Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (2009)

-Review by Paul Ewbank-

DragonQuestIXBoxArtJP

Haven’t reviewed a game in quite a while. I realise that in trying to do reviews of post-apocalyptic and dystopian games I’m at quite a disadvantage by not owning either a PS3 or Xbox 360. All the big titles like Gears of War or Fallout or Half Life are utterly unknown to me (ok, I’ve played a bit of Gears with my friends, usually horde mode which is a lot of fun), so if it feels like my reviews and top 10s are missing some of the obvious choices, there’s really nothing I can do about that. What I can offer you is critiques of older games and current gen stuff that’s more obscure but just as fun to play. My current platform of choice is the DS- a phenomenal little device which may have some absolutely crap titles under its belt, but also has a wealth of little known classics hidden beneath the endless reams of Brain Training and Cooking Mama rubbish. And whilst Dragon Quest IX is pretty far from being obscure by DS standards, I’m not sure how many people on this side of the pacific realise quite how good it is. Because make no mistake- DQ9 isn’t just far and away the best handheld RPG around, it’s a serious contender for best RPG of all time.

I was as surprised as anyone by how awesome it was. Some very obliging friend gave me a Gamestation gift card for Christmas a few years back and I decided to use it to buy some games I’d had my eye on for a while but had never been interested enough in to actually fork out my own money for. One of the games I bought was this baby (the other was Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, which I’d recommend giving a miss unless you’re a diehard FF fan-  it’s well made but just kinda sterile and uninvolving). I had played the Dragon Quest Monsters titles for Gameboy Colour as a kid and loved them, and had heard good things about the ninth main instalment of the venerable JRPG series, so bought it expecting a traditional, stick to your ribs RPG which would entertain me and eat up some hours but not blow me away. What I got was a traditional, stick to your ribs RPG which entertained me an awful lot, ate up an inordinate amount of hours and totally blew me away. Dragon Quest IX is testament to the fact that a game doesn’t have to be groundbreaking or technologically innovative to be fun- you can get by on just taking the formula and doing it really, really well.

If that's not the most terrifying thing in the world I don't know what is.
If that’s not the most terrifying thing in the world I don’t know what is.

You’ve played the story of DQ9 a million times. You are an unnamed guardian angel and due to evil and stuff you fall into the realm of mortals and wake up with no idea where you are or who you are. At which point you meet some of the townsfolk who ask you to go and rescue a girl from a spooky forest or collect ten spider webs from a nearby cave and hey, you’re away. Throughout the game the overall save-the-world plot is dished out in the form of easily understood but none too pressing quests which can pretty much take a back seat to wandering from place to place and solving all the problems of the townsfolk like the good little guardian angel you are. Solving mysteries or defeating dungeon bosses almost always advances the plot, so plot and exploration go hand in hand. You design your party of four based around classic vocations like Gladiator, Minstrel and Mage, equip them with the best weapons and armour found in dungeons or alchemised from monster parts, explore dungeons, fight random encounters and do all the other stuff that you’ve been doing in RPGs for decades.

So why does it work so well? The instant familiarity certainly helps you dive right in and means you won’t waste time figuring out how stuff is supposed to work- you can be pretty sure how each vocation works from day 1 and can be confident that exploring and taking on additional quests leads to better equipment and harder quests. You’ve done this thing before- you know how it works. Another real draw is the visuals- once again designed by Dragon Ball Z artist Akira Toriyama- the whole world has a vibrant, colourful anime look and is brought to life by cute, detailed 3D environments. Everything about the design has a real energy to it- whilst battles are the same turn based affair they’ve always been in this series, when one character is acting all the others are moving around and interacting rather than standing still in a line. The monsters, many of which are recurring DQ standards, are all brilliantly designed and varied- from the instantly recognisable slimes to giant dragons to living statues and wheelbarrows. Combat is straightforward but surprisingly deep- each class has its own uses and you can unlock new classes as the game develops, leading to all kinds of strategies to experiment with. Each item you equip shows up on your characters’ sprites, meaning you can make them look totally badass with stylish armour and accessories, or make them look like total retards with Slime Hats and bunny suits. It’s all good.

DQ9

The oddball sense of humour found in other instalments is accounted for here in spades. As well as the overall light hearted tone of the story, incidental dialogue and menu instructions are all witty and engaging, and laugh out loud moments are aplenty. Oh, and I hope you like really bad puns, cos they’re here by the truckload. Most towns and characters are named to rather un-subtly reflect their characteristics, and it’s the same with the monsters. Some of my favourites were the cow-demon Moocifer, and the aggressive vegetable known as the Cruelcumber, and its rarer cousin, the Scourgette. Whether you laughed at those is probably a good indicator of whether you’ll like this game or not. The standout character has to be Stella, who hands down wins the award for best Exposition Fairy in gaming with her never ending stream of awful jokes and inability to take mortal peril seriously.

Stella the Fairy- a true hero of our time
Stella the Fairy- a true flappin’ hero of our time.

So it’s vibrant, familiar and funny, but what else does DQ9 have to make it the best RPG I’ve played in years? Well, honestly I can’t say it any more eloquently than that it’s just really…good. The combat is just really…good, the settings are really good, the character designs, music, difficulty curve, pacing, dialogue, mechanics… it’s all just done with an extraordinary amount of care and polish which make this the quintessential traditional RPG experience. The main plot is a joy to play through, and there’s such a ridiculous amount of post-game content that even with an insane 120 hours of play logged I’ve barely begun to dig into its depths. I was amazed by every single aspect of this game and can think of no meaningful criticisms- clearly DQ9 was a true labour of love for its developers, and that care and attention shines through with a game that might not be cool or modern but is the purest expression of the joy of videogames I’ve played in ages. I’m aware that I sound like a massive fanboy and that gushing over a brightly coloured, kiddy DS game isn’t really the done thing on apocalypse blogs, but I don’t care; Dragon Quest IX made me feel all warm and happy inside whenever I played it and I want to give all of its makers a great big hug.

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