What used to be rollicking adventures through imaginative landscapes against memorable antagonists now feel predictable, boring and bland. Combat that was thought to be strategic and deep is now repetitive and annoying. Standouts like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI are few and far between.
Fortunately, Dragon Quest IX breaks that mold by innovating where it counts while adhering to what made JRPGs appealing in the first place.
Story and Characters
The primary force that moves JRPGs in the first place is story and characters. That said, this is an area in which Dragon Quest IX is greatly lacking. There is little in the way of a central unifying conflict pushing the adventure forward. This ultimately leads to the narrative feeling like a series of loosely connected stories of the nameless hero’s exploits.
This is not to say that the quests the player will undertake are not compelling, because they certainly are. A quest where the player must help a reclusive, self-loathing doctor cure a village of a magical blight is a standout. The loose thread connecting these quests together revolves around the Celestrians, a race of angels, and their quest to cause the world-tree Yggdrasil to bloom. Mysterious rays from the earth attack the Celestrian’s observatory, causing the player to lose his/her wings and setting them on a quest to retrieve Yggdrasil’s fruit from the Earth. The non-player characters are interesting and the towns and villages that the player will traverse have their own unique back-story.
As compelling the NPCs may be, the fact that Dragon Quest IX was designed to be a co-operative game renders its playable characters as faceless silent-protagonists devoid of motive, conflict or personality. While this does enhance gameplay and prevent ludo-narrative dissonance, it blocks off any chances of emotional attachment to any of these characters, and as a result, the story suffers from it.
Dragon Quest IX has a lot of content, even for an RPG, placing it only second to Pokemon on Nintendo’s system. The main story, discounting subquests, will take up to 45 to 50 hours of the player’s time. Postgame content includes an extensive crafting system, Diablo-like grottos, superbosses and a wealth of free downloadable content. Postgame and side content included, Dragon Quest IX can last for hundreds of hours.
That said, quality does not trump quantity. Fortunately, Dragon Quest IX is indeed a quality game. Combat is of the turn-based variety and, at first glance, seems mundane. However, character customization opportunities are massive, and with over eight character classes to choose from, individualized skill-trees, team-attacks, weapon-proficiencies and rare equipment, combat becomes more strategically deep as the game progresses.
A major problem of JRPG-design is difficulty, and achieving a right balance between repetitive button mashing and frustrating grinding is the key to forcing the player to strategically use all his abilities. That said, Dragon Quest IX is a difficult game. Weaknesses must be exploited, buffs and debuffs must be deployed and each turn must be exploited for its maximum tactical effectiveness. While the game is by no means on the level of Final Fantasy IV, bosses require an intricate level of care and strategy that makes combat satisfying and rewarding.
Unfortunately, stranger-questing is highly uninteresting and, more often than not, revolves grinding rare enemies for rarer drops to exchange for crafting items. The chance-based drop system makes these quests less than fun, and repeatedly searching for enemies to kill becomes repetitive. Thankfully, the removal of random encounters and the use of over-world entities to initiate battles, a-la Chrono Trigger, alleviates this frustration pretty well.
Graphics and Audio
Dragon Quest IX is a pretty game, perhaps the best on the DS. The stylized 3D models are highly detailed and impressively animated and the integration of 2D NPC sprites is flawless and clean. Dynamic cameras and impressive animations make combat considerably more exciting than it has any right to be. The artistic direction of famed Manga-artist Akira Toriyama lends the game world a distinctly Dragonball flavored tone, and classic monster design makes the game’s graphics great from both a technical and artistic perspective. Fully animated cutscenes showcase Toriyama’s artistic prowess and are in a beautifully detailed anime-style.
Much less impressive is the game’s music. While there are a few memorable tunes, like the Observatory theme and the Final Boss theme, the rest of the game’s audio suffers from a distinct lack of special-ness. Omnipresent musical themes that loop often, such as the standard battle-theme and the overworld theme, lack energy and catchiness, thus, removing a considerable amount of excitement from combat and exploration scenes. The high quality of the sound-effects still does not remedy this fundamental flaw.
In all its flaws, Dragon Quest IX is a legitimately great game for anyone who enjoys the JRPG formula. Its innovative twists eliminate the most frustrating parts of this gameplay style while retaining what made the genre so attractive in the first place. Not all of these twists are successful, playable characters are faceless and questing for crafting items feels more daunting than it should be. Nonetheless, the game is more than worth consideration for those seeking a very, very substantial RPG. Recommended. 3.75/5