Category Archives: Imports

Bayonetta Import Review

bayonettaBayonetta (Available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360]
CERO Rating: D (Ages 17+)
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Action
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Platinum Games
Japanese Release Date: October 29th, 2009
North American Release Date: January 5th, 2010

Bayonetta, much like Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry and other action games, is an intensely difficult, yet rewarding adventure.  Players take on the role of Bayonetta, a witch who’s been asleep for 500 years.  Upon  coming to, she ‘s a total amnesiac.  Even worse, bizarre angelic creatures appear out of nowhere to try to take her away.  You see, angels dwell in another dimension outside the human world.  Thankfully for us, we can only feel their presence, not actually see them.  Bayonetta is befriended by a few human characters, including the mobster Enzo, and potential love interest, Luka.  She also meets several demonic creatures, namely weapon trader Rodin and a mysterious figure from her past, Jeanne.  Not everything in Bayonetta is as it seems.

We soon learn that Bayonetta has the ability to walk between dimensions, thus she can access areas normal humans can’t, where the angels can be damaged.  This is important gameplay knowledge.  By the time players realize who Bayonetta is, and what the angels want, they’ll likely feel like they’ve never experienced something quite like this before.  Bayonetta’s plot is of the most unique to grace an action game in a long time.  Despite being perplexed during most of the first half, the presentation values kept my interest.  Instead of typical, story-advancing FMV cutscenes, the combination of artistic cutscenes that appear graphic novel-ish in design, and in-game cutscenes give Bayonetta its own style.  After the opening cinematic alone, it’s clear that this isn’t your typical action game.

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Each chapter is broken down into several verses, usually around eight or twelve per, and your performance is rated after completing each one.  The individual ratings are averaged when you finish a chapter to calculate your final score.  Well make no mistake, achieving a high score for each verse is extremely difficult.  That’s because Bayonetta is about perfection.  The main idea is to evade enemy attacks in order to activate Witch Time, which does exactly as you might imagine.  It’s vital though because some enemies can only be hurt while in Witch Time.  If you don’t grasp this early on, it’ll feel like hell to finish the game.  The trick is to learn the enemies’ animation, that way you know exactly when to evade.

Performing well is critical; it’s the only way to earn Haloes, the game’s currency.  After gathering enough Haloes, Bayonetta can visit the Gates of Hell by finding special transporter locations scattered about, or before entering any of the game’s 17 chapters.  Rodin is your go-to guy for anything to do with weapons, accessories or items.  Depending on your skill level, you may have enough Haloes to purchase some helpful, wicked accessories.  Otherwise, you must purchase healing items to assist in future areas.  Some accessories make activating Witch Time a breeze, while others allow for devastating magical attacks.  Rodin also sells new techniques, which expand the already insanely long combo list.

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That’s where Bayonetta shines the brightest, the combos.  There are two combo attack buttons, on top of her regular gun offense.  Pressing them in succession executes some of the wildest combos you’ve ever seen.  What’s so great though is that you can switch combos with ease, by simply activating the evade button.  Say you’re in the middle of a combo, but an enemy behind you is about to strike.  Just trip the evade button, activate Witch Time, then turn around to show that enemy who’s boss.  Purchasing techniques over time helps you realize just how incredibly diverse this system is.  Bayonetta also acquires news weapons, so while she starts with four guns on her body (one for each hand and feet), she eventually has a sword, claws and more.  Depending on how you place them, the combo system’s scope completely changes.  It’s all quite staggering.  When all is said and done, Bayonetta is a true force of nature.

Magic is also important.  By mastering Witch Time and evading to mix and mash your combos, you not only earn those Haloes, but your magic meter fills too.  Unless you purchase magic accessories, the default attacks are meant primarily to finish off larger opponents.   If you have a full meter, and a brand-new enemy appears, activate a Torture combo by pressing one or more buttons together.  This activates a short movie in which Bayonetta throws her enemy into an Iron Maiden, or some other medieval torture device.  These actions are deadly to the angels and pleasing to watch if you’re struggling with a particular enemy.  Magic can be even stronger with the right upgrades.  You can then use weaving attacks.  Bayonetta’s hair literally comes alive to assist you in battle, transforming into a giant shoe or giant fist that pound the hell out of the angels.  It’s also used during climax mode, which is how you finish off the bosses.

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If you’re a Contra fan, Bayonetta is a perfect game.  The bosses sometimes fill the entire screen.  The final one is about twelve stories tall, and has six life bars!   I mentioned this game was difficult, did I not?  But with the accessories, combos and techniques, you should emerge in one piece.  The health system is also fun to use.  It’s called ‘conjure’, whereby three different ingredients can create helpful health and assist items.  Three gree essences form a large green lollipop that fills Bayonetta’s health a little more than half way.  A red lollipop increases strength; yellow forms a shield and purple is tied to the magic meter. The lollipops comes in two sizes, large and small.  Small lollies don’t last too long. Understand however, that using just one lowers your score for a verse, and in turn, your overall for a chapter.  If that’s the case at any time, you forfeit bonus Haloes, and you subsequently can’t buy lots of goodies at the Gates of Hell.  Bayonetta is definitely tough, but so fun to conquer.

Outside of these elements are expected, typical features.  There are unforgiving quick time events, and a great variety to the overall progression.  Without variety, an action game like this would become repetitive.  Thankfully the ten hours allow you to do some truly messed up things: riding a rocket blasted off to a secret island, racing down a collapsing highway on a motorcycle, and of course, traversing area after area on-foot hunting your next target.  The change in scenery is the one way where Bayonetta doesn’t turn stagnant.  Truly, I say the pacing is perfect.  Just as things feel slow, the game suddenly drops a ton of enemies on you.  Even free exploration is enticing because of the scenery per dimension.

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A brief mini-game opens after finishing a chapter that tasks you to shoot angels down Duck Hunt-style, but your ammunition is limited.  You can chain attacks, land head shots and more.  Your end tally can then be converted to Haloes or healing and assist items.  If you’re after techniques and accessories, Haloes are the way to go.

If the review ended now, Bayonetta would score insanely high.  Sadly, at least in terms of the PS3 version, things go downhill from here.  While Platinum Games did wonderfully to ensure little repetition, that’s rather to do when there’s so much loading.  A chapter can require up to 25 seconds, and another five to ten seconds to load the menu system after you press the select button.  Even menu pages can span three to fie seconds!  Say you die, which happens often, it takes another 20 seconds to reload your last checkpoint.  Add this all up, and no matter how great the game is, extreme repetition comes in after the first few chapters.  Once you reach the end, you’ll have looked at more loading screens than actually playing.  Ok, I’m exaggerating, but it’s to help you understand that the PS3 version suffers from ridiculous loading.

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To assist with this problem, Platinum Games lets you ‘practice’ on the majority of the loading screens.  Thus you can try all of Bayonetta’s moves while waiting for loading to finish.  Suddenly those 20 seconds don’t feel so long.  This works great initially, but once you hit chapter six or so, the red practice screen will make you cringe.  I really enjoyed Bayonetta, but this problem prevented me from wanting to pursue better scores or unlock new trophies.  I can’t stand to wait for every little thing I do in the game.  SEGA’s considering a patch to fix this, and to that I say, this shouldn’t be a consideration, it should be done ASAP.  The game would be far better as a result.  We’re talking the difference between our Gold and Bronze medals; yes, the loading is that big of a deal.

The graphics also aren’t the greatest, but I’ll discuss the good first.  The environments are breathtaking.  Bayonetta takes place in Vigrid, a fictional European city that looks beautiful.  The art is the best I’ve seen in a modern action game in years.  Everything from the wicked hair effects, torture scenes, to the regular animations are superb.  This is a game that oozes Japanese flair and shines brightly because of it.  There’s constant little details everywhere.  Be it with flowers flying all over the place, or people in the other dimension walking by, unaware of all the action going on around them.  It goes on and on.  This is a gorgeous, stylish game with plenty of prowess in spades.

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Now for what you don’t want to hear.  The PlayStation 3 build is one big technical problem.  Frame rate issues abound with lots of angels on the screen, sometimes turning Bayonetta into a slideshow.  One moment everything is smooth, and the next it feels like Bayonetta is underwater.  That’s my best analogy.  Other issues occur with the on-screen filter.  Therein is the problem; there isn’t supposed to be a filter, but it sure looks like it.  Textures appear blurry when compared to the Xbox 360 version.  I have the PS3’s, but after watching high-def videos of the Xbox 360 game, there are clearly differences.  Loading is the biggest problem, but these other hiccups prevent Bayonetta from top-tier success.

Audio-wise, our very own Ahmed Mosly would be proud to hear the soundtrack.  It’s awesome.  The main theme is fantastic, but the other tracks are also fitting.  When dramatic scenes play out, there are light hints of orchestrated music, and then the action goes into overdrive, and rock music blasts out of your speakers.  Despite bad-ass music, the voice acting suffers from cheesy dialogue.  The actors do a ‘good enough’ job, but the script is really mundane.  Thankfully the music and killer sound effects more than make up for it.  Surround sound owners would appreciate the great use of their setup.  As helicopters pass overhead, their sounds clearly pass from one channel to the next.  It comes together wonderfully.

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Though Bayonetta is an import, it scans your PS3 the minute it enters the drive.  If it detects it to be a North American system, the code converts everything to English.  I’m talking text, voice acting, everything.  If you want the North American box art and instruction manual, by all means wait for the January release, but otherwise purchase the import.  I also recommend you consider the Xbox 360 version over this one based on my experiences.  If SEGA releases that patch, it may help the PS3’s situation, but the frame rate and other technical problems likely won’t be addressed.  That ultimately brings down the package.  While still an entertaining game, the ridiculous loading would make even the biggest action fan cringe when they should be smiling while ripping through angels.  We’ll compare and contrast the North American Xbox 360 release with this one when they arrive in January.  Until then, head online and try the demo to gauge if Bayonetta is your type of insanity.

Scoreboard:

Story: 8.5/10

Gameplay: 8/10

Controls: 8.5/10

Graphics: 8/10

Sound: 8.5/10

Value: 7.5/10

Overall (Not an average): 8.3/10

3D Dot Game Heroes Import Review

3D Dot Game Heroes3D Dot Game Heroes (PlayStation 3)
CERO Rating: A
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Action RPG
Publisher: From Software
Developer: Silicon Studio
Japanese Release Date: November 5th, 2009
North American Release Date: May 11th, 2010

Are you a fan of the original Legend of Zelda?  Do you crave the days when videogames didn’t really help you out, but instead forced you to replay over and over to find every little secret?  Do you long for the days when videogames were about gameplay and substance, not flashy visuals and surround sound?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, particularly the first, then you’ve found your dream game.  3D Dot Heroes, as I shall call it from here on out, is the answer to those questions.  It’s essentially the original Legend of Zelda, mixed with the overworld of A Link to the Past, and a few elements from Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest thrown in for good measure.  There are no stunning graphics or a fully orchestrated soundtrack by the London Symphony Orchestra.  What you get here is most pixelated graphics this generation, mixed with great synth music and archaic gameplay traditions.  It can tickle your nostalgia bone so much that you’ll be stuck to the television for twenty hours or so.  At least, that’s what happened to me.  It really drew out my inner child.  Read on to find out why.

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Part of the magic lies in the storyline.  The Legend of Zelda featured Zelda’s kidnapping and Link rescuing her.  There was a little more to it with the Triforce, but at its core, Zelda was kidnapped and needed help from Link, who would ultimately restore order to the land.  Simple enough, right?  Thankfully the series progressed a lot, so when A Link to the Past hit in a few years, the story spanned generations and felt epic.  Fans of ALttP are in luck, because 3D Dot Heroes has far more in common with it than any of the other Zeldas.  The major exception: this game is completely humor-centric.

The tale begins many generations ago when the world was 2D.  Yes, completely flat.  As you could imagine, the people weren’t very happy with this.  I mean, would you want live in a flat world?  I didn’t think so.  So despite acceptance of their flat universe, they just weren’t happy.  One day an evil creature wreaked havoc on the world.  He released monsters all across the land, and it was a really bad day.  Yes, the game actually says that.  At that moment, six sages created special artifacts that would harness their combined power and lock away the evil forever.  What a coincidence!  Once done, the king celebrated by making the world 3D.  With the sages’ strength and PlayStation 3’s power (I’m serious), their world suddenly went full 3D.  It was also decided that the legendary heroes were no longer necessary, so the Power Sword was eternally sealed away…

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If the plot sounds familiar, it should; the whole game borrows virtually every element imaginable from Zelda.  Things pick up several generations later when the great evil has broken free, monsters roam once again, and a hero is needed.  I’m ad-libbing here, but I’m sure you understand.  The rest of the story is just as ridiculous, and only becomes more insane once weapons are introduced.  Many of the event items are named after technologies introduced in the early nineties.  You can expect to see a Mode 7 weapon, or maybe a polygon item, etc.  It’s completely nuts, but works so well.  I smiled almost the entire time.

As always, it’s important to know that this is a Japanese import.  If you don’t understand the language, you’ll have trouble acquiring all the event items and side-quests.  Other than that, it’s perfectly feasible that a non-Japanese gamer can complete the main quest and really enjoy it.  The trophy descriptions are in Japanese too, so if you’re a trophy whore, a translation guide will be necessary.

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Gameplay works almost identically to the first Zelda on the Famicom Disk System/NES.  You traverse the overworld seeking clues that will lead to the next dungeon.  There are six total, before you take on the Great Tower.  The general progression works as follows: visit a local town, learn a dungeon’s location, complete it and acquire a new weapon.  You also meet one of the sages and learn a magic spell.  Afterwards, you move on to the next village.  Rinse and repeat.  This is how Zelda has worked for years, and for the most part, it’s exactly how 3D Dot Heroes works today.

In dungeons, players transition one screen at a time, fighting their way ever closer to the master.  Everything from the bosses, health, magic, to even the puzzles and basic enemies are Zelda-inspired.  Expect to see knights, blobs, bats, skeletons, and more.  Even enemy movement is a carbon copy of the eighties.  The same goes for puzzles.  The more advanced ones introduced in Ocarina of Time are nowhere to be found here.  Instead, you merely tackle switches with blocks, defeat all the enemies in a room to progress, etc.  This should be second nature to any Zelda fan.  Rather than feeling like a complete rip-off though, everything forms as a great homage to Nintendo’s classic work.  It’s for this reason why From Software hasn’t been sued…yet.

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Even so, not everything is copied.  For one, 3D Dot Heroes features about 20 or so swords.  Zelda has never boasted that.  Nonetheless, similarities are obvious.  The ever trusty boomerang, bombs, bow and arrows, hookshot, and more are present.  Even how your armor upgrades is via a magical ring.  Classic!  Either way, the swords are the difference here.  You acquire the vast majority through side-quests and events.  Unfortunately, this is where some troubles come into play.  Like old-school videogames, you’re never told exactly when and what to do to activate events.  You could play the entire game and miss everything, but there are two endings as a result.  For the good conclusion, you must rescue two fairies and the princess before defeating the final boss.  However, no one tells you that.  This is one of those classic love or hate it aspects.  Given 3D Dot Heroes was just released, one would hope this would have been addressed.  Hints are never a bad thing.  Instead, expect to roam around for hours looking for every item and event quest.  After 23 hours, I was still missing plenty.

More differences lie in the sword tempering.  Players can visit a blacksmith and upgrade not only their swords’ overall length and width, but also whether they fire magical beams, reach through walls, etc.  A maxed out sword is extremely powerful.  You can also arc sword attacks.  By pressing and holding circle and moving the analog stick, you can swing in various directions.  This isn’t possible with each sword, but that’s what makes them so unique.

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Finally there are side-quests.  You may be asked to bring water to someone’s cousin in a village, or take an illustration book and capture every enemy in the game.  That sounds overwhelming, but because of 3D Dot Heroes’ old-school nature, there are only around a dozen enemies.  That said, ‘capturing’ the bosses truly tests your skills.  To do so, you actually have to equip the book and bash the enemy for the capture.  It’s not easy though.  Some enemies require multiple hits.  Certain bosses call for up to 70 whacks before the book rewards you with the lovely little “GET” message.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but the final boss takes 300 times!

3D Dot Heroes suffers somewhat from mimicking such old mechanics, but there’s no denying that the new elements and sheer nostalgia more than make up for the shortcomings.  I’ve enjoyed this import so much that I didn’t even want to write this, instead I desired to just explore every nook and cranny of the world.  I’m certain that old-school gamers will feel the same.

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With the graphics, it’s rather funny.  While they sure look old, they also appear really nice.  Some elements are clearly better than others.  There’s a whole new level of charm thanks to all the polygon cubes.  It really feels like Zelda jumped out of the NES and into the PS3, but didn’t get the memo about ultra-realistic graphics.  It still looks and feels like the NES game.  There are problems though, some rather surprising.  Loading is one.  Every time you leave the overworld, you’re treated to a lovely loading screen.  It’s white, with a poster of old videogames redone with the 3D Dot graphics.  Those like Adventure Island, Double Dragon, Street Fighter and others make an appearance.  While this is awesome content, there are way too many screens.  I began feeling bored of them by the ten hour mark.  Add in another ten, and I started to dread them.  This brought down the score a bit, which is a shame.  Other little issues include slowdown when too much is happening at one time.  This wasn’t done for nostalgia; it’s clearly a technical hiccup.  On the flip side, the water looks great and character design is excellent.

Continuing on graphics, I suppose now’s a great time to mention the 16x16x16 dot character creation mode.  My numbers may be off, but that’s not important.  If that wasn’t enough, the finished product can be exported to a USB stick and uploaded to your home computer, and then the Net for all to enjoy.  It stinks that this isn’t an in-game feature, but at least there’s a simple work-around.  You can also take screenshots at almost any time and share them too.  The ones you see in this review are all courtesy of my adventure.  Yes, nothing exciting, but I was too immersed to stop and think to take pics.

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As far as the soundtrack goes, once again, it pays homage to The Legend of Zelda.  Even the main theme sounds familiar.  There is synth, MIDI and more featured.  There’s no voice acting, given the design From Software was going for.  There are about a dozen songs, and they somehow don’t grow repetitive.  Every map area enjoys its own distinct sound that fits perfectly.  When in the desert, there are distinct Arab melodies, Celtic rhythms in other areas, and more.  It’s a simple, yet very effective soundtrack.  (I’m looking at you Ahmed!)

3D Dot Game Heroes is an excellent addition to any classic videogame fan’s library.  It lasts between twelve and twenty-five hours depending on what you want to do.  Even afterward, you can return to finish any quests missed.  Just be sure to pick up a guide or read an FAQ, because there are timed quests you won’t want to miss.  Nintendo may have The Legend of Zelda, but PS3 fans now have the next closest thing, literally.  When 3D Dot Game Heroes arrives in North America, check it out.  You won’t be disappointed.

Scoreboard:

Story: 7.5/10

Gameplay: 8/10

Controls: 7.5/10

Graphics: 8/10

Sound: 8/10

Value: 8/10

Overall (Not an Average): 8.3/10

Dragon Quest IX Import Review

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For our main COE website review, click here.

Who could’ve predicted that Square-Enix, an acclaimed RPG maker, would release a DS-exclusive entry in its second most popular franchise? Not I, that’s for sure. When the company announced that Dragon Quest IX would be an exclusive for Nintendo’s supreme portable, I was anything but pleased. I’m not a DS hater, simply a Dragon Quest VIII lover. The North American version of DQ VIII was so polished and absolutely awesome that I dreamt of what Level-5 could create on the PlayStation 3. Just note however that this was before the Wii turned the industry upside-down. There I am sitting at the computer when the news breaks; DQ IX is a Nintendo DS exclusive multiplayer-driven action-RPG. Needless to say, I was furious. My favourite RPG series was not only being dumbed down for the sake of the DS, but the last true, traditional RPG was transforming into another Zelda clone. Whoopee. Thankfully I wasn’t alone in this thinking, and Level-5 changed the gameplay dramatically. I’m also happy to report that my initial fears were put to rest upon finally playing the game, realizing what a wonderful job Level-5 has done. Make no mistake folks, Dragon Quest IX is the real deal and a crowning achievement for the little handheld.

Like most Dragon Quest games, the story develops slowly. Players create an angelic character that’s charged with finding special auras, which are used by the World Tree to grant access to the Land of the Goddess. Initially your creation acts as a sort of guardian angel to the town of Wollo. If trouble pops up, it’s your job to help the people. Doing so grants you the auras necessary for the World Tree. What’s initially interesting is that no one in the game’s world can see angels. That doesn’t take long to change though. Something terrible happens and your hero is cast out of the Realm of the Angels, eventually coming to in the land of the living. Your character is now mortal and must find the Fruit of the Goddess to return to the Realm, restore the World Tree and be granted access to the Land of the Gods.

That may not sound overtly epic at first, but it’s not long before you can take part in over 120 side quests to assist the game’s many inhabitants. Epic creatures of all shapes and sizes are fought, and a huge plot twist occurs to draw the line between friend and protector. The story is indeed entertaining, although it’s much shorter than that of the last few Dragon Quest titles. VIII thrived on its party member interaction, and VII spanned over 100 hours, most of which was story-related. IX’s plot clocks in at about forty hours if you’re the patient type, but it can easily be finished in half that time if you blast through everything. Where’s the fun in that though? Thankfully this Dragon Quest mixes things up by paying a lot of focus to multiplayer and replay value. This is bizarre for an RPG, but somehow it works extremely well. The hardcore are likely to be surprised by the lack of any party system though. The group you form is comprised of characters that you don’t interact with in the least, thus naturally the story suffers.

Chances are that players will first notice the staggering attention given to the customization options. Not only do you create your own male or female hero, but after a few hours, the rest of the gang must be created. Everything from eye color to overall body weight can be customized. The system may not be as deep as sports videogames, but there’s enough variety to guarantee that every character looks distinct. Even the color-coded border for your group can be chosen, a feature implemented primarily for multiplayer. Each player knows by a quick glance where they stand in the menu selection. I’ll elaborate more on this shortly. There are tons of customization options here, more so than virtually any other DS game, let alone of this genre.

General progression fares like any other DQ. You enter a town, talk to the villagers, learn of unfavorable circumstances, and lend a hand. There’re a dozen or so villages in the game, and every one requires your assistance in some way. As per usual, each successive locale bears a stock of newer, more advanced armour and weapons. Customization comes into play here too. Changing your character’s armour occurs in real-time, which is neat. If the shirt you were wearing was red, and the new one is a shiny silver, you see that change immediately. It’s even possible to create costumes that resemble heroes of past Dragon Quest games. I think that’s a pretty cool touch.

In respect to franchise change, the first major one aside from customization lies with the random encounters, or complete lack thereof now. This is the first DQ to ditch random encounters, except for when you gain access to the ship. You’ll run into a few encounters when on the high seas, but that’s nothing compared to past titles. This time you also seeenemies on the world map. Walk into any, and the screen zips into classic DQ battle mode. What’s kind of neat with this system is that if you’re a really low level, you’re chased by any enemies that spot you. If you’re high though, they’ll flee. It’s a really nifty mechanic that promotes exploration. This is the first DQ in which I thoroughly enjoyed exploring every nook and cranny of dungeons because I chose when I wanted to fight, not some random timer.

The other big change comes as a result of the game being on the DS, touch controls. I’ll be really honest here; they don’t add anything to the experience. You can use the stylus to make a blue arrow pop up that shows the direction your character would move if you continued sliding the plastic stick. It feels cumbersome compared to Phantom Hourglass. Commands also must be double-clicked, which is strange. I tried the touch controls for about ten minutes, when I immediately switched back to button input and never looked back. I question why the alchemy post, which makes a return appearance, doesn’t take advantage though. In fact, other than its marketplace dominance, there’s no reason why DQ IXis exclusive to DS. While navigating the world map, the top screen pinpoints your location, and red dots symbolize villages. Other than that, I only found the DS hardware to be beneficial when inside dungeons. The upper screen displays the dungeon’s map, and the touch surface shows your character. It’s nothing extravagant, but it works well, so I’ll take it!

But given this is a DS game, most of the dungeons are short, not to mention enemies will typically travel in pairs and threes. Occasionally you see a six, and that’s more or less the max. This can be off-putting as you delve further into the quest, but very quickly the difficulty spikes. The reason is because of DQ IX’s new class system. If you’ve played past Dragon Quest games, then you’d likely feel right at home. For those less fortunate, I’m happy to explain. The main hero’s default class is called Entertainer. With that, there are five skill subsets, which include: Sword, Spear, Knife, Shield and Bravery. Skill Points are awarded upon leveling up, and they can be allocated to any of those skill trees. Thankfully they’re all visible, so players can simply determine which would give them the best perks. There are ten bonuses per skill tree. Say someone throws all their points into Bravery, eventually perks such as Permanent Strength +10, Permanent Max HP +10, etc. are unlocked. Don’t think too hard about ‘Permanent’ though, it’s quite simple. It’s for when you decide to switch classes. Once you reach the Dharma Temple, anyone in your group can change classes, but just so you know, around 42 levels are required to master any one skill tree. By then it’s likely you would be the end of the game, so the ultimate worth of changing classes is at your discretion.

There are twelve classes total: six basic and six advanced. Remember those Permanent bonuses? Well, those follow you as you change class. If I select Mage as a new class from Entertainer, I would still have Permanent Max HP +10. If I grinded all the way to level 42, I’d acquire a bunch of new bonuses. Any time you revisit the Dharma Temple and change your class, any permanent perks you’ve unlocked join the ride. The only exception to this rule, and what makes this system different than DQ VII’s, is that spells are left behind because they’re class-specific. That means if you began as a Mage only to become a Warrior, don’t expect to start tossing fire spells around. Nonetheless, you keep the MP and magical resistance bonuses. That’s it’s so important to read each class’s skill trees, in addition to the advanced classes. It’s possible to create a supreme character by simply maxing out all the classes, then returning to the one you prefer for overall abilities.

Advanced classes are unlocked via completing side-quests. DQ IX features 120 of them at the onset, and they’re easy to find. It’s as straightforward as entering a village and talking to characters with blue speech bubbles over their heads. You can’t grab them all at once though; NPCs tell you to finish a few if you have more than ten logged. At first, most quests involve fetching or the alchemy pot, whereby you’re tasked with creating a weapon, armour, etc. for villagers. Doing so puts a nice “Clear!!!” mark on your quest book. What’s really cool is that side-quests may never end. Once you reach about the ten hour mark, a certain character grants you access to the Dragon Quest Wi-Fi Store. Obviously you need a hotspot to connect, but your game can automatically download new adventures if you’re close to one. Not only that, but the online store is wide open and updated daily. Wares range from alchemy ingredients all the way to super rare equipment. You use in-game gold to make purchases, which is always better than real world money. Square-Enix has promised that at least one new quest will be downloadable every Friday for the game’s first full year. Thus far, they’ve made good on that. In fact, they’ve started releasing more than one per week, which is even better.

The download store adds an entirely new dimension to Dragon Quest because it gives players a reason to play long after the main story is completed. If that’s not enough, IX features a full, easy-to-set-up multiplayer mode. From the main menu, scan for other players and jump on in. Everyone needs a copy of the game, but don’t let that stop you from carrying out side-quests or whatever else with your friends. In battle, participants take turns selecting commands, which is where that color-coding comes in hand. By looking at my character’s green border, I know my turn to input a command is imminent. Unfortunately, the mode is local only. One can hope that Square-Enix adds full online support for the North American version. Yet as of right now, the game has yet to be formally announced for anywhere outside of Japan. Still, I admit that both the online store and local multiplayer are reasons enough to play DQ IX for months after purchase.

There are a few other new features to talk about. Sandy is a character that many have been vocally negative about, but I find her quite fun. Think of her as Dragon Quest IX’s Navi, just far more useful and less annoying. She’s actually integral to the storyline, but also helps with skills, tracking your alchemy recopies and the bestiary. You can always ask her for a hand during quests too. I should also mention the removal of multiple save files. Square-Enix claims it was necessary due to DS cards’ limited space, and they may be right. Every class you play is remembered so that you can easily revert on a whim. There’s also all those customization options to consider, so I could see how all that taken into account would take up a lot of space. Some have been greatly annoyed by the single save file, but I haven’t felt affected. Given that you can play through any class as often as you’d like, any issues seem irrelevant.

Those are the main areas of concern, but since this is an import review, I should mention how language-friendly the game is. That was sarcasm by the way, because DQ IX isn’t easy at all. Unless you want to spend hours flipping through translation guides, asking for help on message boards, or play the game blindly, then you may want to avoid an import. Fanatics could understand the combat basics, but actually progressing in this full Japanese game is something else entirely. I have to rate the game an advanced comprehension required for those that would want full benefit. Just playing isn’t easy without understanding a little Japanese, or again, using tons of guides, etc. I wouldn’t recommend that however.

Now I’ve arrived to the segment that you’ve likely been wanting information about the most. How does the game look and sound on the Nintendo DS? Well, it certainly doesn’t compare to VIII, but how could it? It does nevertheless blow most of the DS library out of the water. You’re given 3D worlds, polygon enemies, NPC sprites, and a great mixture of the three. The visuals are extremely bright; some spots are stunning. Unsurprisingly the polygons are mostly blocky by nature, textures are pretty flat, but the art design and overall package comes together effortlessly. There’s noticeable slowdown whenever too many enemies appear on-screen at once though. The minute you create a four-member team, the game clearly becomes bogged down. But to be fair, this was expected given some of the detail in the town environments. The battlefields are also a little sparse, featuring little more than some grass and a few mountain ranges. To keep things running, the overhead view limits draw distance, but that doesn’t sacrifice the classic epic feeling. Even so, if you’re not a fan of Akira Toriyama, then you’d likely be a little turned off completely by DQ IX, but I love his style within this universe. It’s also worthwhile to note that Level-5 reused many of the designs from VIII, so fans of that should feel some nostalgia. The big surprise was the inclusion of anime sequences. They feature some artifacting, but look nice and act as a great intermission.

Koichi Sugiyama’s soundtrack for DQ IX may not be the series’ best, but it features many classic tunes mixed in with some great new ones. There’s synthesized material in addition to fully orchestrated heaven. I didn’t expect that at all. The music definitely highlights the rest of the package. I’m keeping my eye open for the CD release and can’t wait to bring that over from Japan as well. DQ IX does lack something audio-wise though, and that’s voice acting, just like VIII. Yet I can’t see that changing for the North American release, but it’s truthfully unnecessary for a DS RPG like this. The soundtrack alone is so well-done that it fills in the gaps of not hearing the characters.

Dragon Quest IX was a very long time coming. I was initially disappointed by its DS exclusivity instead of being slated for a current-day console, but I now apologize to our fans for ever doubting Level-5’s abilities. This is unquestionably one of the most technically-impressive DS releases, and it’s also the largest RPG on the platform. The story is a little different from what fans expected, but it retains the DQ feeling and that’s by far the most important element. By far the biggest inclusions in this latest entry are the multiplayer mode and Wi-Fi Store. I can only hope Square-Enix does similarly with the upcoming Wii release of Dragon Quest X. Expect an import review of that game whenever it ships too. All you need to know right now is that DQ IX is an instant buy whenever it lands in North America. It’s not the best Dragon Quest, but certainly one of the most quality DS RPGs.