As I’ve continued on this journey through the Ur-JRPG series Dragon Quest, one thing I’ve found refreshing about it has been the sense of discovery and newness (to me at least) of the 6 I’ve played and reviewed at time of writing. Before beginning this playthrough I’d only played two games in the franchise before: first VIII, an all-time favourite of mine, and this game, IX. My memories of IX were slightly hazy; I had vague recollections of how the game looked, a few of the scenarios, and a little of the plot, but it’s also a game that sits on my pile of never-beaten shame. We’ve all got them, those games that we start with all the best intentions in the world but never seem to see them through, regardless of how many restarts and attempts there are. If there’s one thing that keeping this blog has done though, it’s helped me with that sense of focus, and it’s with a not insignificant sense of self-satisfaction that I finally got to see the credits scrolling on by as Dragon Quest IX came to a close before me. But IX is a part of a venerable franchise with a strong pedigree, and living up to that is a tall order.
Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Sky (NDS)
Released Jul 2009 | Developed: Level-5 | Published: Square Enix
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 48 hours
In many earlier Dragon Quest stories we’ve played through prior to this we’ve assumed the role of a prince or royal of some description, or some brand of legendary hero, but IX breaks the mould somewhat here. Instead, our player character is an angel – sorry, a Celestrian. Their job as Guardian of the village of Angel Falls is to watch over the people there, listen to their prayers and needs, and be an unseen agent of helpfulness. I return, the praise that your wards offer up in your name are gathered up in the form of benevolessence, which you take up to the flying city-temple in which you and the other Celestrians live, the Observatory. At the peak of the Observatory is Yggdrasil, the world tree, and it is where all Celestrians offer up the benevolessence they have gathered in the hopes of making the tree bloom.
It’s said among the Celestrians that once the tree is replete with enough benevolessence, it will grow its heavenly fruit, the fyggs, and a path aboard a heavenly engine called the Starflight Express will open, taking all the Celestrians onwards to the home of the Almighty himself. This moment happens right at the start of the game but things go wrong immediately; as you offer up the final bit of benevolessence to the tree and watch the fyggs bloom, a malevolent force attacks the Observatory, blasting the Starflight Express out of the sky and sending you tumbling down to the world below. When you awaken, you have somehow become mortal and lost your ability to see or gather benevolessence. The main quest then begins to take shape as you set out into the world to try and find the Starflight Express and return to the Observatory, as well as needing to gather the fyggs that fell to the world with you and try and return them to Yggdrasil before their power is misused.
After the opening the story slowly settles into what feels like an episodic structure. At first things progress in a fairly straightforward way as you explore around Angel Falls and come across the broken Starflight Express. It doesn’t take too long though before the plot begins to move in a more “chunked” pattern with tiny individual stories taking place, such as the tragedy of the sinister Wight Knight who terrorizes the idyllic kingdom of Stornway or helping a local professor deal with a cursed plague in the village of Coffinwell. Each of these – and many that come later – function more as self-contained mini-narratives, with little linking them to any sense of a wider story. Even after the Starflight Express has been repaired and you begin your journey to regather the fyggs in earnest, the story still moves along in the same way: individual characters or locations become relevant and then once the fygg is found they fade away from the narrative and, as a rule, no longer really matter. There’s little in the way of any kind of unifying narrative that these stories are subservient to; yes, you’re gathering the fyggs and are trying to return them to the Observatory, but that’s hardly a deep or compelling framework.
It’s a very “bitty” way to present a plot, and while it’s clear that the writers had some ideas for typical Dragon Quest grandiosity, it doesn’t quite play out that way. Even the big villains are only introduced very near the end; I think we’re supposed to be awed by their presence, and I suspect that the game is expecting us to be raring to defeat what we’re told is a force that threatens the world, but they really have just shown up in the game so they barely feel threatening beyond being a late-game threat that requires some grinding to beat. I can respect the idea of the episodic structure being used here, partly because the smaller stories are neat but also because this is a handheld title and these more compact vignettes feel like they’re designed to be more digestible to an audience that might be playing the game in briefer bursts, but it comes at a serious price as the coherency that tied previous games together is lost.
Alongside the main quest is a mind-bogglingly extensive array of side quests. This is where the meat of the game’s longevity lies, provided you want to engage with them. I mean, you should since the rewards for the side quests are where many of the game’s unlockables and additional content are hidden, but those rewards have to be worth the journey to get them and I’m not entirely sure most of Dragon Quest IX’s are. There’s quite a wide range of quest styles and objectives you can be asked to complete. Some are extremely simple and can be completed very quickly, like performing certain emotes, but others can find you being asked to synthesize items or gather resources, which can be time-consuming.
The most egregious offenders are quests which ask you to perform specific actions, many of which are frustrating to get to land, like requiring you to carry out a certain move during battle on a single enemy. These kinds of quests run up against every possible block: you might not have the move you needed, so you’ll need to switch class and level up to get it, you might not find the monster you need since battles are random, and to top it all off you can even run the risk of the move failing so it won’t count as a successful attempt. It’s nearly impossible to drum up interest in stuff like this as far as I’m concerned; these kind of stipulations careen right over the line of acceptable design into utterly tedious territory, and, to be frank, many of the quests amount to little more than single player MMORPG style fetch requests. It’s tough to be enthused by a “gather 20 of X thing” quest and any additional playtime it adds onto your game is not a worthwhile extension.
I mentioned classes up there and yes, this is yet another JRPG I’m reviewing that uses a job system! There’s plenty precedence at least for this in Dragon Quest and IX is carrying on in a grand tradition set by its predecessors. As is so often the case for the franchise, you don’t get access to your jobs until a fair way through the game; in this case, you complete what I think could be fairly described as an entire act’s worth of content before you even come within sight of Alltrades Abbey, the series’ usual place for job-changing shenanigans. Once you can access jobs IX gives you a modest selection of starting classes – the usual stuff like warriors, mages, priests, etc – plus at least one more oddball choice which in this case is the minstrel class. Minstrels are your starting class; it sounds like it ought to be a bard but is perhaps more accurately described in generically useful terms, with decent speed growths and some funky dances and party-helpful abilities to learn. Unlike some of its predecessors, IX doesn’t have prestige classes to unlock or upgrade into – it’s perfectly possible to take your starting classes all the way through to the endgame and do just fine – but you can unlock new classes by completing certain sidequests so if you’re a diligent player, chances are good you’ll see at least a couple of the unlockable vocations.
Not content in giving you customization only in terms of your class, IX also gives you a custom party to work with, much like III did way back on the NES. It’s not too long after the start of the game when you find yourself at an inn capable of recruiting new fighters for your party, and it’s here that you get to create your characters in their entirety, including setting what their initial class is. I confess I do honestly like a fully created party – it’s great for personal roleplaying – but it’s not so great for the game’s writing. You’re the only member of your party that matters, so in all plot events the game treats your party as if it isn’t there. Most previous Dragon Quest games have favoured a voiceless protagonist but it’s rare that the entire party behind them is silent as well; usually they’re actually pretty mouthy, giving voice to the player’s feelings as stories unfold, and through the series’ standard party chat you can often discover a surprising range and depth of thoughts coming from them. Neither of this is so here though; because both your main character and the party are silent, you wind up feeling like you’ve got absolutely zero agency or presence in the plot.
It probably sounds like I’m pretty down on Dragon Quest IX, but in truth that’s not really the case. I do think it’s one of the weaker entries in the franchise that I’ve reviewed, but it’s no Luminaries of the Legendary Line; rather it’s more a testament to the quality of the franchise that this entry feels worse. I think by any regular standards then IX is still a fantastic JRPG; it’s obviously been crafted with a lot of care and detail, its vocations are fairly well-built with a large array of skills to unlock for each, and the sidequests are an extensive time sink for engaged players. The lack of narrative impact does have a fairly pronounced effect though, and although it feels like it’s well set up for a handheld release, it still feels very broken up and often plot elements feel inconsequential. It is more digestible though, and I think it’s important not to underestimate the appeal that can have for players inundated with ever longer and more intense games.
In true Dragon Quest fashion at least, IX is still wonderfully stylish, built on a solid turn-based foundation, and laced with creative and funny incidental writing that brings life to the experience. There’s a strong pun game on display, with most items having some sort of alliterative and goofy description, so taking the time to grab a look through your items or bestiary is usually good for a chuckle. It also simply looks lovely; the world is wonderfully bright and vibrant, and there’s a great mixture of polygonal and sprite art to bring life to the game. It’s a lot of surface level shine but at least it’s over a long-established and well-constructed core; even if, like me, you don’t find the story compelling or the sidequests worth your time, there’s enough to Dragon Quest IX to make it worthwhile because once you look past these gripes there’s still a very fine JRPG underneath.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.