Dragon Quest is one of the most beloved series in Japan and over the years I believe I’ve come to understand their enlightenment with the series. Reminded of RPGs played during my childhood, I can’t help but think that the sense of bewilderment I felt in my youth with certain games had to be directly linked to the need for my imagination to run wild; in a time of archaic technology, gamers’ imaginations helped to push games to new heights. And though I’m still enjoying all of my recent current generation consoles, it still remains that my favorite titles were the ones I experienced in my childhood. Titles on the NES, Game Boy, or SNES just seemed to require an extra amount of imaginative thought that I find lacking in a lot (but most certainly not all) recent games.
With that being said, Dragon Quest is able to hold a special place in my heart because of this factor. Sure, recent Dragon Quest titles have pushed production values quite a bit (Dragon Quest VIII, recent DS remakes) to help you better visualize the experience. But the stories themselves, cliché as some of them may be, are where the titles really force your imagination to come to life. Basic stories of good V evil are seen all throughout RPGs but the narrative abilities brought forth by your characters’ abilities to have an impact on others’ lives resonates a special place in my being.
Dragon Quest IX is the most recent installment to the storied franchise and despite it reverting back to the DS (whence Dragon Quest VIII was seen on the more powerful PS2), it is still pushing the envelope in some of the game’s overall mechanics. I myself was a little fearful that the game might have been changed more than a fan of previous titles would want but let go some of my fears after playing the game at E3 this year. Is Dragon Quest IX another worthy addition to the series and can it hold a special place in my heart that DQIII, DQV, and DQVIII currently do?
Dragon Quest IX follows a similarly interesting story mechanic that I loved from both DQIV and DQV. Though it isn’t really defined as so, the first hour of the game plays as a prologue of sorts. After customizing their hero’s appearance (gender, body type, hair style, hair color, skin color, eye type, eye color, name), players assume the role of this guardian as he/she finishes their last lesson of training before becoming a fully-fledged guardian. Throughout this time period, players can feel the amount of peace seen throughout the observatory where the guardians reside as well as their direct influence on protecting the people below.
However, at the end of the prologue, just as the guardians have done enough to cause the great Yggdrasil tree to bear fyggs and lead to their inevitable ascension to the throne of the almighty, a terribly light force strikes the observatory, knocking guardians down to earth and scattering the fyggs throughout the land. The story picks back up with the hero, devoid of both wings and halo, awakening in the small town of Angel Falls, the group of people that he/she was originally assigned to protect. From here, you’ll embark on a journey to recollect the lost fyggs, changing the lives of the many people you meet along the way.
Some may complain that the characters themselves seem to lack a sense of personality because they are created by the player. However, as is with previous Dragon Quest titles, the people around you (NPCs) are the ones whose personalities are focused upon throughout the adventure. Thus, rather than seeing your own characters’ personalities evolve over the course of gameplay (you’re assumed to already be a badass), you instead witness the changes that you can make in the lives of everyone you meet along the way. And, to help the gamer connect with these NPCs, we see them struggle through the same problems as those seen in real life: greed, jealousy, disease, social acceptance, death of loved ones, pursuit of happiness. In a sense, each character you help along the way allows you to find some parallel with your own life allowing for emotional connection. Beyond this, the story follows the typical good V evil storyline we’re accustomed to seeing in Dragon Quest titles.
One of the things that I’m a huge sucker for in gaming is extensive character building and depth of items to find. Titles such as Pokémon, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Puzzle Quest, Dragon Quest III are just a few of the titles that have taken 1000s of hours of my life through their customization features. I’m happy to say that DQIX has a depth to its character building that could easily force to spend another 100-200 hours when all is said and done. We’re talking the best of both worlds from two of my favorite Dragon Quest titles all wrapped into one game. First of all, DQIX most noticeably takes the class system that was present in DQIII and runs with it. Your characters have the choice of six basic classes to start and six advanced classes beyond that. Each class is different in terms of its battle style from support characters to warriors to thieves. Each character has its own flavor and according to your own desires, you can choose whichever party best suits your battle style.
However, to up the ante, DQIX also takes the ever successful skill points system from DQVIII and throws it into the picture. Each character is awarded basic stat boosts for the levels they gain but is also given a few skill points on almost every level they gain as well. These skill points can be used to customize their own basic skill sets to improve abilities with weapons, learn spells, and master skills. Each character class has five options for skill point allocation. Furthermore, after gaining enough skill points with certain classes, characters can change to a different class and continue to build his/her skills (each class can be improved from level 1-99, making for a large amount of leveling potential if you’re into that sort of thing). Thus, we’re left with an amount of character customization that supersedes any from previous Dragon Quest titles and a true masterpiece in terms of JRPG grinders.
The numbers are actually quite staggering overall (I actually created my own Excel chart before playing the game to ensure that I would allocate skill points into the according area I wanted if I actually ended up reaching Lv. 99 with any of the skill classes): With a potential 200 skill points per Lv. 99 class, there is a total of 2400 skill points to spend. Each skill can be upgraded up to 100 times and there are 26 skills in all (some overlap to other classes). Thus, if you were a crazy enough completionist, you could potentially master every skill set except for two (which would require a Lv. 99 ranking for each character class for each character).
In case you’re unfamiliar with Dragon Quest titles, DQIX is also special in that it’s the first in the series to not have random battles. Many people feel like random battles are an archaic form of gameplay that should be forgotten now that there are other better forms of initiating battles within other RPGs. Thus, in DQIX, Square Enix ditched the battles for enemies that are visible on the main map that you can either pursue or run away from (though retaining the same classic battles from previous games after the battle is initiated).
Now, I will admit that I didn’t have any problems with the random battles of previous Dragon Quest titles and I actually don’t mind doing a little strategic level grinding here or there. However, I can say that the system added does feel like an improvement in that you can’t ever fully escape some of the enemies on the map and that you’re forced to fight them anyways if you want to gain enough levels to defeat the bosses. However, most notably improved were the times of exploring and/or backtracking that I did in which random battles would have prolonged the time by about twice as much to do so.
Another large improvement to the game is its multiplayer capabilities. Whereas previous Dragon Quest games were solo adventures, this title allows you to team up with your friends via wireless DS multi-card play. Once linked, up to four players can explore the same world and do a number of things (embark on their own adventures, team up to finish the same quests, hunt for rare items, etc.). This is a great new feature if you have any friends you can play the game with locally but for those longing for similar Wi-Fi gaming, you’re out of luck.
One Wi-Fi feature that I enjoyed, however, was one that popped up in the most recent Fire Emblem title on the DS, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. The feature allows you to connect to the internet every day and download a new list of bargain items that you can purchase at the shop. This makes for a neat randomized addition that allows players to find items that others might not. It’s only a small addition and it may make the game a little easier in the long run, but it’s fun nonetheless.