What do you expect from the next iteration of your favourite JRPG series? Better graphics? Improved voice acting? An innovative new battle system? Dragon Quest IX has none of these things. The reason for this can be traced back to a decision made before the game was even in development; the decision to bring the game to a handheld console. As with Square Enix's controversial attempt at westernisation with Final Fantasy XIII, the decision was made with the intention to open the franchise up to a wider audience. The question is: is this going to sit well with the diehard fans that have stuck with the series since day one? As I find myself loitering in that category of gamers (I'd need to be a few years older to have been there since day one), I decided to find out.
Before getting stuck in, let's take a moment to explain a few things. If Square Enix has succeeded in attracting a new audience, there could be people reading this who haven't the foggiest what the series is all about. Here's the history lesson, then: the first Dragon Quest game was released on the NES back in 1986, and over the next 24 years enjoyed the success and sales that other franchises can only dream of. Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, the most recent entry in the series (and the first game in the main series to reach European shores) was released on the PlayStation 2 in 2006. It was a rip-roaring success, and all eyes were on the PS3 to play host to the inevitable ninth game. That 'next gen' Dragon Quest game will have to wait a while, however, because Square Enix has decided to launch Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DQIX from here on out) on the console with the biggest pool of potential players: the Nintendo DS.
Despite its newfangled four-player co-op (which I'll be addressing shortly) the game is incredibly traditional in the role playing sense. You'll wander from town to town, slaying monsters and helping out NPCs with whatever problems their poor little town is facing. It's the quintessential JPRG experience. A JPRG wouldn't be a JRPG these days without some form of item synthesis, and DQIX doesn't disappoint with its extensive alchemy features, allowing players to create more potent medicines and stronger weapons by combining existing items. Side quests can of course be found off the beaten path too, although I found the majority of these took the form of a thoughtless fetch quest. The series might have moved from the big screen to a little handheld one, but all the features you'd expect from a console RPG are included
The Dragon Quest series has always had a strong religious theme at the core of its narrative, and the ninth iteration of the series is no different. The silent protagonist (whom you create before starting the game) is a guardian angel; a 'Celestrian' - to use the game's lingo - who looks after a small town known as Angel Falls. After helping out about town and collecting benevolence from its faithful denizens, our winged protagonist returns to the realm of angels to offer the benevolence to the great Yggdrasil tree. The idea is that this will allow the angels to ascend to the land of God, but an unforeseen catastrophe throws a spanner into the works. After blacking out, our hero wakes up in Angel Falls stripped of his wings and halo, and his heavenly powers replaced with mortality. The adventure that unfolds involves finding out what happened, and reinstating your Celestrian status.
As we've come to expect from Square Enix games, the localisation is superb, and the script has a fantastic sense of humour. Story delivery on the whole is lacking, however, which can be attributed to the fact that none of your party members talk. For the most part, the plot is advanced through the vexatious monologues of Stella, a fairy that starts following your character around early on in the game. For the first time in the series, your party is comprised entirely of mute adventurers, all of whom are created and recruited by the player. The customisation features are basic, with but a few preset face types and hairstyles to choose from. Still, the game features such an extensive range of hats, gloves and suits of armour that this doesn't seem to matter.
While your team won't be invited to many social gatherings, their presence on the battlefield is always welcome. Initially, your adventurers will fall into one of six professions: warrior, thief, priest, mage, martial artist and minstrel, with a further six classes becoming available as you progress. Each class comes complete with its own set of level-based skills, as well as additional skills which can be unlocked through skill point-allocation. As well as this, characters can look forward to learning additional skills based on which weapon they're wielding. The scope for character customisation is therefore vast, with the combination of job roles, weapons and point allocations allowing players to construct a unique team based on their own battle preferences.
The battle system retains much of the simplicity the series is renowned for, except now, random battles have been banished to the realm of forgotten role-playing mechanics. I'll take this opportunity to add that I have no problem with random encounters whatsoever, and hope that the JRPG genre doesn't do away with them entirely. But I digress - enemies now stroll around dungeons and the world map in a visible form, meaning you can choose to avoid them if your health is low, you're in a rush, or you plain can't be arsed. Should you decide to engage the target, however, the screen will do that familiar swooshy thing, and your party will appear in an environment alongside the enemy.
Fans of the series will be pleased to see that enemies still line up and face the camera at the start of each round (a trait that's been with the series since the very beginning), while at the same time players are able to dish out commands using the bottom screen of the DS. More cinematic shots of the action will liven up the battle after you've given your orders, showing off the quaint visuals and distinct character models. While clearly not as impressive as DQVIII in the graphics department, Akira Toriyama's unique art style still shines through strong, and the game looks fantastic from a handheld perspective.
After the likes of FFXIII and Resonance of Fate, DQIX's battle system is refreshingly simple. With no ATB gauge or real-time play mechanics, players have time to think about their next move, and implement the best strategy possible. The game is much easier than previous instalments, which although I'm not happy about, will do wonders in accommodating the new generation of Dragon Quest players that come with the DS. Experienced players will remember how easy it is to power level by grinding the infamous Metal Slimes, and will breeze through the game with little trouble from the boss fights.
The most important addition to DQIX is WiFi multiplayer, which means players can look forward to teaming up with three other adventurers for multiplayer questing. Your friends are free to explore your game world on their own accord, and will fight separate battles unless they stay close to you. Should you find yourself in a pickle, however, you can call a friend over and they'll teleport instantly to your aid. An additional 'Canvassing' mode allows players to exchange information such as character bios and battle records outside of the game itself. With the game left active in a pocket or backpack, players can connect with nearby players should they come into range. While such a feature undoubtedly went down well in Japan, where everybody owns a copy of the game, I question whether European players will make the most of the feature.
So, are the core Dragon Quest fans going to like what's on offer here? More than likely. While clichéd, the story is entertaining, the battle system is refined and the visuals are impressive. It's very Dragon Quest. Even so, I can't escape the feeling that the game feels more like a spin-off; a stop gap on the way to a 'proper' sequel. Bringing the next iteration of one of the industry's most prestigious role playing series to a handheld console was a bold move, and although I'm undecided whether it was the right move, there's no denying the quality of the role playing on offer. Sentinels of the Starry Skies is, quite possibly, the best original JRPG on the DS (and I say original because of ports such as Chrono Trigger), but it's not the evolution of the series some of us were expecting.