DS Review: Dragon Quest IX – Sentinels of the Starry Skies

The current generation Nintendo hardware is really thin on JRPGs, so it is always welcoming to hear that a new one is coming out on either DS or Wii. So along came Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies. A new entry from Square Enix developed by Level 5 (Dragon Quest VIII, Rogue Galaxy, the Professor Layton series).

Welcome to my humble pad

In Dragon Quest IX you play as a fallen Celestrian (angel) who needs to travel the world to collect lost Fyggs fallen from the Yggdrasil Tree. On the journey you were accompanied by an opinionated Faerie Stella who holds the key and control to the Starflight Express train – the mode of transport essential for you to get back to the Celestrian realm as you have lost your wings. It was hoped that by collecting all the fallen Fyggs, order would be restored for the Celestrian realm – the Observatory.

The worlds of RPGs are always dangerous, so you will need some trustful companions to survive the ordeal. You can recruit your own comrades by either allowing the game to create them for you or you can tailor make your own (that includes your own character). The number of options available for you to create your own characters is impressive. On top of looks, there are 12 job classes for you to choose from – 6 basic ones available from the beginning and 6 advanced ones to be opened up when certain conditions are fulfilled. Each job class has their strengths, weaknesses and equipment restrictions. Your main character started off as a Minstrel, which is like an all rounded bard that can do everything including “egging up” tensions of your party members to deliver more deadly blows. You can decide the initial job classes of your comrades when you first recruit them. As you progress with the story, you can change the job class of all your characters, including your main character. Wanna be a Super Star (yes it is a job class!)? You can transform yourself into one! However, there is a trade off – once you changed your job class, you return to level 1. That sounds harsh but then the game requires you to level up to open up skills through skill points, so if your have already maxed out the levels of your character, you won’t be able to learn new skills – a reasonable yet sometimes irritating trade off. Nonetheless, all is not lost as there are natural attributes that once you opened up in each class, they can be carried over even after you changed jobs.

Just got a new job! Let's try it out!

Similar to Western RPGs you assign skill points to develop your characters according to the skill sets available to their job class. This could be weapon skills that offer attack advantage; shield skills that offer better protection or job specific skills that enhance the ability of your job. On top of that there are natural spells that each job class can learn as they level up. So on the whole level grinding is a lot more fun and rewarding. The number of skill points offered also goes up with your character level making the process less tedious.

Equipping your characters with gears is as much fun as you can imagine. All the gears you equipped on your characters will be shown in the game. So it does make a difference in how you want your characters look like. Gears range from your standard helmet and armour to ridiculously looking Speedo, stockings and bunny ears. As pretty and funny as they look, they are more than just candies for the eyes as they in fact affect the attributes of your character. For example a bunny tail will increase your agility and a pair of nice clogs will help you evade enemies’ attacks more efficiently. In a gaming world that craves for customisation, Dragon Quest IX definitely has a lot to offer.

The battle system is your standard JRPG turn based system. However, it seems that Level 5 understood the long (and unwarranted in my opinion) issue with a lot of western critics on turn based system. In Dragon Quest IX they threw in options for players to decide how they want to play the game. You have the option of controlling all your party members in the battle; assigning roles to your comrades while controlling your own character; or even just assign roles to the whole party and let the game battle out for you. The AI and combination of battle roles are quietly comprehensive and most of the time they do a good job. However, as with most AI controlled characters, they sometimes make strange choices that leave you scratching your head. That, without a doubt, made level grinding a lot easier. Also if you use the same move such as attack or the same magic in a row, you will add a bonus factor to the second or third move. This adds a strategic element to your battle tactics if you opted to control all your characters manually.

We may look cute but we are tough!

Another major change to the franchise is that Level 5 has removed random battles completely. Now you can see all your enemies on the world map and in the dungeons. You can choose to either fight or avoid them. For players who prefer to just cruise through the story and face greater challenges from boss battles, now you can do so. On the other hand, enemies will continue to show up as long as you stay in the area. So for those who love level grinding, they will still be happy. It is a system that pleases both camps of players.

The main quest story is engaging and keeps you going. The world map is also huge considering this is a DS game. You can choose to teleport to key towns you’ve visited or just go on foot. The whole party will show up on the world map and in dungeons, making the journey a bit less lonely. However, if your comrades fell in battle and you didn’t revive them, you will be dragging their coffins around until a proper resurrection is conducted.

RPGs are about free exploration and side quests on top of the main story. Dragon Quest offers a lot in this department too. All your favourite midi medal quest and alchemy pot are back! And the alchemy pot got even better as you don’t need to wait for the microwave “ding” sound as you did in the last game. Who doesn’t like instant alchemy? On top of these, Dragon Quest IX included some new non-playable character (NPC) quests to test your abilities. Completing these quests will yield you good items or even open up new job classes. There are a variety of quests too. They range from performing a party trick (such as bowing, cheering people up etc.) to eliminating a certain number of enemies with certain moves. They indeed provide some good distractions from the main quest.

Another new addition to Dragon Quest IX is the online capability. You can go online to the online market to get new stuff and the contents change daily. Also you can host or join your friend’s game and battle hideous monsters and complete quests together. You can keep your level and items when joining other people’s game but the locations you can visit are determined by the host game. Wondering whether there are other heroes around you? Turn on the Tag Mode and you can invite or enter other nearby Dragon Quest IX player’s Inn and join them on the fly. If you like certain friends, you can put them in the Royal Suite of your Inn and they will be staying there and be readily available when they go online again.

Got any room in the Royal Suite?

Dragon Quest IX also shines in the graphics and music areas. Level 5 employed the same cell shaded graphics as they did with the last game on PS2. The style fits well with the world Akira Toriyama created. For a DS game the cut scenes were well and beautifully constructed. In-game graphics are also crisp and clear with carefully crafted subtle visual effects. The game continued to employ an ear pleasing orchestral score accompanied with great in-game sound effects. However as with Disgaea DS, spoken dialogues were taken out and replaced by dialogue boxes. It is a bit of a disappointment as the voice over in Dragon Quest VIII was witty and entertaining.

Without a doubt, Level 5 managed to nail, brilliantly, all the elements that make a great RPG with Dragon Quest IX. The mix of both western and Japanese RPG elements in this game should be able to please a variety of audience. How Level 5 synergised all aspects of gameplay together (e.g. party skills are not only for quest but were tied into the main story) showed that they were well thought through before implementation. The number of options available both in terms of gameplay and customisation made it a very enjoyable experience every time you revisit this world. However, limitations of the hardware did restrict what Level 5 could do with the game such as the lack of voice over in cut scenes and a crippled online capability (DS can only connect to WEP key routers not the more secured WPA key routers in the game). Nonetheless, if you are looking for an RPG that can engage your time at home or on the go, Dragon Quest IX is definitely a title to get.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

About the Author

Level up freak. Level 99 is a norm not a goal. Love my JRPGs and RPGs in general. Also love my platformers and puzzle games. Was addicted to Zoo Keeper, Magnetica, Animal Crossing, Disgaea DS, Dragon Quest IX and White Knight Chronicles. Prefer to spend my time away from gaming as an actor although do have a full time job that keeps my mortgage going. But generally love anything creative. And if anyone tells you gaming is a waste of time, tell them you have great eye, hand and brain coordinations that they will never have!