Originally published in The Daily Toreador.
In Japan, the “Dragon Quest” series is massive &- about as massive as something like “Call of Duty” is for us, if not moreso. In fact, the games in the main “Dragon Quest” line have to be released on Sundays because the country slows down after the product launches. Both children and adults have been known to skip school or work just to play the newest fantasy adventure.
The series has never achieved nearly that level of popularity here in North America, but that’s not for a lack of quality. The games are good, and this latest entry is no exception.
“Dragon Quest” is a fantasy RPG, much like “Final Fantasy,” but much more lighthearted. Players will explore a vast overworld map filled with enemies to battle and dungeons to explore. Battles take place in a turn-based fashion, with the player selecting actions for his or her party of one to four adventurers.
None of this is even remotely innovative, but “Dragon Quest IX” is somewhat unique for the series in a few ways. One is that it’s part of the main series of games (in other words, it’s not a side story or dumbed down port), and it was developed exclusively for the portable Nintendo DS, rather than a more powerful system like the PlayStation 3. This makes some sense, considering the DS is the best-selling game system of all time, and every Japanese citizen seems to own at least three of them.
The other main break from tradition is that this game is highly focused on multiplayer. Rather than being a story about a set cast of characters, “Dragon Quest IX” tasks you with creating every character in your party &- primarily your hero. This opens up the possibility of playing with fellow owners of the game, while each of you plays as the character of your own making. This doesn’t exactly make it “World of Warcraft,” but it’s neat to be able to affect your hero’s look, and playing with friends can be fun.
On the downside, however, this dampens the story quite a bit. Since the game puts so many choices in your hand, the story can’t do a ton to make you feel for the protagonist &- you have to do most of that yourself.
This combined with the constant grinding for gold and experience points makes “Dragon Quest IX” feel very old school, but in a lot of ways that’s perfectly fine. Rather than feeling like the developers were taking steps backward, I felt they were looking back at what makes games enjoyable in the first place. While it may be lacking in plot or graphics, the game packs a lot of fun, especially for a portable title.
Since you can take the experience with you wherever you go, it’s a good thing that the experience is pretty massive. Nintendo sent us a review copy of the game almost a week before its retail release, but that wasn’t enough time to see everything there is to see in the game. You can easily play for several hours while barely scratching the surface of the main adventure, and there are plenty of side-quests and other things to do. If you set out to do everything, you could easily be playing for over 100 hours.
Unfortunately, you’ll be playing all those hours on one save file, with one character. The lack of additional files means you can never go back to earlier parts of the game without starting all over (and erasing all your progress), and it means you can’t share your copy of the game with family or friends.
“Dragon Quest IX” is a great, though not perfect game. It makes some sacrifices, but it provides one heck of a portable adventure. It probably deserves a spot on any hardcore gamer’s shelf, but if you’re more into fast-paced action than the classic strategy and equipment management of old-school RPGs, then you should probably stay away.