Deceptively deep and boasting the most complex character creation ever in a JRPG, DQ has finally "grown up".
Sometimes it works, such as the deep combat system in Resonance of Fate or the strategically pausable battles in Valkyria Chronicles, but for the most part it fails horribly. Making these failures seem even worse is the fact that during the past five years Japan's gamers have slowly retreated to mobile devices and casual games, leaving hardcore turn-based JRPGs seeming about as viable a money maker as cyanide-coated corn flakes.
Dragon Quest, however, has always been immune to industry changes. As a matter of fact it helped create many of the console RPG mechanics we enjoy today. Things such as multiple class changes per character (DQ3 came out 2 years in Japan before FF3 eventually had the same feature), gaining experience while not in the active party (DQ4 was light years ahead of the curve on that) and recruiting/raising/communicating with monsters as playable characters (DQ5) were all introduced by Enix's flagship RPG series. Even though it never truly caught on in the states, Dragon Quest remained one of the most popular game series in the world.
With most RPG fans becoming accustomed to the "western style" of gaming found in titles such as Fallout 3 and Mass Effect, it isn't unfair to say that Squarenix was taking a very big risk by releasing a new Dragon Quest game in America and spending so much money to hype it up. Would the turn based combat, deformed characters, anime visual style and whimsical plot resonate with gamers?
If the fact that the DQ9 forum has been sitting atop the list of top ten forums on Gamefaqs for a week and counting is any indication, I'd have to say it has.
As someone whose first console RPG was the original Dragon Warrior, the series has always had a special place in my heart. With my original boxes and manuals preserved and my PS2 slime controller "enshrined", it means more to me than most other series. It made me the RPG'er I am today, even though I have long since moved onto other more "hardcore" RPGs.
...and there's the point I'm trying to make. It had been 5 years since Dragon Quest 8 was released in America and since then western RPGs have stolen a good amount of the wind from the JRPG genre's already unmoving sails. Could enough changes be made to the formula to keep Dragon Quest interesting yet make it palatable to Oblivion-tainted American RPG'ers? Could they make a game that was both old school and new school? Could they create a JRPG that was relevant in today's Bioware dominated genre?
Dragon Quest 9 is still, at it's core, a Dragon Quest game. However, it adopts many features that until now were completely foreign to JRPGs. It has, much to my initial surprise, many elements of modern western RPGs such as clothing showing up on your body, a slightly non-linear main quest progression, an unfathomably deep character creation system and a truckload of challenging NPC-driven side quests to just name a few.
One of my biggest pet peeves with JRPGs is that even with all the advances in processing power we've been given in the past decade you still don't see equipment show up on your characters. While so-called "western" RPGs have been doing this since the early 90s, Japanese RPGs have never followed suit. Though Dragon Quest 8 toyed with this idea (Only your main character and Jessica ever got any kind of wardrobe change) it was very limited and the outfit which changed your main character's appearance was only available after completion of the post-game dungeon.
Instead of running away from it, Dragon Quest 9 takes this idea and runs with it.
Every tiny little piece of equipment shows up on your character, even if the small screen of the average DS DOES make it hard to see them all clearly. With a paper doll inventory that is very ultima-esque in its design, Dragon Quest 8 rewards completionists and fashionistas alike by giving you a several hundred different pieces of equipment to mix and match to your heart's content. The selection is so bewilderingly large and the designs of the equipment so charming that even with three years worth of mods installed on it, my PC version of Oblivion doesn't even have this kind of clothing diversity. It's simply unbelievable how much stuff is available to your player, most of which is locked off unless you complete a quest to earn the right to wear it.
This brings me to the next big change in the series, the inclusion of side quests. While small diversions in the main story line are certainly nothing new to JRPGs, the size, amount and challenge level of DQ9's side quests put this game in a league that even most hardcore PC RPGs wouldn't be able to enter. With a whopping 120 side missions each with their own unique reward and story (Plus over 60 available as free DLC) there isn't a point in the game where you'll suddenly find yourself out of things to do. If anything, you might feel overwhelmed by the suffocating nature of the game's side quests. Though to be honest, there are many like myself who love that.
Some of the quests are relatively painless and require you to merely find what it is the NPC wants and return it to them. A good portion of these quests, however, are hard enough to make even a 28 year veteran of the genre such as myself slam their fist on the table.
These harder quests, naturally, give you proportionately better rewards. Some may unlock hidden character classes or unique sets of armor while others give you rare crafting components or access to dungeons full of high leveled monsters just begging to be conquered. Regardless of the rewards, these quests serve their main purpose excellently, which is to help alleviate the constant grinding that you're apt to do in the game.
...and believe me when I say you'll be grinding.
Though the game itself is rather easy and requires no grinding whatsoever, the class system is so deep that it speaks to OCD gamers on a level not seen since the day the word blizzard meant something other than a snowstorm. With every class having several different skill "trees" to level up and carry on to their next occupation after maxing them out, the options for min/max'ing and supreme "build creation" rivals that of western RPGs such as Dragon Age or Baldur's Gate. They even forced caster classes to "spec" much more deeply than the series has made them in the past by adding the "Magical Mending" and "Magical Might" statistics, which govern your ability to cast magic and are only raised by light armor and robes.
While the job system is nothing new to Dragon Quest, the way they've implemented it is nothing short of masterful.
Taking the well thought out weapon skill system first used in Dragon Quest 8 and extending it to include job specific "vocation skills" that are unique to each occupation and can be carried over once you job change, Dragon Quest gives you a staggering amount of possibilities when it comes to party creation. with twelve classes, 260 different levels worth of skills (Yes, I counted), 14 weapon types and an unlimited amount of time given to the player to build their party I'm not stretching the truth when I say you'll likely never find a character creation system as deep and complex as the one in this game. Even compared to western games such as The Elder Scrolls, DQ9 is like the Marianas Trench of RPG min/max'ery. Which means a lot coming from a veteran D&D nerd and elitist CRPG snob such as myself who would spend an entire week just drafting up one character sheet for a meaningless one-day tabletop session.
Simply put, Dragon Quest 9 is a juggernaut of a game. A gigantic swollen, bloated, enormous, 50 ton monster of a game that has enough character development depth to rival tournament-rules 2nd Edition D&D and is varied and complex enough to make obsessive compulsive gamers like myself go insane. I think the fact that I spent every afternoon from 4pm to 3am (And an hour at lunch) playing a "simple" looking DS game instead of the consoles and top-of-the-line PC I normally sit in front of is enough to put to rest any idea that DQ9 is a casual or light-hearted roleplaying game. Even after a whopping 121 hours I still find "holes" in my character's skill plan and scribble notes on scrap paper about what I need to learn next to remedy the situation. This becomes a bigger deal in the post game areas where bosses critically hit you for 400 hp and have five times as much health as the last boss.
Oh, but the fun doesn't end there. Besides the excellent character building system and the sometimes maddeningly difficult side quests there is one more thing that Yuji Hori threw into the mix, and that is the return and improvement of Dragon Quest 8's famous alchemy pot.
Much like the alchemy pot in the previous game, you can use common ingredients to improve old equipment or even create entirely new items altogether. While DQ8's pot was a nice little side activity that was fun but under-utilized, the pot in DQ9 is anything but. Now the alchemy pot is an integral part of gameplay that can make almost any item in the game and acts as the digital gatekeeper to the game's most prized and powerful pieces of equipment. Though I wasn't too happy with the slow re-spawn of the material harvest points on the world map, I did enjoy the depth of the crafting system and how much of what it can do is left undocumented and requires a fair amount of experimentation from the player. Overall, the system is a marked improvement over what was made available in the previous game and on par with the kind of crafting you'd find in PC RPGs such as Neverwinter Nights or Dragon Age.
All of these systems...the clothes, the crafting, the side quests, the character creation...they all work flawlessly together and help buffer what is, at its core, a typical JRPG combat engine. While other things may change in the Dragon Quest series, the combat has always remained the same. While those not accustomed to classic 8 bit console games may not particularly care for the slow nature of turn based combat, I will say that they did a fine job of speeding it up a bit. Though it may still be too slow and cumbersome for the action-rpg fans out there, DQ8 has a very fast and fluid combat engine that can plow through a round of combat in around 15 seconds, making it very easy for all but the most impatient gamers out there to enjoy. With a fast moving, almost cinematic style to its combat, Dragon Quest 9 puts something old in a spruced up modern package and manages to hit that elusive middle ground where both gamers wanting the classic feel and people wishing for an updated system can be equally satisfied.
Of course all of this means nothing if you don't have a good story to glue it all together. While Dragon Quest has never really been known for its plotlines (Sorry longtime fans, it's very true) DQ9 does a pretty good job at trying to change that stereotype.
The story has you assuming the role of a new guardian angel who is tasked with protecting a small country village and doing the little things that make its inhabitant's lives easier. In return for your help, their heartfelt prayers to you result in the creation of "benevolescence", a material made of pure faith that when collected will result in the completion of an ancient prophecy that involves all of the world's angels being called up to heaven to sit with the almighty. Unfortunately, as is the case in all RPGs, something goes wrong and your plans for early retirement in a spiritual paradise are cut short thanks to a horrible disaster that threatens not only your halo-wearing, wing bearing brethren but also dooms the mortals below as well.
What follows is a lord of the rings style adventure through many different distinct areas of the world, each one inhabited by some poor lost soul whose sinful desires have turned them into a monster. Sin plays a big part in much of the game's plot points, and as an angel whose task it is to right these wrongs, you'll frequently find yourself sympathizing with those who you are fighting against. Whether it's the cursed knight of a long dead kingdom who yearns for his beloved to return to him or a poor fisherman's daughter who lost her father at sea and wants nothing more than to see him again, you'll have no problem falling for the characters in Dragon Quest 9. Granted, the game isn't Shakespeare and the big twist in the story doesn't occur until well into the second half of the story, but after being subjected to dozens of overly dramatic and woefully uninteresting JRPG stories over the past few years, DQ8 felt like a breath of fresh air. Throw in the majestic sweeping fantasy tunes that the series is known for and you have a very charming, heartfelt game that while not as "epic" or "grand" as the Final Fantasy series claims to be, it is far more personal and touching.
The very best part of this story, and one that I'm quite annoyed isn't mentioned in any of the professional reviews for this game would be your fairy partner, Stella.
Stella is a fairy who got caught up in the disaster that starts the game's story and has crashed her flying train in a nearby forest. The train, which is meant to ferry the angels to their heavenly paradise when the prophecy has been fulfilled, can only be seen by other angels and the fairy takes a liking to your main character when she discovers that you can see both her and her vehicle. Throughout the story, the very best lines in the game are delivered by this adorably silly fairy, especially when she exhibits her young age and naivete by mispronouncing words or royally screwing up phrases. She's so sweet, funny, and courageous that she takes what would be a roughly ho-hum JRPG story and makes it far more entertaining than it should be. Stella quickly grew on me and I began to view her the same way I did Minsc from Baldur's Gate. Like that infamous sword wielding berserker, Stella is silly when the situation needs her to be and heart-wrenchingly serious when the mood calls for it. The scenes at the end, and later right before you start the post game quests, were some of the best moments in the game all because of her dialog and adorably passive-aggressive personality. She is easily the most interesting NPC I've seen in a game, and have to give credit to the translation team for giving her so much life.
In closing, I'd like to say that I held off doing this review for a considerable amount of time. After having beat the game around the 70 hour mark I was tempted to give the game a 10 and make it one of only a few such games I've ever considered "perfect". Instead of doing this I continued to play the game, hoping I would get to that point I do with nearly every RPG where I get terminally bored with it and begin to see the game's faults. Like Mass Effect 2 and Fallout 3 before it, I thought that the initial excitement of the game would fade once I played through it again and forced my way past the honeymoon period into the "bitter and tired" period. I did the post game dungeons, maxed out some skills, spent hours gathering rare crafting ingredients, completed left over quests...all in the hope that I could review the game without the fanboyism that I have seen so many others succumb to.
Amazingly, that time has yet to come. Even after 120+ hours the game remains fresh and exciting. The post end game legacy bosses are challenging, the high level grottoes are often grueling, and the high-end crafting recipes require absolutely insane amounts of resource gathering to complete. Yet, for some reason, I still feel that spark whenever I turn the game on and hear that familiar opening title song.
Dragon Quest has never gained any substantial amount of popularity in the states, and I truly hope this game is the one that changes that. With a nearly perfect game that is only hampered by some frame rate problems and the inherent limitations of its local-only multiplayer, DQ9 is probably the best console RPG I've played since 1995's SNES classic, Earthbound. Much like Earthbound, DQ9 is a game that is deceptively deep and immeasurably pleasurable. It is the very definition of what a JRPG should be, and after playing through hardcore console RPGs like Resonance of Fate and Demon's Souls, it feels odd saying that about a tiny little Nintendo DS game. I guess it's true what they say about things in small packages. At least when it comes to Dragon Quest.
As for the opening comment I quoted from Hiroshi Yamauchi, I only have one thing to say to that:
If that dark room has a copy of DQ9 and a restroom, you can lock the door and leave me in there. I'll be perfectly fine, thanks.