The Dragon Quest series is one of the true old souls within the realm of role-playing games, with its standard features lovingly reiterated in each release. There is always the signature art style of Dragonball creator Akira Toriyama, an expansive world with many continents to visit, and hidden treasures to unearth. There are always slimes. While the series holds firmly to its roots, down to the user interface and battle sound effects, Dragon Quest: Sentinels of the Starry Skies introduces some new twists like multiplayer and nonrandom encounters that build on those old formulas. The result is unlikely to convert those who don't already enjoy these lengthy adventures, but the game is a glowing reminder that this grand old RPG style still holds up after all these years, and fans are going to have a great time.
You are a Celestrian, a blessed being with wings and a halo who dwells high above the mortal realm. After completing an apprenticeship under your master, you become the guardian of a small village. It is the duty of Celestrians to look out for their fragile charges, keeping them free from harm and answering their fervent prayers while remaining invisible to human eyes. A calamity causes you to be thrown from your lofty home and strips you of your angel-like trappings. Now you are visible and vulnerable--mortal in appearance if not in truth--and it falls to you to explore the world below and hopefully find a way to restore your divine powers.
The character creation process allows you to choose your gender and then your overall build and appearance from a selection of options. Once you're ready to add three companions to your party roster, you can apply the same selection process to recruitment to personalize them somewhat as well. All the character art has that Dragonball flavor, but your group is truly defined by its gear. There's a wealth of different types of armor to equip that goes well beyond the tired territory of chain mail and leather boots. Fishnet stockings and high heels, T-shirts and jeans, boxers and briefs are only the beginning of a wardrobe filled with all sorts of madness. You'll have characters in full-plate armor next to compatriots with equally powerful gear that look like they should be going swimming instead. It keeps equipment gathering interesting in a way that goes beyond increasing your stats and allows you to indulge in some truly horrible and hysterical fashion sense.
But in the end, it's all about battle readiness, and picking your balance of character classes is as important as what type of shoes to wear. The basic professions available are minstrel, warrior, priest, mage, thief, and martial artist. Your own character will always start as a minstrel, while you can tailor the rest of your group as you see fit. Each class can equip specific types of weapons and armor and will learn specific spells as it grows more powerful. Gaining levels will also earn you skill points, which can be applied to weapon proficiencies that enable more damage and new abilities, as well as class proficiencies for additional battle abilities. You can change professions at an abbey that becomes available some hours into the game, and while you'll start new vocations at level one and without any spells you learned as a different class, you will keep any skill point abilities you purchased. If you decide that leveling a priest is a pain and that you'd like to go back to your old job, you will again assume your previous level and all of your spells while losing those priest spells. It's rather a big deal to switch professions because you'll have to invest some time to get those characters back up in terms of their levels, but it opens the door for determined players to mix and match powerful abilities.
Bringing those skills to bear against foes is as easy as heading out of town and scanning your surroundings for the nearest meowgician. New to this installment in the series is the ability to see monsters roaming the dungeon and world environments, so you can more easily trigger battles or just thread your way around skeletons and ghouls to be on your way. Creatures will still sometimes charge at you if you're of a lower level, but if you need to quickly regain your spot in the dungeon du jour, it can be done without too much fuss.
The actual fighting is classic turn-based fare, with you issuing orders to your party and then watching the action unfold. There are some basic AI tactical options that you can set for your three followers that will have them focusing on healing, conserving their magic, attacking at will, and so on, or you can choose to just manage each character individually. Because monsters can show up in large groups, it's important that you're careful to split the action to take out your most dangerous foes as quickly as you can. While you can run from battles, and while you learn spells that let you easily leave dungeons and warp back to towns, the game is by no means a cakewalk. There are some seriously deadly creatures out there that command a lot of respect, so you don't want to skimp on leveling and empowering your party. This can turn into a bit of a grind, but the visual variety of monsters keeps things from getting too mundane.
The Dragon Quest monster stable is full of memorable foes with funny names, and you'll always be running into something interesting. The slimes are one thing with their unique blobby cuteness, but you'll also encounter imps riding battle tanks and centaurs that fuse tiger-men with horses. Meeting a pack of armored zombies is somehow better when you find out that they're called lesionnaires. Occasionally, you'll get a break during an intense fight where a monster gazes lovingly at one of your characters, or it decides it wants to just hang out instead of gnawing on your face. The designs, as well as the animations, all ooze personality, particularly if there's dancing involved. The game's cartoon look works really well overall, though the sharpness and detail suffer somewhat when the camera zooms in and out. The sounds almost entirely reprise the classic Dragon Quest effects, from the high-pitched trill when you attack to the heavy clumping of boots when you use stairs, and these effects continue to work really well.
If there's one area of the game that feels unnecessarily archaic, it's the menu system, which still uses a basic six-item menu that has to do a lot of work to access the wealth of options you have available. It's somewhat cumbersome to sift through your bag of items and transfer healing medicine and other goodies to your individual characters by hand so they can be used in battle. Having to buy one item at a time in stores is a pain if you're trying to upgrade quickly--though you can equip something right after buying it, which saves you from having to play menu Tetris later. There's also a nice equipment interface in the menu that lets you see a close-up of your character, so you can try on all sorts of gear combinations and examine them from every angle.
Aside from all the usual fare, Sentinels of the Starry Skies offers cooperative local multiplayer for two to four players. You'll get to keep your current level and all your items when you join a multiplayer game, but your warp spell will only be able to access locations that the host player has visited. What's nice is that each player has complete independent control and can wander wherever he or she likes. If a friend gets into a battle nearby, you'll join automatically, and if you're too far away, you can run up to the ongoing fight and jump into the fray after the fact. The system works well and without that tacked-on feeling that can characterize some multiplayer options.
There's a hefty main narrative line to follow, of course, but even aside from the upward of 30 hours you can spend doing that, side quests lurk in just about every city and village, awaiting your attention. These range from simple item fetch quests to the search for a legendary belly-dancing instructor and can earn you some great rewards. If you want to access any of the extra professions like ranger or paladin, you'll first need to complete a challenging special quest that asks you to use specific abilities on specific foes. There's also an alchemy pot, which lets you concoct items, weapons, and armor, as well as the bonus dungeon maps you receive from certain quests. These extras provide a variety of worthwhile ways to spend your time.
Every town in Sentinels of the Starry Skies has its own little story and its own sense of place in a wide world teeming with crazy monsters, great loot, and plenty of dungeons to explore. This is a quintessential role-playing experience that balances hardcore monster smashing with a lighthearted spirit. The Dragon Quest series soars onward and upward.