Review: Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
Very early in Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies a catastrophic event causes the Celestrians, a breed of guardian angels, to fall from their invisible castle in the sky. In this classic tale of good, evil, and angels, our Celestrian hero wakes up in the small town he had previously been assigned to protect, though he has become startlingly human. He takes up the cause of helping as many people as he can in order to get the Almighty’s attention and hopefully restore himself to his former glory by gathering benevolessence, a spiritual energy released when humans pray.
This game is the first original title in the series to be made for a portable system. After many delays and outbursts from frustrated fans the game was released last year in Japan to overwhelming applause, even breaking the Guinness World Record for having 100 million people communicating anonymously in the “Chance Encounter” multiplayer mode on May 20, 2010 -- more than one month before being released in the U.S.
For a game so built for collaboration (each of your other three party members can be replaced by other nearby real life players) there is a sturdy single player game here.
The hero is a silent character of the player’s creation, giving the story a classic JRPG feeling modern RPG fans may not enjoy. The playable characters allow the player to have an in-game presence and observe a world where chaos ensues without really learning anything about who you’re experiencing this world through. Because the main characters are never fleshed out or explored the focus is on getting to know the people who make up this large fantasy world rather than merely chatting with them briefly on the way to somewhere else like most games in the genre. Every town has a dire event happening, and in this way the towns themselves become characters as they each have different personalities, problems, pain, and joy.
As you travel to these towns, you’ll come across shops to equip your hero and ready him to protect the citizens of the world from the increase in monster appearances. Having never played a Dragon Quest game before, what piqued my interest was the fact that any armor equipped on your party is immediately visible at all times. This is a mechanic I wish all RPGs employed as convention, ignoring a character’s personal style (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy, and your retro-future bikinis, overalls, trench coats, aviator jackets, and man-thongs) and showing what is actually protecting them in battle. Of course, the game will also throw in the occasional silly outfit (like a “dancer’s costume”) that somehow protects almost as much as metal armor. In those cases it comes down to the player’s personal fashion preference.
Fashion aside, Dragon Quest IX does several other things differently than its recent predecessors. Approximately three and half hours into the game the hero finally gains the ability to recruit three others and complete the party, all of whom are customizable. Party members, like your hero, can also be created or can be randomly selected at the Stornway Inn (which you can always return to). My hero was Aang, a bald-headed youngster who, as a minstrel, dabbled in all arts; water bending, air bending-- erm, I mean the “heal” and “woosh” spells. It isn’t until the ninth or so hour that they gain the ability to change their vocation (job class), though their character level resets to 1 until they level up that individual class. Fortunately, by that point in the game enough experience is given from monsters to even the characters’ levels out fairly quickly. What also helps this process is the option to set automatic “tactics” for each party member. This works well in world map battles (enemies are no longer random encounters, as you can see them on the map), where you can set everyone to “fight wisely” and simply choose your hero’s action and let the others fend for themselves. When a boss battle comes around, however, it is often best to have everyone take orders, manually choosing the appropriate action per character. The ease of switching between automatic and manual commands works extremely well, and the animation of the battles is fluid every time a character performs an action. The tactics battle mechanic makes the game more accessible to newcomers, as they can focus on one character’s actions and observe how the others play, hopefully learning a strategy for tougher battles.
The game moves well over all. I experienced no lag during the main story, and transitions from the world to battle screen and from area to area were painless and quick, with a musical score worthy of composer Kouichi Sugiyama’s 24-year legacy since the series’ creation in 1986.
Level-5 (best known for Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, Jeanne d’Arc, theProfessor Layton series, and White Knight Chronicles) and Square-Enix (known for the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series) have dumbed down the more mature art style of PS2’s Dragon Quest VIII, leaving IX’s a light, childish version of it to better match the look of the previous DS remakes of the series. The tone of the game matches the art style, as much of it is silly, quirky, or full of horrendous monster name puns (at least in the English version) like “meowgician”, the “ragin’ contagion”, and “badboon”. At one point near Alltrades Abbey I came across “Jack of Alltrades”. Maybe this play on words works better in Japanese? Other humor is also included throughout the game, like when an old man was upset because no one would allow him to change his vocation to maid. That one made me laugh; he was very adamant about it.
Despite good pacing, semi-automatic level grinding, and a cohesive world, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies only captivated me for about half the length of the game. I prefer a deeper story with more intricate playable characters when playing an RPG. Ultimately, without a sense of personality for my hero and his recruits I felt disconnected, playing only to see what armor I could wear next, and how hard my sword will hit when I put skill points toward my next ability (you can contribute points toward class skills or weapon skills when leveling up). The story itself did not grab me, and combined with the barebones character development I found myself needing more of an emotional connection. Fans of the Dragon Quest series will most likely love the game and the way it ties a traditional JRPG style of physically creating the “role” aspect yourself, with modern updates. I personally enjoy RPGs for the experience of how ordinary characters develop when put into an extraordinary situation, and Dragon Quest IX is built upon the opposite – an extraordinary character thrown into an ordinary world. However, with hundreds of side quests, an item creation system, downloadable quests, and local multiplayer, someone who is not heavily story-oriented will have plenty of fun.