Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies (Nintendo DS) (Level-5, Square Enix, 2009)

Dragon Quest IX

Five years after the release of Dragon Quest VIII for the PS2, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies was, in many ways, yet more of that same old familiar Dragon Quest, never known for being a series to take risks. Combat was still simplistic and based around text menus, progression was still kind of a grind, and you still couldn't save outside town. Also, carrying on the artistic identity of the iconic series were the returning key creative talents—creator and scenario writer Yuji Horii, character and monster designer Akira Toriyama, and composer Koichi Sugiyama. Indeed, I think these three men are all more critical to the perpetuation of Dragon Quest than any other creators in the game industry are to any other series. Then again, maybe a Dragon Quest installment without one or more of these guys wouldn't be so far-fetched, because Dragon Quest IX actually did introduce some changes to the series that, prior to that, would have been unthinkable.

First of all, Dragon Quest IX was a handheld game, whereas every previous numbered installment had been released on whatever had been the most popular home console of the time. But the way people played games had changed since Dragon Quest VIII, and the Nintendo DS was now the most ubiquitous platform, so it actually made a lot of business sense to move it there, even if it could not but be perceived as a demotion any time a long-running console game series moved to handheld as its new home. (I mean, could you imagine Nintendo ever announcing its next mainline Zelda or Mario as exclusive to handheld?) The visuals were going to be a step back from the last game, but, otherwise, there was nothing that Dragon Quest IX needed that it couldn't get out of the DS. The next big change was the elimination of random encounters, which, by that point, were rarely found in any remotely modern RPG. So that was not exactly groundbreaking but was more like Dragon Quest arriving way late to the party, but, on the bright side, at least it finally showed up. Square Enix's real gamble, however, was turning Dragon Quest into a multiplayer cooperative game. Can you think of any other comparably venerable series (again, think Zelda or Mario) shifting focus to co-op, after over two decades of established single-player gameplay? How would it even work? What would it mean to be multiplayer, if combat was still turn-based? How would it be any different from just passing the controller around while playing Dragon Quest VIII?

As it turned out, it worked really well. Playing Dragon Quest IX with my siblings, after having completed some fifty console RPGs all on my own, I realized at last that adventuring is something best enjoyed with company. It's just more fun when you have companions alongside you, sharing in the sights, sounds, and experiences, as you journey out into that unexplored fantasy world. You can point things out to one another, plan out routes and destinations together, or maybe split up to explore a town separately, then reconvene to share gathered intel. And it all feels a tad more real, as though going on an actual trip together.

As for the turn-based combat, it was a lot like old Dragon Quest. It still boiled down to selecting "Attack" from the menu for about 90 percent of your actions. The one wrinkle that the more recent games introduced was the "Tension" system, which encouraged players to spend a character's turn "focusing" to raise the potency of their next action. Stack a couple consecutive Tension boosts, and, after four boosts, their next attack will be far stronger than the sum of four non-boosted attacks combined would have been. In multiplayer in Dragon Quest IX, players further had the option to boost an ally's tension instead of their own, so that a character could potentially max out their tension after a single round. When I played, our party's strategy against every boss was to have everyone boost and buff the biggest bruiser in our group, then have that character unleash their strongest attack (usually the double-slashing Falcon Slash, while equipped with the double-slashing Über Falcon Blade, for a total of four slashes). There weren't very many enemies who could stand up to that, and, consequently, it almost felt like being on the other side of one of those classic Bahamut battles from Final Fantasy, in that we were basically counting down to our one big attack, and, unless the enemy could defeat or interrupt us before that moment came, the fight would be ours.

Dragon Quest IX may have been the first Dragon Quest I actually enjoyed playing, but Yuji Horii's storytelling was something I had already come to appreciate immensely during the course of my playing through Dragon Quest VIII. Dragon Quest IX's story was more like a series of loosely tied-together episodes. The player took on the role of a guardian angel, helping wandering spirits come to peace after having met tragic ends. These were nearly all measured and poignant tales that sidestepped the cheap melodrama of most of its JRPG peers. My favorite was the Zere Rocks episode, a haunting and compelling portrait of the depths of a man's loneliness and heartache. The fairly unassuming town of Zere was an early stop in the game, and it wasn't until much later, in a completely different part of the world, that we came across a sign at the base of a mountain that read "Zere Rocks." My siblings and I didn't know what to make of it at first, but, as we climbed the mountain and, along the way, came across cryptic notes left by some sculptor, it gradually became clear that this had not been the work of a happy man. What we found at the summit was nothing less than a complete stone replica of the entire town of Zere and its residents, all sculpted by the one man, who had moved away but evidently never moved past having had his heart broken by the love of his life from his hometown.

Maybe the multiplayer adventuring was old hat to MMORPG players. And everything else about the game held fast to the series' roots. Yet its quality blend of co-op questing, accessible and addictive gameplay, and brilliant storytelling was unique, and Dragon Quest IX remains a one-of-a-kind high point among RPGs I've played.

No comments: