DS review: Dragon Quest 9

My martial artist, Jiro, crushes enemies. Clothed in blue jeans, cat ears, and tortoise shell armor, he frequently one-shots pitiful bosses after reaching a state of super high tension, anime hair glowing purple as he claws into them.

Gwen uses her paladin brawn to soak up hits for Jiro when his health gets dangerously low, while Renia casts multi-target healing spells to keep everyone fighting. Tom eggs Jiro on, allowing him to raise his tension at double rate. When bosses begin negating Jiro’s tension boosts, Tom spears them with thunderous criticals instead.

After years of roleplaying characters who can do everything, managing distinct abilities and combat roles is refreshing. You’ll want a priest to start, of course, but how you structure your team is entirely player-driven. Character classes feel refreshingly different from one another, at least until you begin combining classes and doubling up on abilities.

These are series hallmarks, of course, but Dragon Quest 9 continually works within its classic framework to advance the Japanese roleplaying genre.

Demon’s Souls and Xenoblade are frequently lauded for their fusion of Eastern and Western design ethos, but I’d argue that Dragon Quest 9 combines the two styles more harmoniously, emerging at the forefront of a wave of intelligent, radical JRPGs.

You wouldn’t know it from the plot, as Dragon Quest’s typical, skippable story is back in full force. There’s no generation-spanning tale of love and loss as seen in Hand of the Heavenly Bride, nor will players find the stunning fables and creation myths displayed in Dragon Quest 7.

On the surface, Dragon Quest 9 is about angels searching for mystic figs. Throw in zillions of punny zingers and an abundance of archaic alliterations, and you have a good idea of the enjoyably mundane story.

But the game’s masterstroke is that the story doesn’t matter. Now that every other genre has stolen their birthright, roleplaying games have had to find a new focus.

Deep down, Dragon Quest 9 is all about gameplay.

Since the genre’s birth, gameplay has been some sort of non-factor in roleplaying games. If the story’s good enough, players ignore sloppy gameplay. They ignore that random battles initiate every five steps, that it’s unclear where the hell they’re supposed to go, that they’ve spent hours grinding when they really just want to progress.

Dragon Quest 9 realizes that players love sending their own characters off to explore the world, and nurtures that sense of player-driven exploration wherever it can.

You start by customizing the four roguish scamps that make up your party. The game provides enough options for a range of archetypes without overwhelming players with superfluous details like brow width and cheek flush. It wasn’t hard to make a reasonable approximation of myself as the main character.

Once you’ve defined their physical traits, the game lets you define their personalities for yourself. Gwen’s a strong and steadfast warrior, with piercing eyes and cropped blonde hair, but her serious streak only runs so far. A ridiculous slime crown rests atop her head, letting townsfolk know that behind her intimidating Marauder’s Maul lies a kindhearted adventurer.

All my characters have their own stories, reflected in what they wear, their abilities, what weapon they use. They’re concretely defined in a way that Cloud and Chrono aren’t. They are what they do.

Their stories are formed in battle, and the battle system in Dragon Quest 9 hasn’t changed a bit from previous iterations. It’s rock solid, refined through the decades to keep what works and ditch what doesn’t.

But you can now see monsters roaming the field, and the ability to avoid or engage monsters at will is great. That Japanese roleplaying games have taken so long to adopt this feature is baffling. Randomized battles lead to players running in circles for hours, hammering a button whenever they hear battle music. With on-field monsters the world feels more alive, and players have incentive to pay attention. They’re engaged.

Roaming monsters are crucial when you’re looking for certain alchemical ingredients or grinding liquid metal slimes, but the field they roam on is glorious, too. Like Xenoblade, Dragon Quest 9 provides a world that’s bigger than it needs to be, creating immersion through expansive wilderness. Not every area has a dungeon or town, not every island has an event. Instead of an artificial world created for the player, it feels like a real place.

There’s a lot to explore. Townsfolk offer numerous sidequests throughout the adventure, asking you to slay certain monsters or fetch certain items. These quests could keep you busy for a long while, but they’re just diversions, baiting players toward the truly staggering amount of content that opens up when the game ends.

The post-game revolves around delving into grottos, randomized dungeons replete with monsters and loot. There are thousands of possible combinations of environments, enemies, and bosses. After defeating the grotto’s boss, players earn a new map based on their character level.

You could play forever. Grotto-diving pilfers Diablo’s addictive design and reframes it within the Japanese roleplaying mold. It’s genius, a masterstroke of progressive game design, a distillation of Eastern and Western roleplaying philosophy.

I love it. Grottos make Dragon Quest 9 a go-to game anytime I just want to play. That’s a powerful draw in a genre where you’re expected to fully commit to every 60-hour experience.

If there’s one problem with the post-game, it’s that grotto maps require a treasure hunt. I can imagine some players excitedly searching the overworld to locate their newest grotto, but that’s just not me. I’m impatient.

Thankfully, grottos only spawn in certain fixed locations, all documented online. It’s irritating having to go online every time you get a new map, but it’s a small price to pay for endless treasure.

Dragon Quest 9 does occasionally fall prey to player exhaustion. After all, these are the same gameplay systems we’ve been using for decades, and endless dungeon-diving can grow tiresome. Thankfully, this is the sort of game you can leave and come back to, since the story is so minimal.

If you can find somebody to team up with, you can enter another player’s world to slay baddies and earn loot. It’s a rare feature in roleplaying games, but Dragon Quest doesn’t make it feel wholly thought out. In order to enter another player’s world, you need to break up your party of four, leaving characters behind.

Only controlling a fraction of your characters in battle is a drag, but your friend can hop in to fight alongside you. Multiplayer leans toward the host, requiring them to progress before you can explore their world. For this reason, multiplayer’s better suited for helping friends along or for playing the entire game together. It doesn’t work well if you just jump in occasionally, but it still manages to be fun either way.

If multiplayer had been left out, I would have never considered its absence. Dragon Quest 9 is so fully realized in other ways that the lopsided multiplayer feels like an extra. It’s imperfect, but it doesn’t take away from the single-player experience.

These days, finishing a roleplaying game is rare for me. Absolute classics sit around collecting dust. There’s too much commitment to start them, too little payoff to complete them.

That I finished Dragon Quest 9 is the highest praise I can give. I retrieved all those dumb Fyggs, killed the big bad, and saved the world. And it’s still not over. There are quests to complete and grottos to explore, new enemies to fight and new loot to nab.

There always will  be.

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4 Responses to “DS review: Dragon Quest 9”

  1. alexislives Says:

    Awesome review, this is one of the most well written reviews I’ve read. I have DQ9, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I really want to play it now.

    • catstronaut Says:

      Thanks! It’s a great game, as long as you can get past the nonexistent plot. It’s taken me a long time to warm to Dragon Quest, and 9 is the first one I’ve beaten. I’ve played a lot of them and love em to death, but because they’re gameplay-oriented I tend to drop out in the long-term. I look forward to beating 3, 5, 7, and 8 someday, though, as part of my own personal quest to conquer my backlog. It helps that those are all great games, too.

      • alexislives Says:

        I like the series because of the gameplay mechanics. They’re all also chock full of things to do and its easily to clock in well over 100 hours. I’ve beaten Dragon Quest 3, 4 and 8 (working through Dragon Quest 1). I also have played one of the monsters games (Taras Adventure) which is one of my favorite games.

      • catstronaut Says:

        I used to love the first Dragon Warrior Monsters, but it’s aged really badly because of awful random dungeons. Dragon Quest Monsters Joker for DS was a lot better. I hear Tara’s Adventure is great though, and I’ve been meaning to pick it up.

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