Dragon Quest is always a series that has kind of eluded me. Being based in the UK, I never got to experience the series back when it was on the 8 or 16 bit consoles, and then the PS2 releases passed me by as I picked up titles like Disgaea and Persona instead.
Some might suggest that leaves me perfectly poised to review Dragon Quest IX – an unspoiled newcomer – but before I started playing I actually went back and went through a crash course of some other titles in the series as well as read up on how the series has evolved and how it’s regarded by fans both in the West and in Japan.
This process confirmed what I kind of already knew – that while Final Fantasy has been dynamic, changing battle systems and game mechanics entirely from game to game, Dragon Quest has remained largely static, swapping out characters and setting but keeping mostly the same gameplay elements.
While this is true on the surface, it’s worth saying that once you scratch past that initial offering, there’s a surprising amount of depth and nuanced gameplay that requires a great deal more concentration that the ‘simple turn based RPG’ branding Dragon Quest has been smacked with suggests.
When the game was first announced for Nintendo DS, fans cried out in disappointment – this was, after all, the sequel to one of the best looking PS2 titles ever made – and it was going to the lowest power machine on the market. While it’s true that the game isn’t as good looking as it would’ve been on PS2, it’s still very pretty and on par with other Square Enix efforts on DS such as Final Fantasy IV DS – and as such stands as one of the best looking games on the platform.
While there’s been a graphical drop thanks to the platform change, the switch to DS has actually gone a long way to help the series refocus itself and become something new that actually harks back more to the NES titles than the recent history of Dragon Quest.
The key change here comes in the form of customizable characters – every single member of the player party is created by the player, and as such they’re generic avatars with little to nothing in the way of official storyline or personality.
You’ll create your lead at the main game, and further characters can be generated throughout the game as often as you need. You’ll determine their initial appearance, while the stuff you equip on them actually determines how they look – always a welcome bit of added detail. All four of the party members are 100% player created; meaning the burden of telling the story is left on NPCs and the world itself.
The result is a charming world and a great cast of supporting characters who all have to hold the game’s simple story up with no main characters who’ll speak back to them. Everyone in the party is mute, and the story is told via people speaking at you or two others rather than elaborate conversations.
In general it works well, and the lack of a speaking cast wasn’t something I generally missed, but there are moments when it’s missed. Perhaps the next game could have at least one preset party member, to balance it out – as the main cast is, of course, more or less forgettable, apart from the bright purple hair I have my lead character.
The core storyline isn’t as melodramatic or self-serious as Final Fantasy, and as such the main storyline – which’ll take you somewhere between 40 and 50 hours to polish off – is easily told through this method. A lot of the point of Dragon Quest IX’s structure is to provide free-roaming, open-ended gameplay outside of the story, much like those original NES games which dropped you on a world map and said “Okay, GO!” at the start of the game.
The game isn’t about heading from one plot area to another in a strict order, instead encouraging you to explore areas you’ve not been to before and perform a bunch of side-quests before proceeding on. Put simply, Dragon Quest IX isn’t the type of game that you just plough through the story on – one reason why this review has taken so long to arrive!
Every side quest you perform and everything you do will reward you significantly, increasing the amount of customization options you can inflict on your party members and providing you with new options for the item crafting system, or unlock new class options – everything you do is met with an ample and usually useful reward.
Despite having a 40 or 50 hour story, thanks to the way its constructed Dragon Quest IX is actually the kind of game you can spend a good 90 or 100 hours on – possibly even more. It’s a time sink, and not because it makes you grind, but because it’s addictive.
The actual game content is the same Dragon Quest gameplay you’ve come to know, with enemy encounters presenting you with a menu and a number of combat options to pick from. It’s then simply a matter of fighting, using your enemies weaknesses and your strengths to win. That’s simple and familiar, but the way you customize and build your own characters adds a whole new level of strategy to the game that is more reminiscent of a strategy RPG like Disgaea than a traditional story-driven turn-based RPG.
The class system is largely familiar but expanded on here by the fact all your characters are blank slates. When the game begins you’ll only have access to archetypal ‘vocations’ – what this game calls the classes – like warrior and healer, but as time goes on you’ll unlock more diverse and interesting roles to place characters in.
That’s the story of Dragon Quest IX, really – it’s a mixture of the familiar and ideas that aren’t necessarily all-new but haven’t been explored in this manner in this setting yet. Dragon Quest IX takes cues from strategy RPGs, titles like Monster Hunter and even mobile phone games and crams them all into a little cartridge for a stunning value for money.
The one big feature of Dragon Quest IX that I’ve not mentioned thus far is its multiplayer aspect. Entirely new to the series, this is clearly where a big chunk of the development time went. Up to four players can connect up locally and form a party, though everyone is an individual and can roam about the host world at will and do what they like. What you’ll want to do, though, is join together and get through those harder dungeons and challenges, as progress in the multiplayer transfers back to the host’s single player story.
This offers the great ability to invite a higher level friend in if you get stuck, or go and help a buddy. Any progress gained in the multiplayer word is carried back to your own, so if you level up while visiting or grab an awesome piece of loot, you keep that experience and that item.
The multiplayer is a master class in how multiplayer could be handled in a turn based RPG, and left me wanting for an online version that didn’t require the players to be close-by. With the success of this game that may well happen in the future, which could lead to this title being seen as a turning point.
As well as the multiplayer there’s special downloadable events that Nintendo or Square Enix can set up to deliver extra levels and quests, and there’s also the ‘tag’ mode – where the DS sits in your pocket, still on, and exchanges data with any other Dragon Quest players nearby. This meant trains in Japan were full of Dragon Quest IX players swapping data which then generates unique quests and dungeons based on data from the other game.
This data adds another new aspect to the game, and while it’s questionable how well this’ll work in the much-less Dragon Quest obsessed West, I intend to walk around GamesCom in a month’s time with Dragon Quest in my pocket to see what I pick up.
Aside from that, special credit has to go to the localization team for an absolutely amazing job. The game was clearly translated by someone who loves the English language as much as I do, and it’s jam-packed with dumb puns, clever lines and just some fun writing that makes the simplistic story full of character and charm – it’s simply a great localization.
What you get here is a game that mixes tradition and new ideas and borrowed ideas wonderfully, experimenting and showing the original titles reverence in equal – and correct – measure. It has its shortcomings – the lack of a true online mode, an entirely mute main cast and the actual battles being simplistic in presentation stick out at me – but Dragon Quest IX is still a herculean effort on the part of Square Enix.
It’s a shame, then, that this game will likely never have the success in the West that Final Fantasy XIII has. What it may do is pave the way for the series to build into something more, though. It may be a bit too familiar in places if you’re a series fan, but this experience brings enough new to the table that it’ll still excite you, and this is as good an introduction as any for those new to the series.