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Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies Review (Nintendo DS)
Review by 
8.94/10 from 21 user ratings

Ask any Dragon Quest fan--one of the most appealing aspects of the series is its consistency. Elements like the setting, general town-to-town story progression, the art and the music are all major aspects of the series that have become familiar throughout its lifetime. Of course, with that comes the challenge of making every game different enough to not fall too deeply into the formula; adding that perfect gameplay wrinkle that keeps things interesting without deviating from what made the series great in the first place. Heck, ask anyone who's been burnt by later Final Fantasy games; too much change can contribute to a series losing its identity.

Dragon Quest IX--the latest game in the main series to be released in the US--had a major struggle with this balance of tradition and novelty during its development cycle. In an attempt to get the franchise more international appeal, DQIX was going to abandon its turn-based battle system in favor of a Zelda-style real-time combat approach. But fan backlash caused the designers to rethink this decision, and the game ended up sticking to its RPG roots in the end.

That's not to say DQIX doesn't have its own interesting wrinkles; part of the reason for the real-time fights was to push the multiplayer aspect, and that element still got a lot of focus. DQIX features--and is practically built around--a multiplayer mode where players could join each other locally on the entire adventure, including a near-infinite number of post-game, treasure-filled, randomly-generated dungeons called grottoes. It also had (yes, past tense) an online distribution shop that contained novelty costumes from past games, several extremely rare items, and unique Quests to undertake that weren't accessible in the main game.

Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to play DQIX in its prime. When Nintendo took its DS/Wii servers offline, the game was one of the casualties that got hit hard by it, so I can't take that extra content into account. In addition, I don't know any other DQIX owners, so the review will solely be focused on the single-player experience.

A portion of the overworld, complete with visible enemy encounters!

Regardless of whether you're playing with buddies or alone, DQIX starts the same way for everyone: with the player in control of an angelic being known as a Celestrian. Celestrians live in a sky palace above the mortal realm and are assigned tasks to help protect humanity--our hero this time around is the Guardian of a small hamlet, and protecting its inhabitants grants him "benevolessence," a sort of crystallized manifestation of gratitude. Of course, things get complicated and you're soon on a journey of your own in the human's world, taking the form of a mortal and helping out with various troubles around the world.

Like Dragon Quest III, only the hero of DQIX has an established story, with the rest of your party members being chosen and created by the player at a certain point. Not only can you set your party members with their own class and name, but even choose their faces, heights, hair, and more. And like DQIII, this has its ups and downs; the level of customization is appealing and provides plenty of variety, but the playable characters have no dialogue or personality to speak of. So it's really up to the main plot line and the smaller tales you come across in towns to bring the charm. In that approach, DQIX is successful enough; the mini-stories are vintage DQ and provide a good blend of adventure, humor, and pathos, and the main storyline involving a heavenly struggle and the human/angel divide is fairly compelling (even if the bulk of this story is really on the bookends of the game). Heck, the villain is probably one of the better ones in the series.

The visuals are mostly strong, at least for the DS. Naturally, everything has a bit of a low-poly look, but the art style is sound, and there's no shortage of content and character models. In a nice touch, all of the (many, many) pieces of equipment in the game will be shown visually on your characters, although this does mean that you'll occasionally have an absolutely ugly ensemble for a long stretch because it's the best set of armor you have at the moment (my priest was running around in a long-sleeve shirt and a pair of blue briefs for a few hours). And one of the holdovers from the action-oriented version of the game was that all enemies were visible on the maps instead of being random encounters. Some series' purists swear by the random fights, but...I think this was a good change! Even when the foe is chasing you down and you have to get in a fight, that extra moment of being able to mentally prepare for combat makes it feel far less frustrating and disorienting than doing it the old way.

One of the funny visual quirks in the game is the blend of 2D and polygonal characters based on story importance. It's kind of charming!

Of course, it's hard to not take notice of the step down in graphics from the PS2's Dragon Quest VIII, which featured a third-person behind-the-back camera and a gorgeous, cel-shaded world that begged exploration. By comparison, DQIX is kind of like going to Phantom Hourglass after playing Wind Waker; overhead, kind of chunky, not nearly as immersive. It's part of the setback for being on the DS (and for a DS game, it looks great), but it warrants mentioning. The soundtrack is our reliable friend Sugiyama again, and the songs are mostly quite good (Observatory is lovely), although there are a few tracks that underwhelm, such as the overworld theme, which just feels kind of plodding and hardly makes me want to go out on an adventure.

One of the great things about DQIX is that so many series elements feel streamlined and tighter than ever. No random battles, a very balanced set of classes and abilities, a massive alchemy pot sidequest (which can take literally hundreds of hours to finish), tons of little fetch quests you can choose to do or not, a compelling re-classing system that makes Skill Points even cooler than they were in DQVIII, and generally well-designed and challenging dungeons that keep away from the unpleasant literal maze design that the series sometimes falls into.

The enemies line up traditionally when you're selecting your commands, but everyone moves around dynamically while the blows are traded. It's a nice effect similar to DQVIII, although it does make the battles take a bit longer.

The main quest is long enough, but DQIX is fairly infamous for its in-depth post-game, which involves players going from randomly-generated grotto to grotto, collecting treasures and whomping extra-tough optional bosses. To be honest, I didn't find this element all that compelling as a single-player experience. I tried a couple grottoes, but the sole purpose being a search for more loot which I may or may not need wasn't enough to keep me going. Now, if I actually had buddies to play with and was working together on these, I could see it working in that MMO-style way. But for a single player, I don't think the post-game in DQIX is particularly interesting or well-balanced. The main game has a blend of exploring new (well-designed) dungeons, towns, and overworld segments to break up the battles, and without that blend, it just felt like grinding to me. It's possible that the defunct online shop that provides post-game quests involving NPCs would've spiced things up significantly, but sadly, I guess I'll never know (without hacking the cart, anyway).

But the good news is that the rest of the game is quite strong regardless. It's vintage DQ, polished with modern amenities and packed with gameplay. Those of you who prefer the story or character-driven titles (like DQV or DQIV, respectively) may not dig it, but I can fully recommend it to fans of class-based, customizable, gameplay-focused games like DQIII and DQVI. The in-depth gameplay is the main appeal and the NPC-driven smaller stories still add some good flavor. In short, it's another quality Dragon Quest game, even if you've gotta play it by yourself!

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Posted: 08/26/16, 18:04:53  - Edited by 
 on: 08/26/16, 21:48:56    
Why not sign up for a (free) account and create your own content?
I'm not clear if you're still referring to the scrapped online plans or if you thought the final game still had it, but Dragon Quest IX has absolutely no online interactions with players. Any multiplayer features are local-only. The online was used only for the delivery of a bit of extra content, which includes things like quests, characters from past games (not recruitable), items, and a shop with weekly item changes. All of this content is actually stored on the game card and was just "unlocked" using the online, so you can actually still access it with a cheat device.

This game was kind of a disappointment for me, since one of my fave things about past DQ games were the story and characters. There aren't any party characters, so the story is fairly weak as a result. I also wasn't into the way the game handles the class system as it requires too much grinding to get anywhere interesting, and obtaining the more interesting grottos also requires an obscene amount of grinding, plus the bosses have those infamous 1% drop items (though fortunately the drop table has been figured out and can be exploited to get what you want). Yeah, I know, I'm complaining about grinding in a Dragon Quest game which is like complaining about having to jump in a Mario game. Still, the amount of grinding involved is much, much, much higher than past games.

Posted by 
 on: 08/26/16, 21:07:22
@Mop it up

Oh, thanks for the clarification! I was under the impression that the quest itself was online multi, although I definitely felt the sting of the lack of weekly item shop stuff whenever I was playing (lots of nostalgic costumes and hard-to-find alchemy ingredients would've been a nice extra to look forward to). I'll revise the review soon to clarify those elements, although it shouldn't change the score.

I'm curious what you thought of DQIII, which used a similar "recruitment/customization" system for the party members, and saved the storytelling for the locales you find and the role of the main character played a part in the main part of the quest--just like DQIX. I didn't mind as much, since the bulk of *most* DQ games' storytelling is really in the journey rather than the destination. Kinda like EarthBound. I thought the overarching plotline involving the Celestrial Observatory was simple but interesting and still involved a number of distinct characters--they were just NPCs instead of guys in your party. Likewise, the quest for the Fyggs had a bunch of mini-stories like the usual DQ game within each of the towns.

Now, DQVI and VII try both, where you have defined characters, but you can change their classes. Is this more your bag?

Yeah, I thought the grottoes started to not really feel worth the trouble; they were pretty same-y and you had to play through several dull/easy ones to find something more interesting. I didn't have a problem leveling up the classes though; there's a Metal Slime hill near the first town that made that task super-fast for me, actually.

Posted by 
 on: 08/26/16, 21:40:34  - Edited by 
 on: 08/26/16, 21:42:30
Yeah, DQ III isn't one of my faves either. It's better than the first two games since the gameplay is better, the world is better, so many things are better, so it's an okay game. The first two games also didn't have much story, and I don't think your members had dialogue in DQ II (or maybe very little), so the story in DQ III is on par or better than what came before. For me though, I would say DQ IV is when the series started to "git gud" (wait, that isn't how that's used, is it?) as the story really ramped up there and the series had good, established characters in the party for the first time.

DQ VI has the best implementation of the class system I would say, yes. Unfortunately, DQ VI has other issues so it isn't one of my faves either. Another reason is because the classes have individual levels instead of resetting your character back to 1, and also have only 8 (or maybe 10) levels if I recall, instead of 99. And in DQ IX you need to level up to 99 ten different times to get the best grottos. I haven't played DQ VII yet, but that should be fixed this year...! I actually do own it for PSX, but playing that system is kind of a pain these days so I've been waiting to see if we would ever get the 3DS version. The wait has paid off!

I would probably rank the series as such, best-to-worst: VIII, IV, V, IX, VI, III, I, II

Posted by 
 on: 08/26/16, 22:00:47  - Edited by 
 on: 08/26/16, 22:02:38
Nice list! Can't really disagree with those rankings--my top 3 are the same as yours, but I'm not sure of the order (haven't played VIII and IV in a while but loved them)--but so far, I'm really enjoying DQIII. Part of it's because it feels like a very forward-thinking game considering when it was released (which I might actually argue is true for all the NES DQ games), but if it keeps up, I'd probably rate it higher than DQIX myself, which I've started to consider as a sort of sister title to it.

Yeah, maxing out to 99 ten times does sound pretty insane. I pretty much switched classes in the post-game whenever I got the skills I wanted; sounds REALLY grindy to get the max stuff, but fortunately the main game doesn't require anywhere near that kind of commitment.

Posted by 
 on: 08/26/16, 22:23:22
TriforceBun said:
Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to play DQIX in its prime. When Nintendo took its DS/Wii servers offline, the game was one of the casualties that got hit hard by it, so I can't take that extra content into account. In addition, I don't know any other DQIX owners, so the review will solely be focused on the single-player experience.

The ONLY reason that I removed this game from its hermetic seal was to grab the DLC content before the servers went down. I actually did enjoy my marathon rush through the first few hours. I never picked it back up after unlocking the DLC, though. Maybe I will, one day, if another external factor lights a fire underneath me. End of the world?

Posted by 
 on: 08/29/16, 04:37:25
You forgot to put a 10/10 score on this game....

Posted by 
 on: 08/30/16, 02:29:09
I've enjoyed all of the DQ games that I've played (V, VIII, IX) but this was probably my least favorite. Just felt like it had no real story, and I didn't care about all of the online / side mission stuff.

Posted by 
 on: 08/30/16, 02:39:49
V and VIII are a bit more story-driven than the average Dragon Quest game. They mix in a touch of what Final Fantasy does well, to wonderful results (incidentally, when FF added a bit of Dragon Quest storytelling to its formula--notably in the latter half of FFVI--it ended up becoming my favorite game of the series). Two great tastes that taste great together!

Posted by 
 on: 08/30/16, 04:11:32
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