Platforms: DS (reviewed)
The hot summer months have rolled around once again- and it's time for gamers everywhere to break out the handhelds and select a title to accompany us on the plane and by the pool. The choice of a suitable summer RPG is one of the most important annual decisions that many gamers have to make... but luckily, it's a no-brainer this year. Dragon Quest IX is an expansive, beautiful and utterly charming experience that will keep players entertained long into the Autumn.
Before the freeform questing has a chance to take hold, you'll have to push through a long and overbearing intro section that sets up the typically-complex premise (perfect for the plane journey or road trip if you're lucky enough to be jetting off this year). Taking on the role of an angelic winged celestial, your character is tasked with the thankless chore of invisibly safeguarding of a small town. Harvesting thankful prayers of grateful villagers is the primary source of Benevolessence, which in turn will cause the heavenly tree Yggradsil to bear fruit and usher in a new golden age of... something or other. Before too long, however, a disaster forces your angel to plummet into the mortal realm, losing his/her wings in the process. Having to integrate into human society, the world suddenly opens up as you become a freelance adventurer for hire.
From this point on, Dragon Quest IX becomes a traditional but fantastically capable loot-centric RPG. You'll take on a huge variety of missions from the local inn, upgrade your equipment from a range of over 1000 items and set out into overworld. Finicky collision detection and glitchy stylus movement can make for a little teething trouble, but you'll soon fall into the addictive routine of adventuring, levelling up, dungeon crawling and maybe a little story progression if you're feeling up to it. The missions are both numerous and varied; each boasting a perfect length that's feels neither too quick or overly protracted. A smooth difficulty curve also cuts out much of the traditional grind.
Unlike Phantasy Star Zero and other similar DS RPGs, the class system allows you to dynamically change your vocation depending on your needs; building up a wide selection of abilities from several different aspects. Warriors, magi, martial artists and thieves all offer different skills and traits that allow you to experiment with different play styles without having to start over. Awesome.
Battle mechanics are as traditional and streamlined as you'd expect from the Dragon Quest series. It's a turn-based affair, with the aforementioned bevy of skills, spells and abilities offering a wide variety of combat options. The frustration of random battles has been entirely removed by roving overworld enemies that you can engage or ignore at leisure; and optional customisable party AI for your three allies lets you sit back and concentrate the task at hand (and gives you a free hand to hold your brightly coloured beach cocktail).
Speaking of party AI and allies, the theme of player choice and customisation carries over into your selection of companions. Party members can be recruited, created and customised just like the player character; with individual inventories and switchable vocations. This effectively allows you to groom your own stable of allies for every situation- as well as an effective fleet of loot mules.
Unfortunately, this new focus on player customisation also effectively crushes any hope of rich character interactions and story arcs... so fans of traditional exposition-driven JRPGs will be in for a fairly serious disappointment. The rich character creation and customisation comes at a steep price- though in my opinion it's well worth paying.
Graphically, Dragon Quest IX is top-notch for a portable title. Attractive cell shading and smooth animation compensates for the DS' hardware limitations and looks especially impressive in combat sequences. The series' legendary art design also makes a welcome return and features some of the most adorable adversaries in videogame history. Armoured mynah birds, spear-wielding cucumbers and the beloved slimes will bring a smile to your face even as you beat them down with an deadly steel fan. In fact, you'll probably want to keep most of them as pets.
Local multiplayer allows up to four heroes to explore a single game world simultaneously- and works extremely well. Players can cooperate on missions or gallivant around on their own, with the ability to summon help using the call to arms function. There's even a mode that allows the DS to passively import other player characters into your game, turning them into fully-fledged AI party members! However, many gamers will doubtlessly be infuriated by the lack of online functionality, which effectively neuters the potential for cooperative shenanigans. The thing is, this isn't a fault with the game. This is a fault with Western gaming society.
Let me explain. XBLA and PSN are great for anonymously throwing down on some faceless opponents, but our reliance on internet gaming is killing off the proud traditions of social local multiplayer. In this respect, I wish that we were more like our Japanese counterparts. Socially meeting up with friends (or even strangers) in an arcade or cafe to play ad-hoc multiplayer is commonplace in the East... and it makes me pine for the good old days of playground link cable battles and beer & screens nights. Games are better when played with friends. Let's take it back.
- Accessible, deep, addictive and expansive gameplay
- Versatile vocation and party system
- May be the only handheld title you need this summer
- Dodgy movement controls and collision detection
- Characterisation stifled due to customisation and multiplayer focus
- Why don't more of us get together for social gaming sessions?
The Short Version: Dragon Quest IX is the only handheld game you'll need for the summer holidays. It's deep and expansive without sacrificing accessibility or charm- and provides a lengthy experience that's enjoyable in small doses or marathon sessions. With any luck, you'll find some like-minded gamers by the pool for some cooperative shenanigans.