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, thatís 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 wasnít 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 thatís 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. Whatís 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 itís 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. Whereís 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 donít 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. Iíll 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. Itís 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 thatís nothing compared to past titles. This time you also see enemies on the world map. Walk into any, and the screen zips into classic DQ battle mode. Whatís kind of neat with this system is that if youíre a really low level, you're chased by any enemies that spot you. If youíre high though, they'll flee. Itís 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. Iíll 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 IX is 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 youíve played past Dragon Quest games, then youíd 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. Itís 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 itís 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, Iíd 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 itís so important to read each class's skill trees, in addition to the advanced classes. Itís 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 ďClear!!!Ē mark on your quest book. Whatís 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, theyíve made good on that. In fact, theyíve 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 characterís 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. Sheís 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 youíd 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 wouldnít 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 doesnít compare to VIII, but how could it? It does nevertheless blow most of the DS library out of the water. Youíre 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. Thereís 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 youíre not a fan of Akira Toriyama, then youíd 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 Sugiyamaís 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 didnít 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 canít 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 itís also the largest RPG on the platform. The story is a little different from what fans expected, but it retains the DQ feeling and thatís 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.