Earlier this week I had the distinct pleasure of receiving an advance copy of Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies for Nintendo DS. I had always been aware of the Dragon Quest series, but most of the games were either for systems I didn’t have or they were too old to seem relevant to me. Despite the fact that I had never played a game in the series before, my hopes were running high as I opened the game. I knew all about the attention and hype these games receive in Japan, so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
At about ten hours of gameplay, Dragon Quest IX hasn’t really brought anything new to the table. Most of the action takes place on the bottom touch screen, while a map occupies the top screen. You have the option of assigning tactical routines to each party member, or you can set them to follow your orders on each turn. There are a bunch of different classes to choose from, and allegedly you will have the ability to change any character’s class after a certain point in the game, though I have yet to reach that point. The story is so multi-pronged I don’t expect to have any resolution until the very end of the game, but that has become typical for games like Dragon Quest IX. None of these features should be particularly surprising to anyone who has played a turn-based RPG on the DS, however, despite leaning heavily on these shopworn ideas, the game still manages to feel fun and interesting while you’re playing it. It’s clear that the development team took an “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” approach when designing gameplay elements.
Surprisingly, the music of Dragon Quest IX is a little on the drab side. It attempts to sound majestic and epic, but ends up sounding like a couple 16 key Casio keyboards were the sole source of instrumentation. Sound effects are overly MIDI-fied and sound like they could have been ripped straight from Dragon Quest Monsters III for GBA. This game looks pretty good for a DS game, but there are definitely times when the frame rate lags — usually when running around on the map being chased by enemies. I was disappointed to see a shortcoming of this caliber from a game series that has been so critically acclaimed for nearly two decades. Despite some of the in-game graphics being sub-par, the full-video cutscenes are nice, and the cartoony look doesn’t detract from the serious tone of the game.
Dragon Quest IX has all the key elements in place for a good game that will keep long-time fans of the series content. There is the complicated storyline we’ve all come to expect from a Japanese RPG series, and solid turn-based gameplay that will keep strategy-minded players on their toes for many hours. Charming character models and cute enemies help counterbalance some of the graphical shortcomings, and listening to your digital audio player of choice while playing can overcome the boring music. Overall, I am pleased with Dragon Quest IX and am looking forward to continuing my adventure. Keep your eyes peeled for the full review coming to you later next week!
Too bad the in-game music isn’t this good!