of the core experience back in the early '10s, although developers at Square Enix have expressed interest in seeing the game return in some form.

Even though the game takes a step down to a handheld platform from its previous entry, Dragon Quest IX certainly doesn't skimp on its presentation.  The charming Toriyama character designs are expertly brought to life once again in 3D by Level-5 and Square Enix, and Koichi Sugiyama's soundtrack is once again fantastic, lending an epic mood to the game.  Perhaps as a means to make them easily identifiable, player characters (and major plot characters) are rendered in 3D models while minor NPCs are depicted with 2D sprites - a nice design touch and a clever nod to the older, less lavishly-produced Dragon Quests.

So, while Dragon Quest IX is a somewhat incomplete experience today and may not hold the same appeal as the strictly single-player games in the franchise, it's still a very worthy adventure to undertake.  It's well-presented, consistently charming and retains that timeless charm in its gameplay, retaining turn-based combat but spicing it up with plenty of clever mechanics, varied enemies and no shortage of granular character customization to experiment with.  I do hope Square Enix revives it in some form down the road, as I can imagine it being an exceptionally fun journey to undertake with friends.

Developer: Level-5, Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: 2010
Platforms: Nintendo DS
Recommended Version: N/A