Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies makes subtle changes to the tried-and-true Japanese role-playing formula. With respect for the classics the new adventure for the Nintendo DS forges into the future, casting aside random battles, introducing multiplayer and giving players more ways to customize the way they play.
- Top Notch Story and Writing
- Fun, Flexible Mutliplayer Co-op
- No More Random Battles!
- No Online Multiplayer
- Random Wireless Hookups Unlikely
There are earth-shaking changes afoot in Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies. These tweaks may seem meager or even behind-the-times to outsiders. But this is the JRPG we’re talking about – a genre trapped in amber and steeped in nostalgia. And in a time when the Final Fantasy series drags fans kicking and screaming from one experiment to the next, it’s nice to play a game that makes measured progress and makes sure not to throw the Slime out with the bathwater.
Dragon Quest IX expertly walks the tightrope between old and new, spinning an original yarn in the sprawling, epic style of the originators while injecting fresh ideas to the mix. The end result is close to perfect – the ideal entry point for the JRPG neophyte and a fresh dose of nostalgic adventure for the long-time fan.
Heaven Can’t Wait
Dragon Quest games work a bit like Zelda and Final Fantasy games. Each sequel is something of a reboot, but common themes run throughout. Dragon Quest IX sticks with the iconic character design of Akira Toriyama (marred only slightly by the Nintendo DS’s meager visual capacities), a medieval world infused with the DNA of Anglo-Saxon Christianity and the untouchable gospel of turn-based combat.
Here players are a Celestrian – an angel tasked with protecting a village full of mortals. Things seem hunky dory at first. Your good deeds done from the spirit world are rewarded with Benevolessence -- the crystallization of mortal gratitude towards you for your earthly works. But when you present a hunk of the stuff to the great tree Yggdrasil, the most holy living relic of the Celestrians, things go awry.
The ancient tree fruits with magical fyggs and the creator ain’t happy about it. A massive bolt of energy comes down from the sky, smiting the whole tree-hugging party. The magical fyggs are scattered to the winds and the player is cast down from the heavens, their halo and wings torn from them.
And so begins the familiar quest to put things right. One fygg at a time.
Change Is Good
Everything begins in Angel Falls, the tiny berg you were once charged with protecting. Turns out your work isn’t done. Players find their feet as a mortal in a tiny village and learning the ropes of combat while helping humanity from the ground. That means chasing quests, killing beasties and going toe-to-toe with a nasty boss monsters.
While the nuts and bolts of fighting in Dragon Quest IX are familiar to anybody who has touched a turn-based role playing game, there are quite a few tweaks new to the series.
Players customize their character from the start, creating a unique visual look for their avatar from square one. When it comes time to add allies to your party, players can roll and customize them from scratch as well. This is a big change for the Dragon Quest series, which has traditionally dictated the look of the hero and the personalities of all their buddies.
Random battles are no more. You can see enemies as your roam the countryside. Some will make chase. Others will book it away from you if they think you’re too strong. And the trickiest of the creeps will pop up out of the ground or pounce right in front of you, catching you off guard.
On top of the main story, adventurers will pick up a wild array of side quests. These are nothing new, but they’re tracked and rewarded in a way that makes them more manageable than before. And the best of them reward players for playing outside of their safety zone -- granting loot for amping up an ally’s tension or killing enemies with the Frizz spell. The genius of these quests is that they’re instructive -- they teach players the value and fun of using skills and spells they may have otherwise left to gather dust.
As Dragon Quest IX progresses, players gain the ability to change the vocation of their main character and teammates. Everybody starts as a minstrel – a hybrid class that dabbles in swordplay and magic. At first the ability to swap jobs seems counter intuitive, but the practice makes sense when players hook up to adventure with real world friends.
It’s Dangerous To Go Alone
Local multiplayer is something of a sea change for the traditional single-player role-playing game. But rather than re-write combat from the ground up and shake the series to its foundations, Dragon Quest IX does the obvious. When four friends play it in the same room, they can all teleport into a single realm and adventure at will -- roaming wherever they please. The host can summon his buddies to battle in his adventure. When they heed the call, they’re teleported to the host’s fight, entering the turn-based battle queue as if they were one of the player’s NPC allies. Only they get to call their own shots.
Here’s when job-swapping starts to make sense. If you decide to go play with a friend who just started playing Dragon Quest IX, you can change to a level one priest, carrying over some of the skills you earned on your own adventure, and fight alongside your pal without feeling too overpowered.
Or you can just leave your friend to their own devices and scour their realm for crafting ingredients that blossom and grow all around the landscape or hunt for buried treasure while they busy themselves with their single-player story.
A less-involved sleep mode (not unlike Nintendogs’ Bark Mode) lets players gather allies via local wi-fi while their DS is closed and in a backpack or pocket. But unless you’re in elementary school or hanging out at PAX, the likelihood of randomly bumping into fellow Dragon Quest players in the U.S. is slim. We’re not a subway country full of people playing the same game on the train. The utterly friendless can still connect to the internet to buy stuff from an online store and download new side quests.
Despite the setback of finding other players, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies is great enough that it that it may just merit an organized meet up or two. The game’s stellar single-player plot, smartly executed co-op multiplayer and seemingly endless cache of side quests, treasure hunts and crafting recipes are good enough reason to put the Dragon Quest IX cart in your DS and let it live there for a long, long time.