The Better Angels of Our Nature.
A year to the day after its wildly-(yet-unsurprisingly)-successful Japanese release, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies has hit North American shelves. The automatic, instinctive temptation for some detractors—and indeed, many lovers—of the series is to rattle off a quick, facile “It's Dragon Quest... yet again”, the common wisdom being that all Dragon Quest games are pretty much the same thing, over and over. There is actually a kernel of Truth to such a statement... but now the DQ scales are tipped epically: Dragon Quest's got a brand new Bag o' Laughs... and this time around, it's not only handheld-exclusive, but built from the ground up for multiplayer.
[image1]In Dragon Quest IX, players take the role of a customized, you-name-'im character who is a Celestian—essentially a literal, halo-and-wings guardian angel, charged with watching over the ordinary, mortal RPG overworld. After you cobble together and name your customized character (body type, skin tone, hair style zany anime facial expression), you descend from the on-high realms of the Observatory to watch out for the well-being of corporeal townsfolk below.
The deal is that, for each such angelic deed, thankful mortals routinely offer an energy-tribute of 'Benevolessence'—a sort of spiritual gift-bag of gratitude—which the Celestians then cart up to the Observatory and offer to the legendary Yggdrasil Tree. The idea is that when the Yggdrasil eventually bears fruit, the whole of the Celestian host will ascend to the Throne of the Almighty.
So you just know something in this suspiciously smoothly-running trans-planar reward-system is going to get suddenly and unexpectedly FUBAR. It does, and our hero gets cast down to the mortal world, sans wings and halo—reduced, in fact, to just another two-legged meatbag roaming the RPG world, looking for a solution (and a way back Home), do-gooding for hapless mortals whenever possible. And along the way, he fights a whole bizarre, bouncing bestiary of cute, completely wonkozoid Dragon Quest monsters like 'Cruelcumbers', 'Bags-O'-Laughs', and—of course—a whole Nickelodeon-buttload of variously-hued Slimes.
At first (and then at second, and still at third) glance, Sentinels of the Starry Skies makes its obligatory Dragon Quest quota immediately: The big-eyed, can-do characters, the familiar music, the audio cues for 'salvation' game-saves and ordinary operations, the same-as-it-ever-was turn-based combat, the goofy, goofy monsters wandering the candy-colored countryside. It's all so superficially familiar, in fact, that it's easy to overlook the wonderful reality that this is a full-on, PS2-worthy DQ adventure made exclusively for the Nintendo DS/DSi... with a focus on multiplayer that allows three of your local-connection friends to join, and more or less freely roam, your hosted game.
[image2]It's a great system, solid and streamlined: Once you act as the game-host, your visiting guest-players can explore the world at will—they're not shackled/slaved to you and can even open some treasure chests they encounter. However, if you suddenly find yourself in a battle you can't quite handle all by your onesey, you can call your scattered friends to come to your aid. You can pick a fight with a roaming monster when your 'guests' aren't around, of course—but should one of your friends roll up on your battle already in progress, they can easily jump into the fray. Naturally, it's on the host player to complete quests (to kick the main story along), but helpful friends get to keep any loot and experience points they rack up in the multiplayer game.
One of the game's minor-but-extant downsides stems directly from the otherwise-admirable multiplayer. Since the ranks of your adventure party are intended to be fleshed out with the likes of your local-connection friends (who also need a copy of the game to play with you, by the way), the single-player game narrative takes a minor but noticeable hit. When playing solo, you'll be accompanied by generated characters—no set personalities, no individual quirks, no specially-crafted dialogue. In other words, don't expect the sort of emotional development/attachment you might tend to develop for your (virtual) fellow-adventurers in previous DQ titles; you're stuck with your real friends and their actual personalities, or lack thereof, for this one.
Happily, Dragon Quest IX's solo experience makes up for this compensatory compromise with a world full of unique, distinctive NPCs almost every time you turn around. The general charm, humor, dialogue, and overall localization is all top-shelf quality, and an attentive player would probably be able to pick any given major NPC out of a blind lineup just from the distinctiveness of their verbal quirks. Here, I'm thinking particularly of one spunky seraphim; her attitude's in the right place, mostly, but she still manages to cram in more mangled metaphors, spoonerisms, blown one-liners and I-got-nothings than George Bush on a Bad Teleprompter Day.
All the while, handheld format or no, this is truly the full, worthy Dragon Quest experience that gamers have come to recognize and love. It's such the epitome of the series, in fact, that some might find the whole package a little too familiar for its own good. There is no particular bit of notch-it-up added to the classic, tech-manual, turn-based combat—if you've played a Dragon Quest title recently, you'll feel immediately at home. Likewise, Sentinels of the Starry Skies boasts an admirably burly item alchemization scheme.
[image3]One nice touch is that however you customize your character's loadout, that is precisely what you'll see in the game—admittedly smaller and less distinguishable in the free-roaming world, and in somewhat greater detail in combat. Every newly-equipped head-scarf, pair of boots, flimsy shield, brand-spankin'-new weapon or, later on, supremely-goofy, Comic-Con-worthy Slime Mascot Costume—it's all there in living, cartoonish color. One notable caveat: Only one game-save slot. Count 'em, one.
Dragon Quest IX doesn't skimp on other nice little touches and/or meaty replay bonuses. When you're wandering 'the field' or dungeons, there aren't meaningless random encounters—if there's an enemy laying in wait, you'll see him, unless you're haul-assing through neck-high shrubbery and not paying particular attention, in which case it's easy to literally stumble over something that wants to fight you. And even if the nemy comes directly at you, you might even be able to run away in time and outstrip it before a fight breaks out.
The game is chock full of Accolades—Achievements, basically—to reward the curious, completionist player... and a host of quests and challenges that aren't even available until after the 'last' boss is taken down. Factor in the additional possibilities of rotating in entirely new treasure-maps (acquired through either solo play, or as transferred presents from other DQIX owners/players) and regular content updates from Nintendo, and you've got a solid little package that offers a charming, totally-satisfying, side-quest-packed Slime-load of gaming value.