So, first a little about my experience of the series and some background. I'm a fan of the Dragon Quest series, I have been for a few years since I initially played Dragon Warrior Monsters 2 (one of the spin off titles) many years ago. I actually picked up a copy of the first Dragon Warrior Monsters when one of my good friends randomly sent it out to me in along with a lot of other stuff, but thats another story. I've played DQIV and V on the DS (the recent remakes) and really enjoyed them. I'm definitely looking forward to picking up the last of those 3 games when it is released eventually. Dragon Quest VI will be remade for the DS at some point soon, I'm hoping. I still need to get around to playing Dragon Quest VIII on the PS2, I've heard a lot of good things about it, plus based on what I've liked about the series, I might pick up some of the older games at some point if I can find them. So how does this one rank in terms of an entry point to the series? Well, in short, I think it is a fairly good entry point. Similar to Final Fantasy, there isn't any overarching story between the games, so you don't have to worry about not having played I through VIII before this. Secondly, this one has many of the core aspects fans of the series enjoy, but mixes things up slightly as well, and has some features that will keep people interested, such as the job system, side quests etc. Lastly, this one is not a massively long game, and has a good difficulty balance-it isn't overly grindy or hard so newcomers will not necessarily be turned off. By no means do I believe I am an expert on the series, so hopefully that is clear and hopefully that viewpoint will resonate with some of you out there in reading this review-maybe some of you are in similar situations having played a few of the games and enjoyed them.
Ok, starting with the gameplay. This is one area in which the games are very similar it seems. The fans love the games because of the traditional feel to them-from what I've heard they haven't deviated much from the original games in terms of the battle system, lengthy dialogue explaining things, menus and many other things. So its clear that you have to be ok with the relatively (some might say) archaic gameplay mechanics in order to enjoy these games. Personally, I am fine with this. I don't want to over-generalise, but many jrpgs and some western rpgs still reuse a lot of the unique features that were seen years ago in the genre. Anyway, I am going off on a tangent.
So where to start? The battle system perhaps. The battle system in this is pretty standard stuff. It has the same commands as some of the other games in the series; you can set up tactics and lineup in the middle of battles (but it isn't that important, I didn't use those once the whole game.) You have standard attacks, spells, abilities, as well as Coup de Grace attacks (basically limit break type attacks depending on the vocation your character has.) So there is quite a lot of depth to the battle system, mainly coming from the different attacks and abilities each enemy has, and the ones your party has access to. It is quite a traditional turn based battle system, basically the same as IV and V although they do make this one look a lot better. The enemies move and the backgrounds are fairly nice but nothing groundbreaking. I do like that when you've selected your moves, the characters and enemies move around the battlefield in order to launch their attacks. It reminded me of FFXIII. Its kind of unneccessary but makes it more interesting to look at. One thing that was absent from this game was the monster recruiting seen in other games in the series. It added a lot in my opinion and would have liked it if this one had that feature. Although there is plenty more to make up for the lack of that.
There is a lot of optional content to partake in. There are 184 sidequests, including the ones that have to be unlocked via wi-fi. These range from simple fetch quests, item quests and alchemy quests to very challenging combat related accomplishments which might unlock one of the 12(?) vocations and quests involving grottoes, which are pretty challenging postgame dungeons. I'll mention quickly that there is a lot to do after the main story. You'll definitely get your money's worth with this game. Other than the quests, there is the Wardrobe and Item List, the Alchemy list (I can't spell it off the top of my head) and Accolades, which are essentially titles given when you reach certain milestones ie. 1000 battles or progress in your main character's skill tree. Some might not really be that bothered about the accolades, but I think they could be fun to get, and definitely add to the list of things to do, at least for some people.
Traditional stuff: Saving in churches, still there of course, although the quicksave is there and is a welcome addition for a portable game. I used it a few times when I had to get off the bus or whatever. You still need to go to a churce to find out how much exp you need to level up, but there is a spell to make up for that. Thats a minor addition, but it does show that they were trying to move away from some of the pointlessly annoying mechanics. Which brings me to the next point, there are no random encounters in this game, instead, you've got monsters appearing on the world map or dungeon you are in, similar to a lot of games now ie. Tales of Symphonia. If you touch the enemies, you then get drawn into one of the turn based battles. This might have annoyed purists and it can be annoying when you are trying to farm certain enemies such as Metal Slimes, but it does help in places for example when you have to backtrack or run a large distance across the map. Personally, I'd probably rather have the random battles, but its not to say I don't like this system. I enjoyed this as a slight departure from the standard of the series.
I've been going on about the gameplay for about 3 years now, so I'll quickly run over the last few things. There is a strong multiplayer aspect to this game, you can do co-op multiplayer via a local network ie. you need to be in ds-ds close range. But what happens is your friends replace any of your 3 'NPC' characters, well NPC isnt right..I mean they replace any of the characters in your party who are not your main character. I think they get boosted experience while doing this, so that is something I haven't tried but could be fun. You can also do multiplayer things with Treasure Maps and other stuff. In some ways, the game seems intended for this multiplayer, which of course would have had a better chance of taking off in Japan with the serie's success there. Perhaps the game would have benefited from wi-fi multiplayer available from the start, and the Japanese release. So does the game feel weaker as a result of this multiplayer aspect? I don't think so. It doesn't feel essential, but it feels like it could be very seamless and easy to set up. I'd have to experience it to say more though.
Story and Characters
The story in Dragon Quest IX started out full of promise for me. The story starts out in the Observatory, a stronghold in the sky inhabited by the Celestrians, a winged guardian angel race essentially. Your character (which you can customise in a fairly deep creator) basically has to protect and help out the mortals in the realm of the Protectorate below, in order to gather crystallised Benevolessence (yeah, some stupid names in this game.) The story takes a bit of a twist and you are forced to gather up Fyggs. This takes the form of mini stories involving different towns, and usually a dungeon and boss to solve a major plot quest. I felt this stop start story telling went on a bit too long, you have to gather up 7 Fyggs from what I remember, and meanwhile the main story is essentially put on hold. It leaves a lot of things to the end, in which it picks up a bit, but I was still feeling a bit confused when I first learned of the character who was to be the end boss. The story could have been handled better, but I did enjoy it when it worked. The characters in this game are another area in which the game could have been a lot stronger. The main character and the Celestrians are fairly interesting, we see them at the start and through various points in the story, but perhaps not enough is shown of Apus Major and the other ones. I would have liked more cutscenes interspersed throughout the game, especially during the Fygg collecting bit of the story. Stella, the fairy that joins you throughout your quest is actually quite funny and a good addition. My main gripe about the characters is that the 3 other party members do not talk or have any personality. This is due to the fact that they easily swap out in the event of co-op multiplayer. They are also randomly generated using the character creator. Although you can make your own if you are not happy, you could end up with some bizarre looking silent party members. To be honest, I didn't mind the fact that they didn't have any dialogue. A lot of RPGs are similar in that respect, plus I like the fact that you have a lot of customisation options, in terms of appearance and vocation for your party.
Story and Characters: 7/10
For a DS game, Dragon Quest IX actually looks pretty good. While its obviously not up to the level of Dragon Quest VIII, a PS2 game, textures and colours look pretty good. It seems it is in the same direction as VIII, a semi-cel shaded look for this one. They had the same developers on board for this one and it does show. Things are outlined in black and look quite bold and vibrant. There is a lot of detail put into the important characters and the polygonal stuff never looks too rough or pixelated (not obtrusively so, at least.)
The graphics in battle look really good compared to the remakes of IV and V. Everything is smooth: the enemies and your character's models are very well done, and move around the battlefield without any technical issues. The font and numbers in battle, for displaying damage etc are clear, easy to read and link in with the sound effects very well.
The monsters, many of which are staples of the series are well animated and well rendered, especially in the overworld and dungeons. As for cutscenes, they look very nice in this game, with a sketchy, watered down colour look to them. They look good in my opinion and don't seem to tax the DS hardware that much. Take a look at this video and see what I mean. Of course, a bit is lost in quality in the transition to youtube, but you'll at least understand what I mean by the style.
So, it has a nice graphical style throughout, the only real flaw I can note is that there is slowdown in places on the overworld and towns. This only seems to happen occasionally when you have a full party of 4 and there is a lot going on in the area. Its isn't crippling, just a very minor slowdown of things. It might annoy some people, but it is on the verge of unnoticeable. Very good looking game in terms of a DS title. You can tell it was developed with the DS in mind.
I was speaking about the combo system in battle earlier. Think of it as a Zelda: Wind Waker style combo system linked with the sound effects. If your characters hit an enemy in close succession, you will get a boost in damage, 1.2x and so on, indicated by a sound effect. This was a nice addition and the sound here is integrated very well.
Overall, the audio quality is good for a DS game, but many of the actual tracks weren't that memorable. They do fit in with the tone of a lot of the scenes though. I feel they won't be given much credit, as they don't jump out and scream in your face, if you know what I mean. Instead, they are well orchestrated pieces of music by the series composer Koichi Sugiyama. The tone of the story in many places is actually quite dark and sad and some of these pieces fit quite well with the melancholy mood. Some songs are nice and light though as well, like the Tavern song. The battle theme is fairly average, but it works. Its the "I Won't Lose" video below.
So overall, I do recommend this game-I had a lot of fun with it and I intend to go back and do more of the postgame optional stuff at some point. The game isn't perfect, but I think its nearly right up there amongst my favourite DS games, despite its few flaws. So if you are one of the people who haven't picked this up and are interested in it, go out and get it. I hope you'll enjoy it. If you weren't interested in this to begin with and managed to read all the way to here, well, thank you! =D I hope I've sold you on this game, which as with all Dragon Quest games, has a lot of charm. There is something about them that always draws me in. This is a solid title, and comes recommended.
Information on the game: