Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies Review
There is nothing more satisfying than playing a new RPG without knowing a thing about it. Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies has been on my radar for quite some time, but prior to its release, I chose not to read up on the story. I avoided details on the battle system, and ignored all info on the character classes. That way, when the game finally arrived, I wouldn’t feel like I knew what was coming.
And man, I really didn’t. Still lighthearted and often whimsical, Dragon Quest IX does not attempt to approach the darkness set forth by Square Enix’s other major role-playing franchise, Final Fantasy. However, it does introduce an intriguing story of angels and the lives they live as the official protectors of the mortal world. It’s refreshingly creative, and if it weren’t for the game’s insistence on putting attack individuality before story-driven character development, DQIX might have become the new RPG king.
But like the previous Dragon Quest releases, DQIX is a role-playing game first and a role-playing story second. In the beginning, the story is so rich and thoughtful that you will be delighted to hear what the non-playable characters have to say. Frankly, I haven’t cared for NPCs…ever! Not even in the ‘90s (the golden era of RPGs) were they of interest to me. But in DQIX, they help flesh out the story. This is not true throughout the whole game, but their relevant comments are far more meaningful than anyone could have ever anticipated.
That, however, is about as far as the developers were willing to go in telling DQIX’s tale. The main characters are visually distinct (unless you’ve played the previous DQs, Dragon Ball or Chrono Trigger, in which case the characters will come off as the same old thing) but are emotionally devoid of depth. Again, this goes toward the developers’ goal of putting the game before the story, which comes at a price.
In the area of gameplay, DQ fans won’t be disappointed. The turn-based battles are quick, traditional, and full of sleep-depriving entertainment. Whether facing a large monster with overpowering strength or a run-of-the-mill insect that could have been avoided by running in the opposite direction (FYI: the battle encounters are not random), DQIX is audaciously addictive.
The customization options are as deep and meaningful as they come. Using a series of character classes (warrior, mage, thief, martial artist, etc.), and a cornucopia of evolutionary options within them (minstrels are all-around fighters who can use swords, whips, fans, etc.), players will have to go through the adventure a couple times – or change their characters frequently – to fully explore every alternative. This is by far the most impressive aspect of the game.
Rather than trying to extend the experience with one too many battles, DQIX was actually developed to be a massive game. On a console, this is to be expected. But on the Nintendo DS, it seems so different, and yet so beautiful. If it weren’t for the intricately detailed map that appears on the top screen, players would get lost easily.
Musically, DQIX is not unlike the story – joyful and often quirky. But there are times when the score moves on to a more powerful sound, garnering the kind of emotion that only a top-tier RPG can. Though you may find it necessary to kill the audio every once in a while (a couple of the town themes are repetitive and annoying), you will typically want to crank the speakers as loud as possible.
To top things off, DQIX is the first handheld RPG that attempts to fully merge the worlds of single and multiplayer gaming. It does so fairly well, provided that you are tethered to your friends (who may only join your quest via local wireless connection since Wi-Fi is not an option). Players can jump into the world together and fight as a team while earning EXP that they can save and take back to their single-player, story-advancing journey. This isn’t a breathtaking innovation by any means, but it’s an interesting step forward in handheld entertainment.
All told, DQIX is an excellent RPG that will keep you glued to your Nintendo DS. But unless you only come to this genre for the turn-based battles, you won’t be completely satisfied with what DQIX has to offer. It is a great RPG, to be certain. However, the story is only a quarter of what it could have been. This is an RPG that was on the cusp of rivaling the best of the best – an RPG that could have stood alongside the great RPGs of the ‘90s. But like so many games released in the last 10 years, DQIX missed the mark. It is an RPG that will be remembered. But it will not be revered.