plasticpals's Dragon Quest IX: Hoshizora no Mamoribito (Nintendo DS) review

Unprecedented amount of content for a portable RPG

Square-Enix sent shockwaves through the worldwide gaming community when it announced that the latest chapter in its long running role-playing game series Dragon Quest was being developed for the Nintendo DS.  Each new game in the franchise had always been developed for the most successful game console of its day, but back in 2006 (with no clear indication of what the future console wars might bring) Square-Enix broke series tradition and went with the popular portable.  The previous game had been made for the much more powerful PlayStation 2, so immediately many fans were worried.  Alas, their fears can be put to rest as Dragon Quest 9 retains the series’ charm and adds a few new ideas that take advantage of the DS’s portability for good measure.

Story

The main character is a Celestrian, an angelic guardian who begins the game as an apprentice taking on the duties of watching over a small village called Angel Falls.  Up in the Observatory, from which the Celestrians monitor the mortal realm, is the sacred tree Yggdrasil.

Although the mortals below cannot see or hear the Celestrians, they worship them regardless and praise them whenever good things happen.  Celestrians gather Benevolessence, the pure form of mortal tributes, and offer it to the Yggdrasil.  It is said that when the Yggdrasil has accumulated enough of this energy, it will bear fruit and the Celestrians can finally return home to the Great Almighty.  And as it turns out, the Yggdrasil is almost ready to bloom…

Get A Job

Similar to its sibling Final Fantasy, every other game in the Dragon Quest series has implemented a “job system” that allows the player to customize their characters with a selection of vocations.  Creating entirely unique heroes from scratch has its strengths (you can make them male or female, each with 10 unique hair styles, faces, skin color, and body type), but character development is not one of them.  Dragon Quest 9 is not immune to this problem, as only the primary player character (the Celestrian) is given a proper back story.  For the first few hours this character will be a minstrel, which is a well-rounded jack-of-all-trades type of job.  Soon you can create companions (three can join at a time), and eventually everyone will be able to change their job freely.

Sticking with one job long enough will yield specific traits and capabilities which aid in combat.  Jobs not only affect what kind of abilities each character will learn as they accrue experience, but also what equipment they can use.  Generally speaking clothing is class specific, but mastering any weapon type allows you to equip it regardless of occupational restrictions.  A small handful of special job types can be unlocked by completing optional quests.

No Random Battles

It’s been a long time coming, but they finally got around to eliminating those pesky random encounters.  You can now see monsters roaming around on the map, and avoiding battles is usually as simple as running circles around them.  Depending on your party’s level, under-powered monsters may flee when they see you, or, if they are around the same level or stronger they might chase you to initiate a fight.  The best part of being able to see specific monsters is that you can selectively fight the monsters that are required to complete a quest, or that you know will yield more experience points.

As usual, you can choose a number of auto-fight options for your party members to speed up the many battles.  You can have a character conserve MP until needed, or have characters heal when necessary, and so on without explicitly entering commands.  Some battles will require precise strategies but there are many instances where you’ll want to let the computer take over, and the system is very reliable.

Stylus Control

Unlike many of Square-Enix’s previously released games, this one makes full use of the Nintendo DS touchscreen.  You can play through the whole game without pressing any buttons if you want to.  I found that using the stylus to direct my characters, and then using the traditional buttons to navigate menus during battles, worked best for me.  When approaching characters, a speech bubble pops up above their heads, which can be tapped to initiate the conversation.  Likewise, an exclamation point pops up above the player character’s head to interact with an item in the environment (such as reading a bookshelf or smashing a barrel).  As a righty, I could comfortably hold the DS system in my left hand while holding the stylus with my right hand to play the game.  It’s a really great addition that made the game much more comfortable for me to play compared to other DS games.

Presentation

Dragon Quest 9 makes excellent use of the DS’s limited graphical capabilities, and is technically one of the best looking titles to hit the platform.  The designers have had to cut corners  in some cases, for example most townspeople are 2D sprites rather than 3D models in order to keep the game running smoothly.  That said, all of the important side characters are 3D and look just as detailed as the player characters and the story sequences have been carefully crafted with good camera direction to show them off.  Each of the areas and towns have their own unique look and feel, which helps to make them memorable.  A few CG movies peppered throughout the game highlight the most important plot points.

The enhanced battle sequences are more exciting and involved compared to previous entries in the series, but are something of a double-edged sword.  While they’re certainly more fun to watch, the battles take longer to play out as a result of all the action.  I would have liked the option of turning off the animations, but ultimately it’s a trade-off that is worth it  since earlier Dragon Quest titles only showed the monsters on screen.

Quests

Some of the people you’ll come across have a request for you, as denoted by a blue speech bubble above their heads.  These “quest requests” will often yield special items or ingredients, and often involve finding and killing a specific type of monster in a very specific way.  Some of these quests are offered by masters of one of the available jobs; you’ll have to meet the level requirements (typically level 15 and level 40) before they’ll even consider you for it, but you’ll want to complete them as they furnish expert equipment and otherwise unobtainable skills.

Quests follow the model of those seen in MMORPGs.  While some of the quests (kill 10 blank-s, or bring me 10 blank-s) are simple busy work, others require you to show your skill in battle, and some entail a certain amount of dumb luck.  For example, you may need to hunt down and dispatch some elusive metal slimes  – but the finishing blow must come from a mage, and only after that mage has conjured a wizard ward spell.  Completionists will be driven mad by their specific form of OCD thanks to the sheer quantity and variety of quests, but thankfully they are totally optional.

Alchemy

Dragon Quest 9 brings back the alchemy pot that allows you to mix ingredients to fashion weapons and armor that can’t be purchased at any of the shops.  You’ll collect ingredients from fallen foes and treasure chests, as well as from sparkling deposits that are scattered throughout the landscape.  Reading from the bookshelves you’ll find across the world yields recipes that tell you exactly what is needed to make new items, though a little trial and error may yield decent results.  The desire to synthesize spectacular gear will have you conquering secret grottoes in search of rare loot, and you’ll get to show off your hard work when you play with friends in the multiplayer mode.

Treasure Maps & Grottoes

You’ll acquire treasure maps which are exactly what you’d imagine; a small map with a big X marking the location of a hidden grotto.  Using what little geographical hints are contained in the map’s layout will lead you to the exact location, but this is easier said than done.  The world is enormous and the treasure maps can lead you anywhere – some are delightfully obvious (located near a major landmark like a town) while others are secreted away in a distant, hard to reach corner somewhere.  An exclamation mark will appear over your character’s head once you’re within the grotto’s general vicinity to let you know that you’ve found it.

In a nod to the Mysterious Dungeon games (in which Dragon Quest has sometimes participated in offshoots), each grotto is randomly generated and has at least 5 subterranean floors teeming with monsters suitable to its denoted challenge level.  A few treasure chests (rarely containing anything worthwhile) can be plundered on your way to the bottom level, where a boss monster awaits with the next treasure map.  Every so often you will get lucky and find rare monsters to fight or an extremely rare item which makes the whole affair fun and addictive.  And since these are completely optional, and completely randomized, and there are literally hundreds of them, they’re great for extending the game’s length and overall value even after you’ve finished the main scenario.

Weekly Downloads

Dragon Quest 9 extends its shelf life even further with an unprecedented amount of free downloadable content, available each week for a year after the game’s release date!  These special grottoes contain unique bosses, like the main villains from previous Dragon Quest games, so they’re a real treat.

Local Co-Op

New to the Dragon Quest series is a multiplayer co-op mode, which works well given that every player makes their own custom characters.  Unfortunately limited to local ad-hoc wireless only, you’ll have to gather up to 3 friends (each with their own DS and copy of the game).  You can then enter into the host’s game world with one of your characters and go on adventures together.  While each player will retain full control of their character, you’ll all enter battles together.  This allows you to explore a bit freely and compete for blue treasure chests (red chests can only be opened by the host player).  Since grottoes are random and contain only blue chests, they’re a great place to go on impromptu adventures – a bit like a traditional Dungeons & Dragons session.

Conclusion

What more can I say?  Dragon Quest 9 offers at least 40 solid hours of engaging, story-driven content and many, many more if you choose to take on the optional side quests.  My current play time is hovering around the 90 hours mark, and I feel like I have a lot left to do.  Add to that the free weekly downloads and the potential for multiplayer co-op, and you have an unbelievable value for your money.  If you’re a gamer on a budget, or simply want a great game with heart, you can’t go wrong with Dragon Quest 9.  It is definitely an early contender for Game of the Year 2010.

 This is a repost from my website: www.plasticpals.com
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