Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (DS)

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I’m sure at one point the Dragon part of the title of this series meant something. At this point there are more slimes running around than dragons so it would be more appropriately named Slime Quest. But, for unexplained reasons, Square Enix have stuck with Dragon Quest and it remains the second most popular role-playing game series in Japan after nine entries. In fact, this ninth entry is the most popular entry in the series so far. And yet, Dragon Quest is still really niche in the West. The two remakes on the DS, Dragon Quest IV: The Chapters of the Chosen and Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride, have hardly registered on the collective consciousness of most Western RPG gamers. Will Sentinels of the Starry Skies be the one to change this? It certainly deserves more attention – I found it quite a bit more appealing than the earlier remakes.

Dragon Quest is almost the archetype of a Japanese turn-based role-playing game. Four characters (there are always four) must become a stronger version of themselves by fighting endless slimes and other funnily named monsters in turn-based combat, collecting experience to level up and gold to buy better and better weapons, all the while helping people in need and working towards the goal of saving a medieval styled world.

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Create a character, follow your destiny

You start the game by creating a character, and you’re able to customize every aspect of the character to a certain extent, as well as name the character. Even from this early point it’s clear that this Dragon Quest game was made with co-operative and online play in mind. In a creative moment I called my character Peter, and starting taking on the world. More specifically you start fighting cruelcumbers, sacksquatches and teeny sanguinis. Soon enough you’ll be fighting menacing beasts like zumeanies and bewarewolves. The names of the monsters are uniformly brilliant and the design and animation of them all is top quality (although remember this is the DS, so they’re limited in polygon count and fancy shading). When walking around the overworld you will see monsters appear and amble around. Touching any of them will start a fight with them, which is classic Dragon Quest style. Every turn you decide what each of your party members is going to do – fight, cast a spell, defend, perform a special attack, or use an item. Then the turn is carried out in the order of agility – the most agile characters or monsters first, the slowest last. Once everyone has had a go a new round starts. It’s all very gentlemanly.

At the end of battle each character receives experience (assuming you won of course), and the party receives some gold. If all party members die you get no experience, you lose half your gold (I guess those mean Mummy Boys loot you) and somehow wind up resurrected in the church you last visited. Collect enough experience and you level up, gaining strength, agility, magic power and various other attributes. You also periodically receive skill points to allocate to skills. Your start character is a Minstrel, so he (or she) has the ability to use whips, swords or fans as weapons, as well as shields, and can also learn a skill called Litheness which allows him to perform various special abilities (such as an in-battle special attack called Hot Lick).

Other character classes also have three different weapon abilities (such as daggers, spears, axes, hammers, wands, staffs) and some class-specific abilities (such as Faith for a Priest or Guts for a Gladiator). Magic-using classes will also learn spells as they level up, the Priests learning mainly healing-type spells and the Mage mainly attacking or status-affecting spells (such as spells to increase agility). Various classes (and sometimes genders) can also use different equipment, so on top of raw ability the character’s equipment must be considered. Once you reach a certain point in-game you can also change a character’s class, and more classes are opened up as you go.

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Be prepared for an epic adventure

The quantity of options over the course of the game is huge, but then the game takes a long time to play, so it’s never overwhelming and can sometimes feel like it’s moving a little slowly. This slow-moving feeling is brought about mainly by the amount of grinding necessary to advance. There are a number of times I found myself needing to walk around fighting lots of monsters just to level up and gather enough gold for better equipment so that I could face a boss battle without being destroyed. This repetition is mitigated a little by the number of side quests which help to give you a goal to work towards while you’re trying to level up.

Dragon Quest IX is built for those who like to collect things. Everything is tracked, from the monsters you’ve fought to the items you’ve bought or found to the percentage of the equipment in the game you’ve managed to get hold of to the amount of alchemy recipes you’ve tried out. If you’re not the sort to lose interest once a game’s main story is completed (which will already take 50+ hours) and you’re looking for a game to last you more than a hundred hours, this game will do the trick. Post-game content is immense – treasure maps open up grottos which are whole-new dungeons to clear that give you more treasure maps (as well as new items). Each character can level up to level 99, and can even start again at one, keeping all their skills but losing their upgraded attributes. Creating the uber-character that has everything maxed out will take a very, very long time.

The story is well paced in the sense that it is geared for handheld gaming. Each new area you enter will have some sort of problem they need you to solve, which will inevitably involve defeating someone in battle. These are self-contained little stories so you won’t find yourself getting lost in the world and not knowing exactly which character in which corner of the world you need to talk to move things along. Square-Enix have also added a feature that tells you the current plot just by pressing the Y button. This is fantastic – so often I come back to these sprawling RPG games having forgotten just what I was supposed to be doing.

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Quality relaxation

The production values of Dragon Quest: Sentinels of the Starry Skies are sky high. There are a huge number of different monsters and they are all wonderfully animated and varied. I haven’t discussed the overall plot, but it’s enough to say the writing is bearable and the plot doesn’t distract. The real plot is the adventures you create and the characters that grow out of it. There is great music all the way through and lovely towns that have character. The graphics are the best I have seen on the DS and are stylish and colourful. Seeing the armour or shoes your characters are wearing as they run around and fight is delightful, especially with some of the wacky clothes and equipment you can find. Then there is the tag mode which trades maps with people in the area if they have their DS with Dragon Quest in it (which is just not going to happen in South Africa without specifically organizing it, but it’s a cool feature nevertheless, and seems to have been the inspiration for the 3DS’ local connectivity features).

There is also the ability to buy items from an online shop that changes regularly. Basically it’s a game with a massive amount of content worthy of your money. But, consider that it is very long and it’s not a game to get your adrenalin going, or to make you awe-inspired with its graphics, or to give you that sense of achievement (other than maybe the sense of achieving 100 hours of play, or 100% of your alchenomicon), or to make you laugh. Rather, it’s a game to relax with and enjoy at your own pace. When I play I often start dozing, and that’s not because it’s really boring – but because I find playing Dragon Quest IX a very relaxing thing to do.

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