10 for ’10: Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

Developer: Level-5, Square-Enix

Publisher: Nintendo

U.S. Release Date: July 11, 2010

Genre: It is a Dragon Quest game… which means that it’s a JRPG at its most basic form.

I had my reservations about Dragon Quest IX from the very beginning. Reportedly it was originally going to be a fairly severe departure from the tried-and-true Dragon Quest formula — an action-RPG with a focus on multiplayer and questing, a Monster Hunter clone essentially — before the enormous Japanese fanbase flat-out revolted, resulting in a resumption of the classic DQ turn-based style. Still, this change happened late enough in development that vestiges of this orginal design remain, and I got the distinct impression that the game was shooting for an audience which did not include me.

Now, I’ve never been that big a fan of the Dragon Quest series. I don’t dislike it — I enjoyed III and IV, and I’m told that V is better than either — but I’ve always seen myself as among the legions of Americans who can appreciate the series’ quality without quite understanding the fanaticism it engenders among the Japanese and its small but dedicated American fanbase. DQ does some things better than any other RPG series (in particular, it’s one of the very few RPG series to recognize that it’s a game first and foremost) but it also retains a number of irritating archaisms for no other reason, it seems, than because it’s tradition. Those archaisms are, however, rarely debilitating enough to drag down the whole experience, which is a long, usually-touching quest with lots of exploration and treasure-hunting. The great strength of Dragon Quest games is that they’re simple and intuitive on the surface, but house surprising depth, and DQIX fits into that description ably, featuring a simple-but-deep class system and an addictive alchemy feature to go with an enormous world full of nooks and crannies.

Make no mistake, I’m having trouble thinking of anything really bad to say about DQIX, but… at the same time, I never really felt like I was having as much fun with it as I was supposed to. DQIX was sold to me as something of a gamechanger, a game that could begin to move JRPGs out of the rut they’ve been stuck in for years… but when I played it, it was just another DQ game as far as I could tell. Aside from some features I’ll never get to use because I’m the only person within a 100-mile radius with a copy of the game, it just seemed like more DQ stuff. Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with that — I like DQ stuff, mostly — but I expected more and got less.

I suppose my biggest problem with the game was that it seemed focused on the postgame to the exclusion of the main quest. The game has all these crunchy systems that I love, but if you play around with them to any degree, the bosses you encounter along the main story immediately give up the ghost. I don’t think I died once after the first third of the game. I do feel the game should be beatable if you don’t feel like screwing around with class changes or alchemy, but those systems are there, the game sells itself on them… shouldn’t it still put up a fight if you choose to use them?

The problem is that it does… but not until the postgame. If you read reviews of the game one phrase you hear over and over is that the main quest is just a prologue to the postgame, and that’s something that always sets off warning bells in my head. The game seems balanced under the assumption that the player will blow through the main story as quickly as he can manage, then will be forced to turn to the advanced systems to get through the high-level grottoes. Dragon Quest IX’s hardest content is found in its optional grottoes. A grotto is a cave, invisible normally, that can be entered if you have a treasure map. The cave itself is randomly-generated and contains enemies whose strength is determined by the rarity of the treasure map you used to find the place. At the bottom of the cave is a boss who will, once killed, drop another treasure map. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Leveling up my guys in Pokemon Silver so they’d be at the max level in time for Pokemon Stadium 2 more or less broke me of playing just to see numbers go up, and that’s all DQIX’s postgame is. Yes, you can find or forge extraordinarily rare and powerful equipment down there, and yes, some of the bosses are interesting cameos from DQ games of yore, but really you’re doing the grottoes just because they’re there, and that holds no interest for me. There’s no goal, no endpoint, no reason. I can see where that would appeal to a certain segment of the audience, but it’s a segment that I am firmly not a part of.

(A similar problem, combined with the long-overdue elimination of random encounters, is that there’s no reason to fight anything other than Metal Slimes and their derivations. Metal Slimes are fine in games with random encounters, as they’re essentially just bonus experience, but in a system where you can actively hunt them there’s literally no motivation to fight anything else. Since Metal Slimes are just as irritating to actually kill as ever, this means that the optimal leveling strategy is also the most annoying, and that’s poor design.)

The rest of the game slides into that same “fine but unremarkable” territory. The story is, as is usual for Dragon Quest games, more forthright and human than the sweeping cinematic plotlines that are the norm in this genre. Combat’s the same as every other DQ game on the planet… fun and functional, but entirely uninteresting to talk about. I hated the quests, but I’ve already ranted about that. Dressing up characters was surprisingly addictive, but there wasn’t much incentive to actually do it.

I dunno, you guys… I enjoyed DQIX well enough — like I said, it’s not a bad game — but other people raved about it to the extent that I found myself wondering what I was missing. I can see putting 50 hours into it, but… 100? 200? 400 (as Reggie Fils-Aime reportedly has)? Is that really enjoyable? I kind of feel bad for the game — it was the victim of my own raised expectations.


0 Responses to “10 for ’10: Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s